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Who gets to govern? Venturing deep into the post-May 2 scenario weeds


 

The question, it seems to me, is a simple one: can the party that didn’t win the most seats in a Canadian election legitimately form a government? Well, I guess it would be better to say deceptively simple.

As you may have heard, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is darkly warning on the campaign trail that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff secretly plans to try to win this election without winning. If the Conservatives fail to secure a majority on May 2, Ignatieff will, with the backing of the NDP and Bloc Québécois, deny the Tories a chance to govern.

Or so Harper tells us. “That’s not right,” he said today at a rally in Brampton, Ont. “That’s not democracy.”

Ignatieff declared yesterday that he agrees the party that wins the most seats must get the first chance to form a government. Only if that first-place party can’t gain the confidence of the House, he says, would the second-place party be called on by the Governor General to try.

These days Harper seems to hold that even if the first-place party has been given its chance, the notion of the leader of the second-place party becoming prime minister without winning an intervening election is abhorrent.

Yet when he was an opposition leader, back in 2004, he signed a joint letter with the NDP’s Jack Layton and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe to the Governor General, asking her to “consider all your options” if the Liberal minority of the day fell.

Did Harper envision becoming PM then with NDP and Bloc backing, without having to win an election?  That’s certainly what Layton and Duceppe say they were contemplating. (CBC’s Terry Milewski reminds us here of what Harper was saying at the time.)

As for what his campaign team has to say about it now, Senator Marjory LeBreton held an impromptu symposium for a few reporters on the question after Harper’s news conference this morning. To me, her take seemed to square neatly with what parliamentary scholars have written. Whether that dovetails with Harper’s stance is another matter.

“In the parliamentary Westminster tradition, when a prime minister goes to the Governor General and asks that Parliament be dissolved and call an election, the Governor General has options,” LeBreton said.

So, what were the options back in 2004? What if the Liberal minority had fallen then, and Martin visited then-GG Adrienne Clarkson and asked for an election?

“She could have said, ‘No, I’m not going to grant you an election, you continue governing’,” LeBreton said. “Or she could have called on the party with the next largest number of seats, and in that case it would have been us, and then we would have had to go face Parliament as a minority government and seek the confidence of the House. And both Duceppe and Layton could have supported the government, as they’ve done our government and other governments in the past.”

In that case, Harper would have become prime minister without having to win an election. LeBreton stressed, however, that her description of the GG’s options, and the theoretical result of one of them, was meant to explain the rules, not to hint at what Harper actually had in mind.

The Prime Minister was asked about it all today, repeatedly, and pleaded for attention to his clear actions in 2005, rather than his somewhat fuzzier words in 2004, as the true indication of what he believed then—and still does now.

“We did not bring in a non-confidence motion to overturn the government. We brought in a non-confidence motion to force an election. That’s what we did,” he said. “That’s how we became the government. We won an election with the most number of seats. That’s my position, my position then, my position now, and I think that’s what Canadians expect.”

For those who find this whole matter intriguing (I know I do), and in the firm belief that Sunday morning reflection is good for the soul, I sought out the viewpoint of Don Desserud, a University of New Brunswick political science professor and expert on our Westminster parliamentary model.

Desserud was generous enough to respond at length this morning by email. I’ve arranged his responses on key points as a Q & A, although he actually responded in one cogent email:

Q. Do clear rules exist for forming a government after an election that fails to give one party a House majority?

A. The reason why your question is difficult to answer is that it 
deals with aspects of the Constitution which are entirely dependent on 
conventions. So to suggest, as some have, that such traditions are 
merely conventions is misleading, to say the least. That’s all we have 
to guide us, and as such they are constitutionally binding.

Q. And what are those binding conventions?

A. Here’s the deal: at one time the convention was that the incumbent 
government always met Parliament, regardless of the results of the 
election. Had they been soundly defeated, then the first meeting would 
be short, and the GG would then ask the leader of the party that “won” 
the election to form a government.

As political parties became more organized, and party discipline 
stronger, this convention became redundant (and would have been 
ludicrous in, for example, 1993). As soon as the results were in, it 
was obvious which party won the election and so it was a waste of time 
to go through the charade of meeting Parliament after a defeat.

So ever since the days of Louis St. Laurent, the convention has been 
that the party that finished the election with the most seats has 
first crack at meeting Parliament. So what Ignatieff says has indeed 
been the case for 50 odd years.
But having the first chance to meet Parliament is not the same as 
saying the party with the most seats has a right to govern.

Q. When would the party with the most seats not govern?

A. Ignatieff is also right that if such a party cannot find majority 
support, then another party, likely the party with the next highest 
total, would be asked to see if it can govern. In others words, if the 
Conservatives finished with the most seats, but without a majority and 
found themselves unable to gain support from another party (or 
Independents, if there were enough of them), then the party with the 
next highest total — likely the Liberals — would be asked to form a 
government and see how they would do.

Q. There’s been much talk about the legitimacy or otherwise of coalitions. Do the conventions tell us anything about that?

A. What goes on outside of Parliament among parties is another matter. 
Deals may well be struck between two or three other parties, and may 
be struck well in advance. Think of David Peterson and Bob Rae in 
Ontario [in 1995]. By having a “contract” setting out a framework for the 
Liberals to govern with NDP support, the Lieutenant Governor was 
convinced that Peterson should be asked to form a government.


 

Who gets to govern? Venturing deep into the post-May 2 scenario weeds

  1. Too bad Harper doesn't understand Canadian Political History but why should he, he's only the PM.

  2. Too bad Harper doesn't understand Canadian Political History but why should he, he's only the PM.

    • And it's too bad that Stephen Harper, having spent almost his entire life in Canada, and almost his entire adult career in politics should know so little about how Canadian politics works.

      • I have no doubt that he does understand how our Parliamentary system works, it's just that he's willing to do whatever it takes to divide and conquer Canada – creating as much apathy and distortion as he can along the way.

        • True dat.

  3. And it's too bad that Stephen Harper, having spent almost his entire life in Canada, and almost his entire adult career in politics should know so little about how Canadian politics works.

  4. That is why Harper is asking Canadians for a majority. If the Conservatives end up as a minority government again you know the Libs will be asking to form government with support of the NDP and Bloc. (Bet there is an agreement already, just like 2008) That will cover Iggy's butt re "there will not be a coalition."

    There is no way they will support the Conservatives as a minority. Flaherty has said the budget stands. So we are right back to where we started. Harper is trying to get that across. Why are we having this election?

    If Harper keeps getting asked about the 2004 letter, it may be a good opening about what was going on at the time with the Liberals. Great chance to air the scandals and corruption again – not that anyone has forgotten, lol!!!

  5. I have no doubt that he does understand how our Parliamentary system works, it's just that he's willing to do whatever it takes to divide and conquer Canada – creating as much apathy and distortion as he can along the way.

  6. That is why Harper is asking Canadians for a majority. If the Conservatives end up as a minority government again you know the Libs will be asking to form government with support of the NDP and Bloc. (Bet there is an agreement already, just like 2008) That will cover Iggy's butt re "there will not be a coalition."

    There is no way they will support the Conservatives as a minority. Flaherty has said the budget stands. So we are right back to where we started. Harper is trying to get that across. Why are we having this election?

    If Harper keeps getting asked about the 2004 letter, it may be a good opening about what was going on at the time with the Liberals. Great chance to air the scandals and corruption again – not that anyone has forgotten, lol!!!

    • "Why are we having this election?"

      Because being the first government in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament, and having lost a vote of confidence in the House over this finding, the Conservative government has fallen. We will now vote at the riding level for representatives to form a new Parliament and they will in turn vote for a party or parties to form a new government.

      Are we clear?

      • You would indeed think that it would be obvious by now. Unfortunately, Harper and Co. think they can gain advantage by telling us that an election is unnecessary or ill advised . I think it is offensive to pass off the contempt of Parliament as political games that no one cares about.

    • lets get this right who had the corruption ?? doesnt the name schreiber mulroony come too mind biggest crook in political history , brought down the entire torrie party too only be replaced with a more right wing western alberta alliance kkk party. a bought and paid for corporate political party puppets of largest corporations and banks and oil companys . and who always leaves the biggest deficits it sure isnt hte liberals or ndp . plus if a minority leader wont work with other partys what do you want a election every week ? complaining now of the nine dollars per person this one will cost so some times as you see around the world more and more a coalition sometimes the only alternative some of our best policys were created under a minority medicare cpp low cost housing and many more of coarse these were all programs the torries are against and you will see especially if they get a majority .

  7. Too bad Ignatieff had not said from the start the party with the most seats gets to form a government. But if that government is defeated the Governor General in consultation with the leaders will decide where it goes next. Easy to say and easy to explain and easy to defend. And correct. And that's all he should have to say. The PM won't accept it, but the important thing is the media should stop taking orders from PMO/Cons and move on.

  8. Too bad Ignatieff had not said from the start the party with the most seats gets to form a government. But if that government is defeated the Governor General in consultation with the leaders will decide where it goes next. Easy to say and easy to explain and easy to defend. And correct. And that's all he should have to say. The PM won't accept it, but the important thing is the media should stop taking orders from PMO/Cons and move on.

  9. True dat.

  10. "Why are we having this election?"

    Because being the first government in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament, and having lost a vote of confidence in the House over this finding, the Conservative government has fallen. We will now vote at the riding level for representatives to form a new Parliament and they will in turn vote for a party or parties to form a new government.

    Are we clear?

  11. The MSM in Canada is just stunning. Rather than explore why parties garnering 10 – 25% of the popular vote (on a good day) are pressing for an election they will almost certainly lose, inwhich a signed coalition letter exists between the parties…they instead explore the possible motives of a politician from 7 years ago, involving a 'coalition' that never happened (and denied vehemently), based on an ambiguous letter to the GG and that led to nothing much in particular.

    Only in Canaduh eh??

  12. The MSM in Canada is just stunning. Rather than explore why parties garnering 10 – 25% of the popular vote (on a good day) are pressing for an election they will almost certainly lose, inwhich a signed coalition letter exists between the parties…they instead explore the possible motives of a politician from 7 years ago, involving a 'coalition' that never happened (and denied vehemently), based on an ambiguous letter to the GG and that led to nothing much in particular.

    Only in Canaduh eh??

    • Are you claiming that Harper has 75%-90% of the popular vote?

      • He's claiming a whole host of things. Not one of which are true.

        I have to say I'm perturbed by the usual Conservative strategy of mis-spelling an opponent's name being used on the name of the country. Now that it's the Harper Government, I guess Canada (at least the name) is the enemy?

  13. Are you claiming that Harper has 75%-90% of the popular vote?

  14. what about his coalition with talk radio working for him 24 7 and most the newspapers

  15. what about his coalition with talk radio working for him 24 7 and most the newspapers

    • What about the Reform Party / Conservative Party coalition? This has led to Canada no longer helping women in countries where rape is used as a political weapon and where women have no voice and no rights. Harper forced this on the Canadian public with no debate in Parliament. Shame on Bev Oda for betraying Canadians and shame on the Reform/Conservative coalition. I fear for women in Canada if the Reform Party/Conservative Party coalition gains a majority. He managed to chance 20 years of progress without any debate with a minority government. I fear for our democracy and for all Canadians and our world veiw of democracy and peace for all.

      • OCanada you know the difference between a merger and a coalition, don't you?

        Look it up, it's is fun to learn!

  16. Marjory LeBreton is wrong. The Governor General only has the option of saying "n,o you continue governing" if the Prime Minister asks for an election PRIOR to being defeated on a matter of confidence in the House of Commons (this is, in fact, intended to prevent a Prime Minister from pre-empting a defeat and change in government by forcing an election).

    If a Prime Minister is defeated on a matter of confidence then the ONLY two constitutional options are for the Governor General to call an election or ask another leader to form a government.

    That is the importance of the 2004 letter: the only option Harper could have been asking the GG to consider was asking the party that won fewer seats in the election to form government.

  17. Marjory LeBreton is wrong. The Governor General only has the option of saying "n,o you continue governing" if the Prime Minister asks for an election PRIOR to being defeated on a matter of confidence in the House of Commons (this is, in fact, intended to prevent a Prime Minister from pre-empting a defeat and change in government by forcing an election).

    If a Prime Minister is defeated on a matter of confidence then the ONLY two constitutional options are for the Governor General to call an election or ask another leader to form a government.

    That is the importance of the 2004 letter: the only option Harper could have been asking the GG to consider was asking the party that won fewer seats in the election to form government.

    • " The Governor General only has the option of saying "n,o you continue governing"" not quite, the GG also has the option of granting the election request (see 2008).

  18. The Conservatives want the coalition meme to be the dominant meme of this campaign. They are winning. Opposition to the coalition is not because coalitions are not constitutionally legitimate, but because of who the coalition members would be.

    Media pundits dwelling on constitutional and coalition minutiae, who supported what when and where with regards to coalitions just keeps the coalition meme dominant.

    Thus, early, the Conservatives are winning. The pundits may care about coalition details. The public care about coalition composition. And the former help maintain concern about the latter.

    I think Gilles Duceppe running around screaming "liar, liar, pants on fire" also benefits Harper.

    Keep it up folks.

  19. The Conservatives want the coalition meme to be the dominant meme of this campaign. They are winning. Opposition to the coalition is not because coalitions are not constitutionally legitimate, but because of who the coalition members would be.

    Media pundits dwelling on constitutional and coalition minutiae, who supported what when and where with regards to coalitions just keeps the coalition meme dominant.

    Thus, early, the Conservatives are winning. The pundits may care about coalition details. The public care about coalition composition. And the former help maintain concern about the latter.

    I think Gilles Duceppe running around screaming "liar, liar, pants on fire" also benefits Harper.

    Keep it up folks.

    • You may be right overall.

      And most of the opposition to the coalition comes not from the fact the Bloc was part of the negotiations and agreed to support it 9after all, this is a smaller role than Duceepe's role in the Harper coaltion of 2004!)

      No, the opposition comes from the CPC, and is based on the fact it would have removed them from power.

  20. lets get this right who had the corruption ?? doesnt the name schreiber mulroony come too mind biggest crook in political history , brought down the entire torrie party too only be replaced with a more right wing western alberta alliance kkk party. a bought and paid for corporate political party puppets of largest corporations and banks and oil companys . and who always leaves the biggest deficits it sure isnt hte liberals or ndp . plus if a minority leader wont work with other partys what do you want a election every week ? complaining now of the nine dollars per person this one will cost so some times as you see around the world more and more a coalition sometimes the only alternative some of our best policys were created under a minority medicare cpp low cost housing and many more of coarse these were all programs the torries are against and you will see especially if they get a majority .

  21. What about the Reform Party / Conservative Party coalition? This has led to Canada no longer helping women in countries where rape is used as a political weapon and where women have no voice and no rights. Harper forced this on the Canadian public with no debate in Parliament. Shame on Bev Oda for betraying Canadians and shame on the Reform/Conservative coalition. I fear for women in Canada if the Reform Party/Conservative Party coalition gains a majority. He managed to chance 20 years of progress without any debate with a minority government. I fear for our democracy and for all Canadians and our world veiw of democracy and peace for all.

  22. More Harper-style contempt for Canadian institutions… He's afraid that the other parties will form a coalition and actually demonstrate how a minority/coalition government is actually intended to work together, compromise and hybridize their strategies. This is what Harpo will never get, because he is incapable of earning, building, running, and/or maintaining any kind of cooperative, functional government, NOW OR EVER.

    I actually look forward to a functional coalition as opposed to a contemptuous, nonfunctional minority of calculating tyrants. If the coalition doesn't function then it will fall, but it's worth a shot to cooperate, which is a thought that will NEVER occur to Harpo.

  23. More Harper-style contempt for Canadian institutions… He's afraid that the other parties will form a coalition and actually demonstrate how a minority/coalition government is actually intended to work together, compromise and hybridize their strategies. This is what Harpo will never get, because he is incapable of earning, building, running, and/or maintaining any kind of cooperative, functional government, NOW OR EVER.

    I actually look forward to a functional coalition as opposed to a contemptuous, nonfunctional minority of calculating tyrants. If the coalition doesn't function then it will fall, but it's worth a shot to cooperate, which is a thought that will NEVER occur to Harpo.

  24. You would indeed think that it would be obvious by now. Unfortunately, Harper and Co. think they can gain advantage by telling us that an election is unnecessary or ill advised . I think it is offensive to pass off the contempt of Parliament as political games that no one cares about.

  25. .
    'coalition', '2004', 'cooperative effort'. Very different things. Very different, for the immutable Government of Harper.

    Don't retreat, recalibrate…English.
    .

  26. .
    'coalition', '2004', 'cooperative effort'. Very different things. Very different, for the immutable Government of Harper.

    Don't retreat, recalibrate…English.
    .

  27. "The question, it seems to me, is a simple one: can the party that didn't win the most seats in a Canadian election legitimately form a government?"

    Depends on final numbers after election, no?

    According to wiki, right now we have Cons 143 Libs 77 NDP 37 BQ 49

    On May 2, we finish with same numbers as now. Cons start to govern, Libs/NDP join together with BQ to take power away from Cons. Not acceptable. Coalition of losers.

    Isn't there convention that Libs/NDP have to let Cons govern because the oppo parties don't have much support? When Libs/NDP have problem, they can threaten to bring down gov't, Cons back down but continue governing. That's how it should work.

    I think for second and third place parties to have legitimate claim at taking power away from first place party is if final numbers are much closer. More like Cons 113 Libs 102 NDP 42 BQ 49. Maybe then it would not be seen as coalition of losers. But to rely on separatists at all should be anathema but apparently isn't.

  28. "The question, it seems to me, is a simple one: can the party that didn't win the most seats in a Canadian election legitimately form a government?"

    Depends on final numbers after election, no?

    According to wiki, right now we have Cons 143 Libs 77 NDP 37 BQ 49

    On May 2, we finish with same numbers as now. Cons start to govern, Libs/NDP join together with BQ to take power away from Cons. Not acceptable. Coalition of losers.

    Isn't there convention that Libs/NDP have to let Cons govern because the oppo parties don't have much support? When Libs/NDP have problem, they can threaten to bring down gov't, Cons back down but continue governing. That's how it should work.

    I think for second and third place parties to have legitimate claim at taking power away from first place party is if final numbers are much closer. More like Cons 113 Libs 102 NDP 42 BQ 49. Maybe then it would not be seen as coalition of losers. But to rely on separatists at all should be anathema but apparently isn't.

    • this would make sense if the government do as you suggest and "back down but continue governing."

      What came out of their mouths last week? – "No amendments to the budge will be considered."

      And what was included in their budget last year? – Selling our Nuclear Industry into private hands and fundamentally changing the role of Canada Post.

      So yea, you're right. But the Conservatives haven't treated parliament or the combined will of the constituencies with much respect.

    • The only issue is can a group of votes be put together that can pass confidence motions.

  29. this would make sense if the government do as you suggest and "back down but continue governing."

    What came out of their mouths last week? – "No amendments to the budge will be considered."

    And what was included in their budget last year? – Selling our Nuclear Industry into private hands and fundamentally changing the role of Canada Post.

    So yea, you're right. But the Conservatives haven't treated parliament or the combined will of the constituencies with much respect.

  30. OCanada you know the difference between a merger and a coalition, don't you?

    Look it up, it's is fun to learn!

  31. Since the St. Laurent years? Funny, I thought the convention went furthur back than that — in the 1925 election, the Arthur Meighan Conservatives won 46.1% of the popular vote and 116 out of 245 seats in the House of Commons, while the Mackenzie King Liberals took 39.7% of the vote and 101 seats. According to everything I've read about the King-Byng Affair, King was widely expected to resign in the face of those numbers, and the Governor-General only reluctantly allowed King to meet the House.

  32. Since the St. Laurent years? Funny, I thought the convention went furthur back than that — in the 1925 election, the Arthur Meighan Conservatives won 46.1% of the popular vote and 116 out of 245 seats in the House of Commons, while the Mackenzie King Liberals took 39.7% of the vote and 101 seats. According to everything I've read about the King-Byng Affair, King was widely expected to resign in the face of those numbers, and the Governor-General only reluctantly allowed King to meet the House.

  33. 1985

  34. 1985

  35. You may be right overall.

    And most of the opposition to the coalition comes not from the fact the Bloc was part of the negotiations and agreed to support it 9after all, this is a smaller role than Duceepe's role in the Harper coaltion of 2004!)

    No, the opposition comes from the CPC, and is based on the fact it would have removed them from power.

  36. The only issue is can a group of votes be put together that can pass confidence motions.

  37. The King-Byng thing is widely studied, but since it's a single incident of history it can't by itself form a precedent. If the King-Byng thing had happened several times with the same result it would be authoritative. As it stands, it's merely indicative.

  38. " The Governor General only has the option of saying "n,o you continue governing"" not quite, the GG also has the option of granting the election request (see 2008).

  39. Nice of Liberals to be clear on their intentions: lose the election, vote down the speech from the throne, claim power illegitimately with the support of his (non)-coalition partners.

    Those Liberals are so creative. Instead of finding a way to win elections in order to gain power, they just change the rules so that they can gain power without winning elections.

    This will be the death of the Liberal party if it comes to pass.

    Under this scenario, the Liberals will need the support of at least 2 opposition party to pass any legislation. Which means any time the Bloc's demands aren't met, Harper can bring down the government at any time (likely within 1 year), and give the Liberals the electoral drubbing they will richly deserve.

  40. Nice of Liberals to be clear on their intentions: lose the election, vote down the speech from the throne, claim power illegitimately with the support of his (non)-coalition partners.

    Those Liberals are so creative. Instead of finding a way to win elections in order to gain power, they just change the rules so that they can gain power without winning elections.

    This will be the death of the Liberal party if it comes to pass.

    Under this scenario, the Liberals will need the support of at least 2 opposition party to pass any legislation. Which means any time the Bloc's demands aren't met, Harper can bring down the government at any time (likely within 1 year), and give the Liberals the electoral drubbing they will richly deserve.

    • I keep seeing this sort of comment. But what you are clearly saying is that the Conservatives will not support any bill whatsoever, unless they proposed it. Don't have to read the thing, or even discover the subject matter. If it was proposed by anyone other than the Conservatives, they will vote it down.

      And you seem to be okay with that. Why?

  41. He's claiming a whole host of things. Not one of which are true.

    I have to say I'm perturbed by the usual Conservative strategy of mis-spelling an opponent's name being used on the name of the country. Now that it's the Harper Government, I guess Canada (at least the name) is the enemy?

  42. I keep seeing this sort of comment. But what you are clearly saying is that the Conservatives will not support any bill whatsoever, unless they proposed it. Don't have to read the thing, or even discover the subject matter. If it was proposed by anyone other than the Conservatives, they will vote it down.

    And you seem to be okay with that. Why?

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