Breaking: How our democracy actually works

In our democracy, does the party that wins the most seats get to form government? Maybe, but not necessarily.

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Possibly the lowest moment of our 148-year-old civic discourse, our collective exercise in understanding ourselves, came on the night of April 12, 2011. More specifically, it arrived 52 minutes and 45 seconds into that night’s federal leaders’ debate.

“Let me just be very clear about our position. Of course, parties will work together from time to time,” Stephen Harper said. “But our position is very clear: the party that wins the most seats forms the government. That’s how our democracy is supposed to work.”

There were three other leaders of federal political parties on stage at that moment, but not one of them moved to correct him or quibble about constitutional parameters and the nature of government formation in a parliamentary system.

Harper committed that Conservatives would only govern if they won the election and he alleged that Michael Ignatieff would not commit likewise. Ignatieff then tried to hedge. Whoever won the most seats, he said, got to “try” to win the confidence of the House of Commons.

“It’s not a matter of trying, Mr. Ignatieff,” Harper responded. “If you don’t win the most seats, you don’t get to form the government. That’s how our system works.”

“I just said that,” Mr. Ignatieff came back. “I…accept that principle.”

And with that—the Prime Minister telling a national TV audience that this was how our system worked without any of the most prominent figures in our national politics objecting—Westminster wept.

Given what Harper said in 2011—and what he accomplished along the way—it is not surprising that he said the following in an interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge that was broadcast this week: “I think you—you have to have the most seats in Parliament to go to the governor general and that’s, you know, in this country in our system, we have what’s called a Westminster-style system, um, and we don’t—we don’t, you know, elect a bunch of parties who then as in some countries, get together and decide who will—who will govern. We ask people to make a choice of a government. And so I think that the party that wins the most seats should form the government.”

Harper’s version is disproven by history: the federal election of 1925, the Saskatchewan election of 1929 and the Ontario election of 1985 each resulted in a party that didn’t have the most seats forming government.

Are such examples rare amongst the dozens of national and provincial elections that have occurred in this country? Yes.

Were those fundamentally undemocratic governments? That would be a fun question to have debated between Stephen Harper of 2015 and Stephen Harper of 1997. Eighteen years ago, when Harper was out of politics, he was asked for his assessment of the next federal election. His view of how the system worked then was rather different.

“The way the Liberals, I think, are eventually going to lose office, whether it’s in this election or the next one, is they’re going to fail to win a majority … And that’s where I think you’re going to face, someday, a minority Parliament, with the Liberals maybe having the largest number of seats, and what will be the test is whether there’s then any party in opposition that’s able to form a coalition or working alliance with the others.”

Somewhere between 1997 and 2011, Harper changed his mind about how our democracy works. It might be useful to hear how Harper came to change his mind and it would be interesting to hear him comment on the acceptability of the 1925, 1929 and 1985 elections.

He came closer to something indisputable when he said during that 2011 debate that “people expect that the party that wins the most seats forms the government” (emphasis mine). That’s a difference between what is perceived to be the way things generally work and what is actually legally possible within the system we have. But expectation is informed by experience. And a (relatively) new situation could broaden perceptions of what is acceptable.

If, for instance, this year’s election were to result in 132 Conservatives, 130 New Democrats and 76 Liberals, what would the public want to see happen? Would a majority of voters be fine with the Conservatives continuing in government or would polls show a significant desire for New Democrats and Liberals to make some arrangement to govern?

What if the gap between the Conservatives and New Democrats was larger? What if the Bloc Québécois was to be involved in some kind of arrangement? Such factors might reduce public acceptance. What if the Conservatives met the House, but made little effort to court the support of New Democrats or Liberals or attempted to immediately pass unpopular legislation? That might boost calls for an NDP-Liberal government.

If the New Democrats or Liberals had previously foresworn any kind of co-operation, then voters could reasonably claim to have been misled.

At some point here the math becomes relevant to consider. If two or more parties representing perhaps 60 per cent of voters were able to agree to an arrangement by which some number of them would govern the country with the support of the rest, why would it be preferable for governing to rest with a party representing less than 50 per cent of voters?

The basic rules here are important and so both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau should be scolded for misstating who gets to try to form government first after an election—both having suggested that the party with the most seats gets the first opportunity to form a government. (For the record, the incumbent government remains the government until it resigns or is defeated in the House of Commons, at which point the governor general can call on whoever seems to be the best bet to form a government).

But the more basic issue is how we understand how we govern ourselves. If a vote is only a vote for a government or party, then we have an electoral college, not a legislature. “We” might “ask people to make a choice of government,” but that is not what actually happens when a voter casts an actual ballot. Rather, we elect individuals who then sort themselves out according to party affiliation. Even if most voters will be thinking of party leader and brand when they cast a ballot, we can’t completely disregard the actual names on the actual ballots. And if you start from the premise that we elect 338 individuals, the system’s possibilities are more obvious and its possible strengths—scrutiny, accountability—are more easily realized.