“Did He Really Use The C-Word?”

House of Commons
House of Commons

The current federal election campaign has been notable for a sustained dispute not only over the legitimacy of a coalition (C-word #1), but, at a deeper level, over the foundational principle of parliamentary confidence itself (C-word #2).  Fair Voting BC believes that it is crucial both for the future of our current democratic system and for future voting reforms for Canadians to properly understand these two notions.

Of the two, confidence is the most fundamental.  The confidence principle means that in order to govern, the government (i.e., the prime minister and the cabinet ministers) must win majority approval in the House of Commons to pursue its proposed program of government and must retain that majority approval at all important junctures (e.g., when a budget is presented).

Under our First Past the Post voting system, this is actually a fairly low bar as it is easily possible for a governing party to win a majority of seats with little more than a third of the popular vote (as Jean Chretien did in 2000 with 38% support).  In countries with proportional representation (PR) voting systems, the seat allocation closely matches how voters vote, so a government not only needs a majority of the seats, but also, de facto, needs to be backed by an actual majority of the voters.  With our current system, it is not at all unusual for 60% or more of the voters to support opposition parties and not the government.

Nonetheless, in the current campaign, one party leader has been forcefully arguing that an even lower bar is all that’s required, claiming that only the party with the greatest number of seats may legitimately form government. From a constitutional point of view, this is simply nonsense.  Although it is true that Canadian convention is that the Governor-General invites the leader of the party winning the most seats in an election to seek the confidence of the House first, the constitution states and historical precedent proves that when a government loses the confidence of the House, the Governor-General has the right (and often indeed the obligation) to invite the leader of the Official Opposition to try to form an alternative government (e.g., when Governor-General Byng invited King to become Prime Minister in 1925).

All current party leaders have acknowledged this reality (even Mr. Harper wrote the Governor-General in 2004 that Prime Minister Martin should not presume that a defeat in the House would lead to an election).  As Mr. Harper said to the press at the time, “That’s not the way our system works.”  Nor is it the way any other country works.  Virtually all democracies, especially those which use proportional representation voting systems, have similar conventions.

Why is this seemingly arcane point important for the future of democracy in Canada?  Democratic reformers know very well that any voting system which accurately converts votes into seats will typically result in several parties being elected, none of which will normally have a majority of seats.  The principle that government must command confidence is therefore crucial to encouraging parties to seek common ground with one another in working out a program of government and is a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for the effective operation of both minority and coalition governments.

Without the confidence requirement, we might as well abandon any pretense that policies should be supported by a majority of MPs, let alone voters, and simply assign unilateral governing authority to the leader of the party which wins the greatest percentage of the popular vote, regardless of how far short of a true majority they are or how many parties represent the spectrum of opposition viewpoints.  In our view, such a policy would be deeply undemocratic, so Fair Voting BC calls on all democratic reform supporters to spread the word about the vital and foundational importance of our confidence rules and conventions.