Frequent Elections Are Due to Parliamentary ‘Blackmail’
Many people have asked why we’re having another federal election barely two years after the last one. The Prime Minister has blamed this on the opposition parties, saying that they have forced an election, while the opposition leaders say that the government has been found in contempt and has lost the confidence of Parliament. In a sense, both are right, but the real problem lies in some features of our current voting system and our use of the confidence requirement. Until we deal with this problem, we cannot expect to see the kinds of stable government common in many other industrialized countries. Instead, we will continue to see a form of parliamentary blackmail in which the government repeatedly (and often maliciously) forces the opposition to choose between unpalatable choices until the opposition gets frustrated enough to bring down the government, which normally triggers an election.
What are the Unpalatable Choices the Opposition Faces?
In Canada, the government requires the assent of a majority of MPs to pass any legislation. If the government loses a vote on a throne speech, budget or other critical legislation, it is said to have lost the confidence of Parliament and is expected to resign. The normal consequence of a government losing confidence is that a new election is held, although the Governor-General is within his or her right to ask another party if they believe they can form government and win the confidence of the House of Commons.
Under a majority government (i.e., one in which the governing party holds over 50% of the seats in Parliament), the government is rarely in danger of losing confidence as their party typically votes en masse to support the government. The role of the opposition is likewise clear – the opposition is expected to oppose the government by pointing out all the flaws in the government’s plans and to stand on principle in opposing most government proposals, knowing that they can freely vote their conscience because their votes will have no impact whatsoever on whether legislation passes. The government need not consult nor accommodate, and the opposition need not approve or compromise their principles – they can maintain a stance of righteous indignation which often wins the approval of their supporters, who see their MPs ‘sticking up for them’.
However, the political choices are far more challenging in a minority situation. Despite the fact that the opposition in a time of minority government can quite properly seek to replace the government by defeating it, in practice there are some strong disincentives to doing so. First, the leading opposition party usually has fewer seats than the governing party, and they risk being seen by the public as presumptuous if they seek to form government without sufficient public support. Second, since only the Governor-General has the right to invite a leader to form government, an opposition party cannot guarantee that defeating the government won’t lead to an election. If a party is not prepared to fight another election, it will tend not to want to bring down the government, especially early in the new government’s term in office.
This can place the opposition in a very awkward position. If the government plays hardball and refuses to negotiate any terms of the proposed legislation (in effect, treating the legislation as an ultimatum issued to the opposition – “support this or trigger an election”), then the opposition faces the following options, all unpalatable:
- Vote in support of the government’s legislation, even if they oppose it on principle, and open themselves to the charge of not being willing to stand up for their principles
- Abstain from the vote, and be charged as spineless
- Oppose the government, and risk triggering an election
All of these can cause the opposition to lose support over time. The government also has a slightly risky choice to make – do they consult the opposition and alter their legislation, thereby potentially alienating their core supporters, or do they risk being defeated? However, the upside of being defeated is that they can frequently fight the subsequent election campaign claiming that to get things done, the voters must give them a majority. Since our voting system is hypersensitive to small shifts in voting sentiment in a handful of swing ridings, a government will frequently believe that a majority is attainable, so they have a disincentive to consult or accommodate the opposition, which keeps us in a cycle of non-cooperative partisan bickering.
How Can We Avoid Brinksmanship and Parliamentary Blackmail?
Ideally, a minority government would have an incentive to avoid being defeated and the opposition would be free to vote on principle. If this were true, both (or all) parties would tend to seek collaborative opportunities rather than engaging in the bitter partisanship that characterizes Canadian politics. How could we achieve this? Two simple steps would go a long way:
- Severely limit confidence motions – if, under normal circumstances, only the opposition parties could trigger a confidence vote, then a defeat on legislation for the government would not trigger an election. They would simply have to try again to bring a majority of MPs on-side with their proposal.
- Decrease the instability of the voting system – if the outcome of an election were more stably linked to the voting preferences of the voters, then the government would have little incentive to play these games of brinksmanship. Many versions of proportional representation voting could produce such stable and predictable outcomes.