Two Cheers for Minority Government by Peter H. Russell
Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, Toronto, 2008.
Peter Russell is an eminent Canadian political scientist whose research
has centered mainly on the Supreme Court and on Aboriginal issues. In
retirement he has turned his attention to the very topical subject of parliamentary
democracy and in particular the issue of minority government.
The theme of the book, as reflected in the title, is an endorsement, with
minor qualms, of minority government and a plea to make theses periodic
episodes a permanent part of our parliamentary experience.
The first few chapters look at the incidence of minority government both
in Canada (since 1921) and in other democracies. He points out quite convincingly
that each of the twelve minority experiences in Canada featured a unique
set of political circumstances which makes it difficult to construct a
general theory. He also argues that there have been enough that we should
start to think of them as a normal part of our political process and not
as aberrations or a disease to be eradicated.
He does go on much too long and much less convincingly about the difference
between true majority governments (where one party has 50% of the vote)
and false majorities (where a party has 50% of the seats but less than
half the popular vote). This, he views, as the worse outcome of elections
and while that is a good argument for proportional representation it is
not the best starting point for a discussion of minority government. Much
better would be the somewhat harder task of assessing the characteristics
of a well functioning parliamentary system and then seeing how well minorities
do when measured against this standard.
Instead he holds up majority (really false majority) government as his
standard and of course there are many things wrong with the kind of majority
government practiced in Canada for many years. The incredible power of
the office of prime minister, the excessive party discipline, and the
frequent use of the rules by the majority for its own advantage are but
some of the problems well known to students of parliament.
By contrast he paints a rather rosy picture of how a minority government
should work. It forces checks on the power of the prime minister, encourages
discussion and negotiation among parties and provides an enhanced role
for private members of parliament as legislators. It is quite an attractive
picture and perhaps some jurisdictions like Nova Scotia and Quebec, have
managed to make minority government work. Unfortunately that has not been
the case in Ottawa although he argues that we would have had no debate
on Afghanistan were it not for the minority situation.
In most respects, however, the two federal minorities, under Paul Martin
from 2004-2005 and Stephen Harper from 2006 to the present have not done
much to make anyone proud of our parliamentary institutions.
The rules are still being used as a club (this time by the opposition majority)
instead of a body of rules intended to establish a fair playing ground
in times of majority or minority.
While there are no more government time allocation motions, we do have
numerous opposition filibusters which seem unstoppable when an opposition
controls a majority in committee and in the House.
We have private members bills completely at odds with government policy
which can only be stopped by the most creative, and procedurally dubious
We even have all parties playing fast and loose with the confidence convention,
the bedrock of responsible government. In the Martin Parliament this took
the form of opposition attempts to control the timing of elections and
the Harper government has taken to making everything a matter of confidence
while the official opposition continually abstains and ducks to avoid an
The result is a growing disconnect between Parliament and Government that
is turning our Westminster system into a kind of European Parliament where
the legislators go about passing all kinds of motions and laws and the
governments of the nation states feel free to ignore them as little more
than expressions of opinion.
Russell admits there are problems with minority government hence the
two cheers but he thinks most of these problems will be resolved as we
became more familiar with minority government. He would argue that that
the committee chaos that has taken place recently is over exaggerated by
those individuals whose lives are too wrapped up in the nitty gritty of
the daily parliamentary grind. The polls would seem to bear out his contention
that Canadians outside the national capital are not too concerned with
what is going on in their Parliament. But disinterest and cynicism can
hardly be seen as a ringing endorsement.
He concludes with a call for deliberative democracy which emphasizes the
communicative processes of democracy rather than the simple power of numbers.
But there were many instances in majority parliaments where committees
produced unanimous and useful reports on difficult public policy issues.
The difference is not so much between a majority and minority parliament
as between the rules, procedures and conventions as they are meant to be
and as they have become. Perhaps it is time, as David Smith has suggested
elsewhere, for a Royal Commission type study of our parliamentary institutions.
Instead what we find in the last two minorities is less interest in parliamentary
reform than at anytime in the last generation. Do we need a pipeline
incident or a bell ringing incident before members realize that something
is wrong with our democratic institutions.
If Russell is right and we are going to have minorities for the foreseeable
future perhaps it is time to take a really hard look at some of our basic
rules and customs. And lets be fairly open minded and radical about what
has to be done. For example if we are going to have fixed election dates
why not also insist upon constructive non confidence motions as in many
European countries so that non confidence motions must include a proposal
for an alternative government and simple defeats of a bill, or even a budget,
cannot be used as an excuse for an election. If we want to promote deliberative
democracy why not permanent tenure on committees and give committee chairmen
the same status as the speaker when it comes to rulings i.e. cannot be
appealed. Why not introduce the concept of super majority (say 66%) for
certain procedural issues thereby ensuring that consensus rather than majority
(be it government or opposition) rules. Why not consider certain foreign
ideas such as written agreements among parties as one finds in many European
democracies and even in Ontario in the 1980s.
So far minority government has not spawned much creative thinking about
parliamentary government. Peter Russell has tried to start a dialogue
and he is to be commended for his efforts. Many readers will share his
preference for the theoretical benefits of minority government but it seems
ironic that minority government has only exacerbated some unpleasant features
of majority government including increased prime ministerial power, extreme
partisanship, and confrontation rather than conciliation in parliament.