Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Matter of Confidence

Don Newman offers a very unambitious -- and ill-conceived -- program of Parliamentary reform

Writing in a column on, Don Newman reflects on the recent Parliamentary crisis and draws a not-terribly-unreasonable conclusion:

We should rewrite Canada's Parliamentary rules to make minority governments more stable.

Likely few Canadians would object to a tweaking of the rules to make the defeat of a minority government a little less imminent. Few Canadians want to vote in an election just to have to rush back to vote in another.

But Newman's proposed solution may actually be much more troublesome in the long run than the comparable instability of minority governments under the current system. Newman proposes that the rules place some rather excessive limits on what may or may not be considered a confidence vote:
"One suggestion would be for fewer confidence votes. The Russian-roulette style of parties, either in opposition or in government, trying to create votes of confidence around bills or issues that are not really tests of confidence should be prohibited.

Confidence votes should be limited to the budget, spending estimates, declarations of war, treaties and the speech from the throne, the overview of the government's agenda.

If opposition parties want to gang up and amend a government bill on, say, climate change, so be it, provided the amendments do not call for significant new spending. (Controlling the public purse would remain a government responsibility.)

As well, once in each parliamentary sitting — and until now most parliaments have had two sittings between elections — there should be an opportunity for each of the opposition parties to move a non-confidence motion in the government to test the will of the House.

In the current situation, that would result in a maximum of three opposition-based non-confidence motions every two years, a reduction in the opportunities the three opposition parties currently have.

The real test, of course, is what happens when a government loses a vote of confidence. Then it should fall to the governor general to try to find a new government, which would continue in power until the next fixed election date — or until it was defeated on a confidence measure.
It may make some sense on what can or cannot be considered a confidence vote.

But Newman overlooks the fact that there are matters that are not restricted to finances, warfare, treaties, and the throne speec that very much entail matters of confidence.

Any matter on which the opposition believes the government is risking the fundamental well-being of the country can and should be considered matters of confidence. That means that issues including (but not limited to) environmental protection and national unity could be considered confidence issues.

Clearly, the opposition parties would have to declare their intention to treat such votes as matters of confidence, and should be required to present their case to the Governor General before the vote takes place.

Of course, this is a proposition that would actually mean very little if the office of Governor General could not itself be reformed. Making opposition parties argue their case for a confidence vote before an unelected (read: appointed) official wouldn't work any wonders for the democratic integrity of such a reform.

Canada would have to institute a system for electing the Governor General before any such reform could even be close to being considered democratic.

An interesting possible model for reforming the act of the non-confidence vote itself could be found in Germany, where a constructive vote of confidence is required in order to actually defeat the government. The opposition coalitions in Germany -- German politics, with is combination of directly elected and proportionally-elected parliamentarians, inherently directs German political parties toward forming coalitions -- cannot defeat the government without being able to establish an alternative government.

There are at least three problems with such a proposition. First off, the democratic models used in other countries can rarely be applied perfectly to other countries. Second, it would strip opposition parties of the ability to defeat the government in order to trigger an election; this is something that opposition parties will often want to do. Third, the alternative government would need to be expected to be able to hold the confidence of Parliament.

As it regards Canada's recent crisis, however, one is reminded of the central role of the Bloc Quebecois in forming and propping that coalition up. The Liberal-NDP coalition could not reasonably be expected to hold the confidence of Parliament on any matter related to national unity. Not so long as it relied on the formalized support of a separatist party.

The question of whether or not a government could be expected to hold the confidence of the house also applies to any coalition government proposal. As it regards the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition, there is no question that it cannot be justified on these grounds. Without the support of a separatist party -- support that undermines it on a key tenet of confidence -- this government could not hold the confidence of the House. Without that support they hold fewer seats than the would-be opposition Tories.

Then there is always the most important aspect of the matter: proposing reforms to Canada's political system is easy. Actually making them work is a great deal more difficult.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great analysis, Patrick.

    I definitely feel that there need to be clearer rules on motions of confidence and how and when they can be declared, particularly since it seems right now that any government bill that is defeated automatically entails a confidence vote. One could argue that Stephen Harper has abused this convention with the sheer number of bills he declared to be confidence motions, which put St├ęphane Dion in the Catch-22 position of either abstaining, voting against the government and triggering an election, or otherwise propping the government up. Any one of these actions could, of course, be spun to Harper's advantage.

    This problem also leads to the very strict party discipline we have in Canada, much more so than in other countries with parliamentary systems. Critics from both sides of the political spectrum, such as Canada West Foundation director Roger Gibbins and Canadian nationalist Mel Hurtig have both harshly criticized this tendency, particularly for stifling dissenting voices.

    In conducting research for a term paper for one of my graduate classes back in 2005, I distinctly remember the Newfoundland newspapers I was reading criticizing the Newfoundland MPs for not standing up for their province in its debate with the Paul Martin government over the Atlantic Accord. Similarly, Gibbins criticized the party discipline for again stifling regional voices within political parties-this contributes to the perception that the Liberals, for instance, only catered to their strongest bases in Central and Eastern Canada, while any Western MPs that were elected were forced to toe the line and didn't represent their constituents interests in Ottawa so much as Ottawa to their constituents.

    In a 2004 pamphlet Gibbins co-authored with fellow Canada West Foundation author Robert Roach, Building a stronger Canada : Taking action on Western discontent, they proposed having several different types of votes. I can't quite remember the details, but things like the budget and other significant money bills would always be confidence motions, while even if government bills in much more routine business like immigration reform or vehicle safety standards were defeated, the House could continue without resorting to a confidence motion.

    While people such as yourself and Christopher Moore, editor of The Beaver, have suggested electing the Governor General, I'm rather leery about the implications that would arise from it.

    I'm no fan of the monarchy, and would be quite pleased to see it gone and the Governor General become an entirely Canadian institution with no connection to the British Crown, but at present the Governor General only exercises her powers on the advice and prerogative of the prime minister. If she is elected directly, the Governor General suddenly acquires a level of legitimacy her office hasn't had in Canadian politics for decades.

    What happens, for instance, if there's gridlock between a Conservative prime minister and a Liberal Governor General? Is the Governor General a partisan position? If not, who will run it? What will be the extent of their powers, and under what circumstances can they use them? What happens if they refuse the PM's request for dissolution and an election, and instead call on the opposition to try and form a government? What if they refuse to give final assent to government legislation?

    As it stands now, royal assent is basically a rubber stamp, and requests for dissolution and elections cannot be rightly refused. But an elected Governor General could claim a popular mandate to justify whatever actions they take. Can the office now suddenly be used for open political purposes, whereas before it's typically served for ceremonial purposes?

    If we were to go down this route, we'd need to specifically ensure that the Governor General's powers were clarified or otherwise limited to, perhaps, a ceremonial role. Otherwise, we risk ending up with an unpleasant muddle of confusion between the offices of the prime minister and a suddenly reinvigorated Governor General, who could easily use his or her position in ways entirely new to Canadian politics, or otherwise a throwback to the 19th century.

    In the U.S., the president is both head of government and head of state, with clearly defined roles that set out what he can and can't do. In European countries like Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom, the head of state is a monarch who reigns but does not rule, with all the actual policy decisions and actually running the country being left to the head of government and his/her party.

    Again, I'm not opposed to getting rid of the monarchy-in fact, as a Canadian nationalist, I'd be quite pleased to do so. I'm just saying we'd probably need to overhaul the actual functions of the Governor General if and when we go this route.


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