Writing in a column on CBC.ca, 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.It may make some sense on what can or cannot be considered a confidence vote.
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."
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.