The situation of Parliament during a prolonged period of political crisis

I have previously written about the convention of caretaker government here, and here. That convention holds that during an election campaign, the ministry continues to hold office until a new ministry is sworn in. There are, however, limitations on what a minister can do during both the election campaign and the period of government formation following a general election.

For Canadians (as well as people in the UK, Australia and other countries), there normally isn’t much of a delay in forming a new government following a general election. Usually, it is known on election night which party will form the government. This isn’t always the case, however. In 2010, in the UK, it took five days of intense negotiations between the three main parties before a new government emerged, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. During that time, the Labour party under Gordon Brown, which had been the incumbent party, acted as the caretaker government.

In countries which use some form of proportional representation rather than First-Past-the-Post, because of the need to form coalition governments, it isn’t unusual for several weeks to go by before a new government emerges. Generally, however, this caretaker period is still of a fairly short duration. However, following the 2010 parliamentary elections in Belgium, the caretaker period lasted over 500 days.

I came across a very interesting paper by Mr. H. Hondequin, the Secretary General of the Belgian Senate, prepared for a conference of the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments, wherein he discusses the situation of the Belgian parliament during a prolonged period of political crisis. You can download his paper (it’s a docx) here, but I will summarise the main points below.

Belgium, like Canada and the UK and other countries, is a parliamentary democracy. That means that there are no elections separate from the parliamentary elections to elect a president who then appoints the government. As is the case in Canada and the UK and other countries, the prime minister emerges from the parties which end up forming the government.

As Mr. Hondequin explains, there are normally twelve parties represented in the parliament, and it generally requires six parties to agree to work together to obtain a simple majority. If a governing coalition wants to amend the constitution, this requires the cooperation of an even larger number of parties since constitutional change requires a two-thirds majority to pass. As Hondequin explains:

All these elements – the large number of parties, the search for an agreement on the institutional development of the country, and therefore, in practice, the search for a qualified majority – combined with the difficult economic situation and therefore with the importance of the socio-economic choices that had to be made, explain why the formation of the government after the 2010 elections was a real Echternach procession, or for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with that event, a journey of two steps forward followed by one or even several steps back.  However, where the Echternach procession manages to cover its route in one day, the “Belgian” procession took a year and a half.  The government in power since 2007, resigned on 22nd April 2010 and that resignation was accepted 26th April 2010.  Parliament was dissolved on 7th May 2010 .  The elections were held on 13th June 2010.  The new government was finally sworn in on 6th December 2011, and obtained the confidence of Parliament on 7th December 2011, or 540 days after the elections and almost 600 days after the resignation of the previous government.

This does not mean that there was no government during that time. Parliament convened in accordance with the Constitution on 6 July 2010. The departing government continued on as a caretaker government. Hondequin explains that in Belgium, the concept of a caretaker administration was developed by the courts. A caretaker government is limited to covering “urgent matters where decisions cannot reasonably be postponed, acts of day-to-day management and acts which form the continuation or completion of procedures which had been started in a legitimate manner before the regime of caretaking administration took effect.” As well, minus a few very specific exceptions, the caretaker government does not take any legislative initiatives, and nor does Parliament.

A government in Belgium, as in Canada and other parliamentary democracies, stays in power because it has the confidence of the House and is subject to oversight by parliament. However, in the case of a caretaker administration, while parliament’s power to exercise oversight remains, the confidence convention does not. As Hondequin explains: “Withdrawing confidence from a government that has already resigned has no meaning or effect. You cannot kill a dead person!”

It has long been argued in Belgium that a caretaker government does not have sufficient legitimacy to introduce bills, to take position on private members’ bills, to propose amendments to these bills, or even to enact or promulgate  bills that would nevertheless have been adopted by parliament.  It was inferred that one of the branches of the legislature was unable to act and that the legislative process therefore should stop altogether.

It is true that until recently, there was no real in-depth legal reflection about this issue.  However, as the negotiations on the formation of a new government lasted longer and longer, the reflection deepened, first in academic circles, then with some reluctance, in the political world.

The newly elected members of parliament, if they had followed long-established tradition, would have been forced to face a long period of inactivity. However, as the political crisis dragged on, and this in a climate of economic crisis requiring problems to be addressed, they gave the matter serious consideration.  Both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, they consulted their legal services.

These services, basing their opinion on old and recent legal doctrine, pointed out that the figure of a caretaker government limits the scope of government action as executive power, when it cannot be politically sanctioned by parliament and that it therefore protects the prerogatives of parliament in the exercise of political oversight over the executive.

On the contrary, in the exercise of the legislative function, Parliament holds the key role.  It is parliament that votes the laws. Parliament always has the last word, whether the law emanates from a parliamentary or a government initiative.  In legislative matters, the fact that the government is a caretaker administration in no way affects the powers and means of action of the parliament, or the balance of the system of division of powers.

It is ultimately this view that prevailed.  Both during the caretaker regime of 2007 and the very long one in 2010, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a number of laws on the most diverse subjects, resulting from both governmental or parliamentary initiatives.

Hondequin goes on to say that the laws adopted during this period were “technical” – in other words, laws which did not involve fundamental choices or major political debate, and that they were usually adopted without much debate and with more or less the unanimous support of both houses. Also, whenever the caretaker government wanted to bring forward a bill, it took great pains to justify to parliament why the bill was necessary and to consult with parliament beforehand.

He adds that another change which occurred due to the prolonged period of caretaker government was the implementation of various forms of questioning the government via oral and written questions, debates and hearings. In the past, parliament did not question the caretaker government, but as the crisis went on and on, parliament felt it was necessary to change this practice.

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Some interesting links: rebel MPs, e-petitions, hung parliaments, and political disengagement

1. Rebels of the Chamber

Isabel Hardman has a fascinating piece looking at some of the most rebellious backbench MPs in the UK House of Commons:

Once an MP starts down the route of the serial rebel, it seems easier for the whips to leave them be. Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, is one such example. “A whip called me once, saying: ‘I just wanted to confirm that you will definitely be voting against us tonight’,” he says. “I replied, yes, your intelligence is right.”

2. Procedure Committee releases its report on e-Petitions

In an earlier post, I reported on a hearing of the UK House of Commons Procedure Committee into the Government’s e-petitions scheme. The Committee recently released its report. Among their recommendations:

  • Extra sittings: The committee’s report recommends that an extra sitting in Westminster Hall, between 4.30 and 7.30 pm on a Monday, should be created for debates on e-petitions. The sitting would take place only if the Backbench Business Committee had scheduled a debate on an e-petition. The committee proposes that this change should be introduced as an experiment and reviewed after a year.
  • Government website:The committee’s report also recommends changes to the Government’s e-petitions website so that the information provided to petitioners is clearer, fuller and more accurate.

 3. The Hung Commonwealth Parliament: the First Year

The 2010 Australian general election, held on 21 August, resulted in a hung Parliament, with both the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal/Nationals Coalition emerging with 72 seats each in the House of Representatives. The remaining seats were held by one Western Australia Nationals member (Tony Crook); one Australian Greens member (Adam Bandt); and four non-aligned independent members (Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie, and Tony Windsor). This was Australia’s first hung parliament in 70 years. The Parliamentary Library of the Australian Parliament has produced a detailed overview of the this parliament’s first year and the various standing order changes that have been implemented to better deal with the situation.

4. The Real Outsiders

Samara Canada’s latest report looks at the politically disengaged in Canada:

First, whether they were engaged or disengaged, our participants universally condemned politics. Contrary to the notion that the disengaged are apathetic, we found that those less likely to participate were neither disinterested in nor uninformed about the system. Instead we found that their disdain for politics was driven by an intuitive understanding of how the political system functions and their previous interactions with it.

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Understanding government formation

There is some confusion in Canada (and elsewhere) as to how government formation occurs following a general election, particularly when an election results in a hung parliament. This post will attempt to provide a basic overview of the process. First, there are a couple of key concepts to understand and keep in mind.

1. In Westminster parliamentary systems, voters do not elect governments

You may frequently read media reports saying that recent polls show that a minority or majority government will be elected. This is false. Canadians, including at the provincial level, do not elect governments, we elect a parliament. The vote you cast is for your local MP or provincial representative only. You are not casting a vote for who you would like to see as Prime Minister or Premier, nor for what party you want to see form the government. The only person you are electing is your local representative. Certainly, if there is a party you would prefer to see form the government, you can vote for that party’s local representative, but whether or not that party ends up in government will depend on the overall configuration of the parliament elected.

2. A parliament is not the same thing as a government

Media reports will frequently use the terms “minority government” and “minority parliament”. This may confuse some people into thinking they mean the same thing. They do not. A parliament is the sum total of all the elected MPs (or MPPs/MLAs) from all parties. A Parliament is summoned following a general election and continues to exist until it is dissolved (ended) by a proclamation of the Governor General/Lieutenant Governor at the request of the Prime Minister/Premier. This is followed by another general election to elect a new parliament. Every member of the government is a Member of Parliament, but not all Members of Parliament are members of the Government.

A minority parliament is one in which no one party has won a majority of the seats. The British use the term hung parliament rather than minority parliament, which is preferable (but still not great) since it is less open to confusion with minority government. This is the term I will use.

A minority government is a type of government where a party (or group of parties) forms the government even though they don’t control a majority of the seats in parliament. Minority government most commonly occurs when there is a hung parliament, but it isn’t the only type of government which can be formed in a hung parliament situation.

3. To form the government, a party or group of parties must demonstrate that it has the confidence of the House.

The Prime Minister/Premier and the Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer for, their actions to the House as a body and must enjoy the support and the confidence of a majority of the Members of that Chamber to remain in office. This is commonly referred to as the confidence convention.

Government formation in a hung parliament

There has been a general election. No single party has won a majority of the seats in the legislative body. This is a hung (or minority) parliament. What happens next?

1. Does the leader of the party with the most seats (but not a majority) automatically become the Prime Minister/Premier?

No. This is a very common misconception, but it is not how our parliamentary system works. It is the party leader who can command the confidence of the House who will form the government. This could be the leader of the party which finishes with the second-most seats, as long as they have the support of other smaller parties.

2. Does the incumbent party have the first shot at forming the government?

Yes. The incumbent party is the party which had formed the government in the previous parliament, i.e. before the election was called. As the incumbent, they have the right to first decide if they believe they can form a government which will command the confidence of the House, even if they do not finish with the most seats.

Depending on the actual distribution of seats, the likelihood of this will vary tremendously. For example, the May 2010 general election in the UK resulted in the Conservative Party winning 307 seats, Labour (the incumbent party) winning 258 seats, and the Liberal Democrats winning 57 seats. Other smaller parties claimed the remaining 28 seats. As the incumbent party, Labour had the right to see if it could form a government with the help of other parties. It began negotiating with the Liberal Democrats, proposing a sort of “rainbow coalition” with the Lib Dems and other smaller parties. Meanwhile, the Conservatives also negotiated with the Liberal Democrats. It took five days before it became clear that Labour wouldn’t be able to form a government which would command the confidence of the House, and only then did Prime Minister Gordon Brown tender his resignation to the Queen. The Conservatives reached an agreement with the Liberal Democrats to form a majority coalition government. So while the UK has a hung parliament, it has a majority government.

In some instances, it will be very clear that the incumbent party cannot in any way command the confidence of the House on its own, or even with the help of other parties. In other instances, the incumbent will be able to form the government, even if it finishes second, if it can get the support of other parties either formally, by forming a coalition, or more informally, through a confidence and supply agreement, for example. If we use the example of the 2010 UK election, if the gap between Labour and the Conservatives had been narrower, or if the Lib Dems had won a greater number of seats, it might have been possible for Labour to form the government with the support of the Lib Dems, even if they were still second in number of seats to the Conservatives.

3. How long does it take to form a government?

It takes as long as necessary.

Canadians are quite accustomed to finding out on election night what sort of government they will have. In the case of a single party winning a majority of seats, the outcome is obvious – that party will form the government. In the event of a hung parliament however, the type of government which will be formed isn’t immediately apparent. We have become use to the media declaring a “Party X minority government” but they really should not do this. It is not up to the media to decide what sort of government will emerge – it is up to the newly elected parliament.

As mentioned above, in the UK in 2010, it took five days for a government to form as both Labour, the incumbent party, and the Conservatives, who had won the most seats, negotiated with the Liberal Democrats to see what sort of government could be formed which would command the confidence of the House. No one in the UK media declared a “Conservative minority government” on election night once the results were known – they simply stated that it was a hung parliament and then waited as the parties negotiated.

If, on election night in Ontario, it is a hung parliament result, even if the PCs end up with the most seats but short of a majority, until the Liberal government officially resigns, they are still the government. The Liberals can take a few days, even weeks, to negotiate with the NDP to see if they can work out some form of government. The PCs can do the same thing. Even if the media immediately declares a “PC minority government”, they really should not do that until the parties themselves decide on what form of government will emerge, as will be discussed below.

The 2011 Ontario election: possible government formation outcomes

Current polls re: the 6 October 2011 election in the province of Ontario show that the two main parties, the Liberals – who are the incumbents – and the Progressive Conservatives, are in a virtual tie, with the third party, the New Democratic Party (NDP) not far behind. Most interpret this as meaning that a hung parliament will be the outcome of the election. However, Liberal support is higher in areas of the province where there are more seats at play, which means that there is a slight chance that the Liberals could eke out a very narrow majority win. Let’s look at various possible scenarios for government formation which could occur following the election on 6 October. Remember, there are 107 seats in the Ontario legislature, therefore a party (or coalition of parties) needs 54 seats to form a majority government. A hung parliament will result if no single party wins a majority of seats (54 seats or more).

1. Single-Party Majority Government

This is the most common, and traditionally expected outcome of an election conducted using First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) in the Westminster-model of parliamentary government. This is when a single party wins an overall majority of the seats in the legislative body. In the case of Ontario, one of the parties would have to win 54 or more seats in order to form a single-party majority government.

While most polls currently have the two main parties in a virtual dead heat, because Liberal support is strongest in parts of the province where there are more seats available to be won, some are projecting a very narrow Liberal majority government. For example, ThreeHundredandEight currently projects 58 seats for the Liberals (that is his final projection). If that is the result of the election, then the Liberals will form a narrow (5 seat) majority government.

2. Hung Parliament, Single-Party Minority Government

This is what Canadians and Ontarians are used to seeing when an election results in a hung parliament, with no single party winning a majority of the seats. Usually, the party which does win the largest number of seats will form a minority government. From 2004 until 2011, there have been minority governments in Ottawa, first Liberal (2004-06) then Conservative (2006-2008, 2008-2011). The last minority government in Ontario occurred in 1985.

Minority governments can be unstable, since the opposition will outnumber them and thus could easily defeat them on a confidence vote. Because of this, the party forming a minority government might seek to strengthen their position somewhat by reaching a confidence and supply agreement with a smaller party. This simply means that the 3rd party will commit to voting in favour of the governing party on all confidence votes and budget measures, sometimes in exchange for the party forming the government incorporating some of the 3rd party’s policies into its program. The governing party might also agree to not call another election for a fixed period of time, for example, two years. The smaller party will not be part of the government, however.

While normally it is the party with the most seats (but not a majority) which will form a minority government, this isn’t always the case. The party with the second highest number of seats could form a single-party minority government, if it reached some sort of agreement with a 3rd party. This is exactly what happened in Ontario in 1985. What matters, remember, is that the party forming the government have the confidence of the House, not whether they finished first or second in the seat count.

3. Hung Parliament, Coalition Majority Government

A hung parliament does not exclude the formation of a majority government. Two (or more) parties can agree to form a coalition government which would have a majority of seats in the legislature. This is what occurred in the United Kingdom in May 2010.

Unfortunately, coalition government, while entirely legitimate – and many would say preferable to single-party majority or minority government – is not likely to occur because there isn’t a tradition of coalition government in Canada or Ontario. Coalition government is far more common in jurisdictions which use some sort of proportional representation rather than FPTP.

Coalition differs from a confidence and supply agreement between two parties in that both parties form the government and both parties would have cabinet positions. The leader of the largest party in the coalition would become the Premier, and the leader of the smaller party would most likely be named Deputy Premier or given some other high profile portfolio.

4. Hung Parliament, Coalition Minority Government

In a hung parliament, it would be possible for two parties to form a coalition government, but the coalition would still be a minority government in that between them, they would not have a majority of seats in the Legislature.

This scenario would be highly unlikely in Ontario because it is extremely unlikely that a 4th party, or any independents, will win any seats. Because there will likely be only three parties elected to the Ontario legislature, Liberals, PCs an NDP, there isn’t any scenario that would allow for a minority coalition. Even if one party fell just shy of a majority of the seats on its own, for example, if the PCs won 53 seats, if the Liberals and NDP formed a coalition, between them they would have 54 seats – a majority. If the seats were more evenly distributed between the three parties, for example, Liberals 40, PCs 37, NDP 30, if the PCs and NDP formed a coalition, they would have a majority of the seats (67). If the Liberals and NDP formed a coalition, that too would be a majority government, 70 seats.

For a minority coalition to occur in Ontario, a fourth party would need to win seats. For example, let’s pretend the Green Party won seats as well, resulting in the following: Liberals 48 seats, PCs 42, NDP 10, Greens 7. The Liberals have more seats, but the PCs and NDP decide to form a coalition. Together they have 52 seats, more than the Liberals, but still not a majority. The Greens don’t want to be a part of the coalition but say they might support it on key votes. They aren’t interested in any sort of deal with the Liberals. So it’s still a minority government, but a PC-NDP coalition government rather than a single party government. However, as stated above, with only three parties expected to actually win seats, the math would not allow for a coalition minority government to occur.

The most important thing to remember is that which party, or parties, form the government will depend on whether they can command the confidence of the House, not where they finished in the seat count.

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On responsible media

In the lead-up to the May 2010 United Kingdom general election, opinion polls showed that in all likelihood, the election would result in a hung, or minority parliament, that is, a parliament in which no single party would have a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. The last hung parliament in the UK had occurred in 1974, and so a hung parliament result in 2010 would be a new experience for many – voters, politicians and the media alike.

Consequently, several think tanks in the UK set out to publicly educate both voters and the media. As the Institute for Government noted in a written brief to the UK House of Commons Select Committe on Political and Constitutional Reform:

In the six months before the election there was wide agreement on the need for better understanding about the constitutional conventions for an unclear election result by politicians, civil servants, and the media and in the City—as well as the general public. Alongside this were questions about how prepared these groups were. The outcome of the election result itself has reinforced the importance of this understanding and the need for more coherent preparation.

The main gain was the public discussion ahead of, and after, the general election about the constitutional conventions surrounding an unclear result. The decision by the Cabinet Office to publish the chapter of a draft Cabinet Manual that dealt with the subject was timely and practically useful. (source – Ev66)

In response to the question “What impact did media pressure have on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators?”, the Institute for Government replied:

The impact of media pressure on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators was clearly considerable. However, this pressure was markedly less than many had feared in the period before the election—considering the expansion and immediacy of media and 24 hour news compared to 1974, let alone concerns about the potential reactions of financial markets. One reason for this may have been the efforts to educate media and markets, including by the Institute for Government, in the period before the election, as well as the behaviour and messages of politicians in the period after the results began to suggest an unclear result. Education and public discussion of the possibility of the process taking longer does appear to have mitigated its effects. Clearly, however, there are still lessons that can be learnt, particularly in terms of how other countries approach the period following an election result and whether the UK process is rushed in a way that is detrimental to the quality of governance.

Indeed, in its final report, Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election, the Committee noted:

7. We have heard that following the May 2010 general election, constitutional processes were broadly clear and worked well. On the whole, the media demonstrated a better level of understanding of constitutional processes than some had feared. There was no evidence of panic by the public or the financial markets. Dr Ruth Fox, Director of Parliament and Government at the Hansard Society, told us  that “the markets didn’t have much of a response to what was happening”, and the Institute for Government wrote that “[media] pressure was markedly less than many had feared”. This is to the credit of those organisations, including the Hansard Society, the Constitution Unit at University College London and the Institute for Government, which worked in the run up to the election to increase public and media understanding of what would happen if there was a hung Parliament.

Canada could use such an approach.

Many recent events in Canadian politics have demonstrated that far too many Canadians do not understand how the parliamentary system works, and this ignorance is too easily exploited by politicians. This was clearly evident during the so-called “coalition crisis” of 2008, when the opposition Liberal and NDP parties announced that they had reached an agreement to form a coalition, with confidence and supply support from the Bloc Québécois, and would seek to defeat the recently re-elected Conservative minority government. The governing Conservatives immediately launched an attack painting the idea of coalition government as something illegitimate, even calling it a “coup d’état”. Bringing down an “elected government” and replacing it with a form of government “no one had voted for” was unacceptable. Far too many Canadians didn’t know any better to disagree.

The media was of little help during these events, nor have they been of much help since. In the years since 2008, there has been on-again, off-again talk of certain parties joining forces, either in a coalition or merging – the media often fail to distinguish between the two options, or use the two terms interchangeably in the same article. Whenever polls show that a hung parliament is likely in a coming election, the media always write that minority government is what will emerge. There is never – or very, very rarely – a discussion of the process of how our system works, the process of government formation or what options are available. The fact that yes, a hung parliament will most likely result in a minority government (because the idea of anything is still somewhat toxic or at least very iffy) is beside the point. Unless the media – aided by political and constitutional experts – start discussing the process of government formation, how our system of government works and what types of government could emerge following a hung parliament election result, this will not change.

I see this desperate need for better political education and media reporting reflected in the keyword search activity statistics for this blog. These are the stats on what keywords people have used when searching for something online, and that has led to a blog post I’ve written here turning up in their search results. Search activity on this blog is significantly right now because there are several provincial and territorial elections taking place in October and November of this year: Prince Edward Island (3 October), Manitoba (4 October), Ontario (6 October),  Newfoundland and Labrador (11 October), Saskatchewan (7 November) as well as the Northwest Territories (3 October) and Yukon (11 October).  People are mostly searching for easy to read comparisons of party platforms, because let’s face it – no one really wants to slog through 3 or 4 party platforms and try to make sense of them.

While the keyword search activity is certainly useful to me because it allows me to target posts to identified needs, it is also very depressing at times. It reveals to me just how ill-informed many people are about our system of government and politics in general.

For example, while I’m averaging about 900 hits a day at the moment mostly from people looking for the aforementioned party platform comparisons, far too many of them seem to not understand that these are provincial – not federal – elections, and/or they don’t realize that more than one province is having an election. They aren’t searching for specific provincial party platform comparisons, but using search terms such as “Canada political party platforms october 2011″, “october 2011 vote platforms”, “2011 political party platform”, “October election 2011 platforms” etc. Such searches usually take them to the platform comparison post I had done for the May 2011 Canadian federal election, and so I edited that post to add a note at the beginning with the links to the various provincial posts. I also added a note to the beginning of each provincial post with the links to the posts for the other two provinces. That seems to be working as most people are then moving from the Canada post to whichever provincial post they were actually hoping to find.

Other search terms used by people are so vague or poorly worded that they frustrate me. I can’t understand what the person was looking for, and because they obviously don’t really know what they’re looking for either, or at least, don’t know how to properly phrase it, they get taken to completely unrelated posts. At least, I assume the post is probably not what they were looking for, but given the search terms used, it’s difficult to know. Or I think I can guess at what they were looking for, but because they couldn’t phrase it properly, they got taken to a post other than the one to which they should have been referred. For example, someone today was looking for “what happens if the majority is under 54 in election in Canada” – which must be someone asking about what happens if the Ontario vote results in a hung parliament  because 54 seats are needed for a majority in Ontario. Because they referred to Canada rather than Ontario, however, they got taken to a completely unrelated post instead of the post I do have about government formation scenarios following a hung parliament result in Ontario’s provincial election.

I’m not trying to say that only Canadians are ill-informed – trust me, there are a significant number of confused search queries coming from people in other countries, in particular, the United Kingdom. But, as I stated at the outset of this post, at least in 2010, the UK media behaved responsibly. They didn’t declare any form of government the night of the election, they simply stated that it was a hung parliament, and then waited, along with everyone else, for a government to be formed. They explained the process. They interviewed experts. It took five days for a government to emerge. If it had been in Canada, the media would have immediately declared a Conservative minority government the night of the vote and then been utterly confused when Gordon Brown didn’t resign as Prime Minister immediately after that.

To date, in the various articles discussing the Ontario election I’ve read, only one which didn’t make coalition government out to be something evil or foreign. I’m not implying there haven’t been others – maybe there have been – I certainly can’t read every single thing written about the election. It wasn’t a great article, but it was a refreshing change from all the others reporting on the latest polls and concluding that these polls show Ontario is heading for a minority government, when all the polls show is that the parties are very close and that the election will likely result in a hung or minority parliament. For example, today’s Toronto Star has this article, which is headlined: “Get ready for a minority provincial government, poll says”. Both the headline and first sentence are, simply put, wrong. The first sentence reads:

Ontarians are poised to elect a minority Liberal or Progressive Conservative government in Thursday’s vote, with New Democrats holding the balance of power, a Toronto Star-Angus Reid poll suggests.

First of all, Ontarians do not elect governments, they elect parliaments. Second, the poll suggests only that the parliament elected next week will be a hung, or minority parliament. The poll does not, nor can it, say what form of government will emerge. It is not the media’s role to dictate that minority government is the only option.

In the next paragraph, the reporter does refer to a “minority parliament”, which is more accurate, but open to confusion. A minority (hung) parliament is NOT the same thing as a minority government – and that is why I prefer the term hung parliament to minority parliament – less chance of confusion. The pollster quoted in the article then again muddies the water with this quote:

“We’re definitely looking at a minority government at this rate,” Jaideep Mukerji, managing director at Angus Reid, said Friday.

Again, this is wrong. We don’t know what sort of government might be formed. The poll shows only that a hung parliament is likely. Nothing more. For pollsters and media to repeatedly reinforce the idea that minority government is the only obvious outcome only further undermines political literacy in this country. The Canadian media need to learn from their British counterparts and start reporting more responsibly, otherwise our democracy will continue to suffer.

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Keyword post: Short answers to various queries

The following are answers to questions based on recent keyword search activity which has led people to this blog.

1. How many signatures does an e-petition require for it to be debated in the UK Parliament?

First of all, there is no guarantee that any petition will be debated in Parliament. Under the UK Government’s new e-petitions scheme, if an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures that will only guarantee that it will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate in the House of Commons, however, the Committee is free to consider scheduling a debate on any petition, regardless of the number of signatures it receives. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate. For a detailed explanation of this, please see this post. All petitions, however, will receive a response from the Government, once the period for signing them has closed.

2. If something happened to the Prime Minister, who would take over?

In countries such as Canada, the UK, etc., if the Prime Minister were incapacitated, decided to resign as his or her party leader or died suddenly, the party forming the government would simply name an interim leader from among its MPs. The interim leader would be acting Prime Minister while the party would hold a leadership race to choose a new leader, who would then automatically become the Prime Minister. These countries do not have presidential systems; prime ministers are not directly elected by voters to the post in general elections – the leader is chosen by the party. Parties can choose to change their leader at any time and for any reason, and if that party is the party that is forming the government, the new leader would become Prime Minister. Please see this post for information on how the Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister, and this post which addresses some related issues.

3. Who can force the Prime Minister out of office?

Since Prime Ministers in the UK and other countries are not directly elected by voters, they can’t really be forced out of office. The Prime Minister is simply an MP elected in a given constituency and who is also the leader of a political party which ends up forming the government. The surest way a PM can be removed from office by voters is for his or her party to be defeated in a general election. In between elections, however, a government can be removed from office if it loses the confidence of the House of Commons. Certain votes are considered confidence votes (the vote on the Speech from the Throne and the budget vote, for example). If a majority in the House vote against the government on these votes, the government is defeated. That could lead to a new election, or, depending on party standings in the House of Commons, another party might be asked to form the government. The party forming the government can also decide that it would prefer someone else to be its leader and force the current leader (and PM) to resign as party leader. The party would then choose a new leader, who would immediately become the Prime Minister. That party would still remain in power as the government, however.

4. How do I submit an e-petition to the Canadian House of Commons/provincial legislature?

Simply put, you can’t, unless you live in Quebec or in the Northwest Territories, which are the only legislatures in Canada which recognize or accept e-petitions. If you want to petition parliament or any other provincial legislature, you will have to do it the traditional way – print up your petition and collect real signatures on it. See this post for information on how to petitions legislatures in Canada.

5. Where I can find a picture of/more information about Eric Cameron Finance minister?

There is no such person as “Eric Cameron, Finance minister”. Eric Cameron is a fictional character in a novel, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis.

6. Who are the contesting parties for the post of Prime Minister in the UK?

No one contests for the post of prime minister since the prime minister is not elected directly by voters. The leader of whichever party ends up forming the government following a general election will become prime minister. In the case of a coalition government, as is currently the case  in the UK, traditionally the leader of the largest party in the coalition normally becomes prime minister. Currently in the UK, there are only two parties which have a realistic chance at forming the government on their own (i.e., winning a majority of the seats), and thus their leader would become the Prime Minister. These are Labour (currently led by Ed Miliband) and the Conservatives (led by David Cameron, who is currently Prime Minister leading a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats). Even if the next election resulted in another hung parliament, it would be either Miliband or Cameron who would end up as PM, depending on the actual seat results.

7. What happens if we elect a minority government in the Ontario election?

Voters don’t elect governments, they elect a parliament. If the election results in a hung (minority) parliament – in which no party wins a majority of the seats, there are many forms of government which could result. Please see this post for a full discussion of the various options that would be available for the parties to consider, depending on the actual results of the election.

8. In parliamentary systems, how much influence do the opposition parties have/how effective are the opposition parties?

There is no clear answer to this as it will depend on various factors such as the type of government in place and the circumstances the opposition parties find themselves in. For example, if an election results in a single-party majority government, the opposition parties will have very little influence. If an election results in a hung parliament, and a minority government emerges from that, the opposition parties are theoretically in a much stronger position since the minority government will require the support of some opposition members or parties in order to pass its legislation. This will force the government to include policies that it thinks will appeal to the opposition, or the opposition will be able to amend the legislation during committee stage. However, even in a minority government situation, sometimes the opposition parties find themselves in a very weakened position, and thus they are keen to avoid anything that might defeat the government and lead to an election since they themselves are not ready to fight an election. Perhaps they are in the midst of a leadership change, or their party is down in the polls, or they are having trouble raising money and can’t afford to fight an election. Because of this, they will be less likely to oppose the government.

In the case of a coalition government, such as is currently the case in the UK, while it does have a majority of seats, because the government is made up of two parties, this has the potential to make it more unstable than a single-party majority government. Also, UK MPs are much more independent than are their counterparts in countries such as Canada and Australia, where party discipline is very very strong and MPs rarely defy the party whips. Therefore in the UK, even government backbench MPs often oppose their own government.

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It’s not about the most seats

Recently, I’ve seen a few comments and blog posts wherein the writer states that the party that wins the most seats in the next election (but not a majority of the seats) gets to form the next government.

As I’m certain I’ve written many times before, this simply isn’t the case.

The incumbent governing party (we’ll call them Party A) is the party that gets the first chance to see if it can form a government that would command the confidence of the House. In a situation where another party (Party B) wins an outright majority of the seats, this becomes a moot point – Party A could not command the confidence of the House no matter what machinations it attempted, and so it resigns, usually immediately.

However, if an election results in a hung parliament, then Party A is still given the first shot at forming the government, even if another party has more seats (but not a majority of the seats). If the leader of Party A determines that it is unlikely to be able to command the confidence of the House, he or she resigns, and then the party that did end up with more seats will be asked to try to form a government that will command the confidence of the House.

For example, let’s pretend that the May 2 Canadian federal election results in the following seat count:

Conservatives – 120
Liberals – 129
BQ – 33
NDP – 26

As the incumbent governing party, it would be the Conservatives’ right to try to form a government first, even though the Liberals won more seats. Of course, it isn’t very likely that the Conservatives could command the confidence of the House; it is doubtful that any of the other parties would agree to support them on confidence matters (and we all know how the Conservatives feel about coalitions). Thus, one would expect that the Conservatives would resign. Only then would the Liberals be asked to try to form a government. Of course, in such a scenario, it is very doubtful that the Liberals could command the confidence of the House for very long either unless they reached some sort of agreement with at least one of  the other parties.

In the 2006 general election, even though the Liberals won fewer seats than the Conservatives (103 to 124) Martin could have waited a few days to see if some agreement or arrangement could be worked out with one or more of the other parties that would have allowed the Liberals to continue to govern. He opted not to do that, conceded defeat, and informed the Governor General the next day that he would not form a government and resigned as Prime Minister. It was only then that Stephen Harper was called on to form a government (notwithstanding media declarations of a “Conservative minority government” before all the polls had even closed).

Similarly, the 2010 UK general election saw the Conservatives end up with the most seats (306 on election day) and Labour second with 258. However, because Labour was the incumbent party, it was Gordon Brown’s prerogative to try to form a government. Brown did not resign until five days after the election, once it became clear that no workable arrangement could be found that would allow Labour to form the government. However, if the numbers had been a bit different – if the Liberal Democrats had elected 15 more members, for example, that would have potentially allowed Labour to continue as the government with the support of the Liberal Democrats – as a coalition or some other arrangement.

My point here is simply that in the UK last year, the Conservatives were not immediately declared the “winner” by the media or pundits. It was recognized that it was still Labour’s right to try to form a government first. Our system works exactly the same way. If we end up with another hung parliament, it will be the Conservatives’ right to try to form a government first, even if another party ends up with more seats.

I strongly recommend this report from the UK House of Commons Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform to everyone, and in particular this chapter. Not all of it applies to Canada because our system isn’t completely identical to that of the UK’s, but there is enough in there that does apply.

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AV does not cause hung parliaments

While I have resisted blogging about them, I have been regularly reading a variety of columns and articles on the May referendum on the Alternative Vote. One thing in particular continues to baffle me: I simply do not understand why so many AV opponents believe that AV will lead to more hung parliaments and thus make coalition government the norm in the UK.

This “fact” is repeated almost every single time anyone posts anything against AV, and I’m including reader comments on articles in this. A recent example would be this column by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian in which he writes:

The case against AV is that it would increase the likelihood of a hung parliament and uncertain government. Voters must sit for days (or in Belgium months) and await the smoke from the party conclaves. This in itself weakens any electoral mandate and devolves power from voters to the political establishment. It is elitist. It also usually leads to unstable administrations as minority coalition partners wax and wane in support and, usually, decide to cut and run when the going gets tough. Every country is different, especially those that are complex confederacies, but many people in Germany, Italy, Belgium and Denmark scream for the clarity of a two-party system, with governments in or out.

As opponents of AV are fond of pointing out, AV is used in only 3 jurisdictions, and the only one anyone ever discusses in any detail is Australia. Yet, if one is going to use Australia as the main example of how AV works, then the argument that it leads to more hung parliaments falls apart immediately. The UK, and also Canada, have had more hung parliaments using FPTP than has Australia using AV. It’s not AV that leads to hung parliaments, but the growing breakdown of two-party politics in countries like the UK and Canada that still use FPTP.

There have been five hung parliaments in the UK since the beginning of the 20th century. There have been 12* hung parliaments at the federal level in Canada since Confederation. Australia, which introduced AV in 1919, has had two hung parliaments under AV.

The overwhelming reason why Australia has had far fewer hung parliaments is because unlike Canada and the UK, Australia really does have a strong two-party system. From 1901 to 1910, when it used FPTP, no party had a majority in the House of Representatives, as there were two competing non-Labor parties. As a result, there were frequent changes of government, several of which took place during parliamentary terms. The 1910 federal election was the first contested by the Commonwealth Liberal Party, the result of a merger between the Protectionist Party and the Free Trade Party. The new party lost to Labor, but this marked the first majority government in Australia since the inaugural federal election in 1901. If anything, AV in Australia has reinforced the two-party system, making it far more difficult for smaller parties to win seats.

Proponents of FPTP assert that its main advantage is that it returns strong, decisive election results, and Jenkins is no exception:

Because yielding a clearcut and stable administration is the dominant requirement of democratic election, I opt for the electoral system that most delivers it, which has long been first-past-the-post. In crude historical terms, it has served Britain well. It clearly leaves Liberal Democrats on the sidelines, but we are talking about choosing a government, and the Liberals have never come first or even second in popular votes since they handed the torch of leftwing representation to Labour a century ago. Votes for Liberal Democrat candidates are not “wasted”, as some claim, but failed.

However, in Canada and the UK, what has been happening, despite both countries’ use of FPTP, is the breakdown of the two-party system in favour of multi-party politics. In Canada, this is further complicated by the increasingly regional support of the main parties. This is what is causing hung parliaments to happen, despite the fact that FPTP is used. The trend away from the two traditional parties, Labour and Conservative, is expertly explained in this post by Patrick Dunleavy.

Whether AV, if adopted in the UK, will slow this trend remains to be seen. However, if hung parliaments continue to occur even with the adoption of AV, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the same results would have been returned under FPTP. It is not the voting system that is responsible for these outcomes, but the fact that multiple parties contest each election, and that increasingly, more and more voters are giving their support to these other parties.
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*The 2nd Canadian Parliament was a minority for 56 days under prime minister Alexander Mackenzie after he took power from Sir John A. Macdonald following the Pacific Scandal. However, this event is generally not counted because Parliament was not in session when Mackenzie took over and he immediately called an election in which he then won a majority.

On a related note, ABC’s Antony Green addresses claims that AV leads to lower voter turnout.

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