Making a Minority Government Work

January 24, 2006

Here’s a novel (I hope) idea for how to proceed in cases of minority government. But first, why might we need this?

After 18 months of Liberal-led minority government in Canada, flaws in the current setup have become quite evident. Let’s list some of the worst:

  • A marginal “tail” in parliament (in this case, the NDP) has the power to “wag the dog”, imposing their policies rather undemocratically.
  • The governing party (in the case, the Liberals) was able to delay an official vote of confidence for months, in the process ignoring several votes tantamount to confidence, on technicalities at best. As a consequence, a disfunctional parliament can drag on with wrangling replacing accomplishment, all just to extend a term in power, and perhaps try to time an election advantageously.
  • The governing party can get away with bribery-type schemes to induce opposition members to “cross the aisle” (e.g., Belinda Stronach’s 15 minutes of “non-political” fame and ministry).

So how could such problems be avoided, or significantly minimized?

The basic idea is to take the leading parties and force them to cooperate, if at all possible. Easily said, but how? In detail:

  1. Start with the leading two parties, in terms of seats, and group them together. If they still don’t total a majority of seats, then group in the next leading party, and so on, stopping once a majority of seats is represented by the group. Call this group, say, the “Enforced Governing Coalition”, or “EGC”. This group would be expected to try to cooperate and form the government. In practice the EGC would usually consist of just two parties, and perhaps very rarely three.
  2. Now the key: Give every party in that group a loaded gun. Specifically, each party in the EGC should have the right, at any time of their own discretion, to declare non-confidence (or perhaps better, call it “non-cooperation”), dissolve parliament and force an election. (Call this a “parliamentary veto” if you will.)

For example, in the both the current and last parliaments, the Liberals and Conservatives would have formed the EGC, and either one could have ended parliament to force an election at any time they chose. When the NDP tried to call the Liberal’s shots, the Tories could have put a stop to it in that way.

Logically, this scheme can be viewed as an extension of the usual majority government, in which a single party forms the “EGC” and has the right to call an election. Conversely, a majority government is a special case of this more general scheme. Also note that, due to the arithmetic involved in selecting members of the EGC, such parties would have roughly comparable numbers of seats and thus be roughly equally deserving of their special “veto” power.

Next, consider the main benefits of such a system.

  • It would represent a democratic assignment of power. The most widely elected parties would run the government together as majority.
  • It could prevent a marginal party from wagging the dog. However, it doesn’t totally exclude the useful possibility of two parties, one in the EGC and one not, cooperating together on a issue, provided this is not seen as completely unacceptable by another member of the EGC.
  • The leading party could not hang onto power desperately or maliciously if things were not working, because the other member(s) of the EGC could pull the trigger.
  • The leading party would have a difficult time recruiting aisle-crossers. For, recruiting one would indicate the enforced coalition was not working, and would likely be seen as an act unscrupulous enough to warrant dissolving parliament.

A key question of course is: Would the EGC parties cooperate? I believe the answer is, Yes, they would be forced to cooperate to the greatest extent possible; because if they didn’t cooperate while the public perceived they could, the stalemate would lead to an unnecessary election. It might be amazing how well they’d each behave with the “veto gun pointed at their heads”. There would be some political poker alright, but you couldn’t bluff too often.

Note that it would be very dangerous for any EGC party to call an election frivolously, or even be perceived to have caused one unnecessarily. This would most likely be political suicide and damage their future position badly. Just look at all the hand-wringing that went on recently regarding a dreaded winter election. The public doesn’t want an unnecessary election, and if they felt one had been created, the party that caused it would be punished accordingly.

Another potential objection: Wouldn’t an EGC party just go ahead and call an election opportunisticaly if things developed such that they were pretty sure they would win a majority? Yes they would, but there’s nothing wrong with that. For if they win, it means they have the people’s support, and it is time to get on with a real majority government.

Alternatively, if the EGC really was at loggerheads and found they simply could not cooperate on anything constructive anymore, the onus would be on them to make this clear politically to the people, and then perhaps agree jointly to call an election and let voters have their say again. That would open the door to a potentially different balance of power.

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