Ottawa Citizen Op-ed: "Can't we just get along?", by David Mitchell

05/17/2010

Can't we just get along?

 

Canadians view minority governments as distasteful aberrations -- we should learn from the British example how to make them work

 

By David Mitchell, Citizen Special

May 14, 2010 8:09 AM

A hung parliament. That's what the British label a legislature where no political party has an overall majority. It's hung, as in suspended, unable to agree. Special considerations and arrangements are called for in order to make it actually work.

In Canada we simply call this a minority parliament. Or, more commonly today: weak, ineffective and dysfunctional. After six years of minority rule, our Parliament often resembles a permanent pre-election campaign, with constant questions about its longevity, unhealthy partisanship and a relentless focus on the short-term possibilities for political gain. However, despite the fact that Canadians currently hold politicians in low esteem, a minority parliament is not inherently a bad thing. And developments in Britain suggest an alternative way of negotiating fragmented electoral results.

For a while, the recent British election campaign seemed to be veering toward some kind of a Canadianization of British politics. This would have been a pity.

The highlights of Britain's first three-way electoral contest in more than a generation included the country's first-ever televised leadership debates. Some criticized this innovation as introducing an American influence, exaggerating the profile of party leaders. In fact, they more resembled Canadian-style leadership debates, with all of their weaknesses but also a few surprising strengths. The British debates -- and there were three of them, in contrast to a single debate in each official language in Canada -- provided lively and substantive policy discussions among the three party leaders. Furthermore, the tone of the debates was generally mature and respectful, paving the way for possible post-election collaboration. (Note: the superficiality of Canadian election debates can surely be improved upon. The best recent thinking on this was produced earlier this year by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University in its report: "Reforming federal election debates in Canada.")

During the British election campaign, candidates and commentators alike raised alarm bells about the prospect of a minority parliament, often using the Canadian experience as a negative point of reference. Clearly our succession of minority parliaments since 2004 has not enhanced our reputation for Peace, Order, and Good Government.

In fact, the Canadian example might have helped to inspire the intriguing coalition government proposed by David Cameron's Conservatives and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats. Only time will tell if this option will produce a more stable, businesslike and productive parliament than we've witnessed in Canada during recent years.

Nevertheless, minority parliaments can work, producing both effective governance and innovative public policy. Our own history in Canada vividly illustrates this. One need only think back to the two consecutive minority governments of Lester Pearson in the 1960s, and the earlier minority administration of John Diefenbaker in 1957. These were dynamic, creative times, characterized by active policy development and legislative reforms. The minority parliaments of that era were productive and relevant.

However, we Canadians have conditioned ourselves to view minority parliaments as exceptions to the rule of majorities, temporary and distasteful aberrations which interrupt the dominance of Parliament by a single party. Diefenbaker's minority government was the prelude to his massive 1958 electoral sweep; Pearson's consecutive minorities set the stage for Trudeaumania.

But beyond those examples we've actually had 13 minority parliaments in Canadian history. And today, in a politically fractured, highly regionalized body politic, and with the persistence of the Bloc Québécois, it's difficult in mathematical terms for any party to easily conjure up a majority of seats in our House of Commons. Furthermore, consider this: With the rapid turnover in membership of our House of Commons, more than two-thirds of our current MPs have never experienced a majority parliament. Perhaps it's time to start learning to live with minority rule.

A recent British study, prepared by the Constitution Unit of the Institute for Government, adroitly forecast the current U.K. challenges in its report: "Making minority government work."

The study's advice and recommendations are as pertinent to Canadians: minority parliaments can be made to function; however, they require more subtle skills than the simpler and cruder forms of governance by majorities. To be sure, there are lessons here for elected representatives (Parliament can become stronger under minority government; but cannot make policy or force the government to do anything against its will), and also for prime ministers (do not govern in a majoritarian way), public servants (be prepared to support negotiations between political parties) and journalists (the media shape public perceptions of minority government, and may distort them). Ultimately, a shift in political culture is required on all fronts, emphasizing co-operation and accommodation, rather than conflict and deepening partisanship.

Perhaps this is precisely what we're witnessing today as Britain recoils from the prospect of a hung parliament, instead embracing a coalition government -- an unexpected marriage between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. We can only wish them well and look on from afar with envy as they seek to make their minority parliament work.

Imagine a political culture where leaders of different parties can actually work together to provide stability in government, making compromises to satisfy not only their own partisan supporters but a broader range of constituents. Only in Britain you say? Pity.

David Mitchell is president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum.

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