Never mind what it means for the parties: What does the nascent Liberal-NDP alliance (Lib-Dip Trip?) mean for democracy?
Does it, as a Globe editorial suggests, “handcuff” or indeed “subvert” Parliament’s role as a check on the executive? Has it, as Howard Anglin, Stephen Harper’s former deputy chief of staff, argues, “effectively suspend[ed] the operation of responsible government”?
Well, no. “Responsible government” means government that is accountable to the House of Commons, which is to say that it governs only with the support of a majority of its members. It doesn’t matter whether that majority is composed of one party, or two parties, or 12: A majority is a majority.
The majority the Prime Minister now commands, with the agreement of the NDP, is not qualitatively different from the majority he might have led had enough Liberals been elected last September. Arguably it is more legitimate, in as much as this majority actually represents a majority of the voters, versus the 30-odd per cent in support of the typical “majority government.”
Is that a fair comparison, though? As Mr. Anglin says, at least in the latter case the people “voted for a majority government.” Who voted for this? But this again misrepresents how our system works. We do not elect governments in this country. We elect Parliaments. The ballot does not ask you which party you think should govern the country. It asks whom you would like to represent your riding.
We elect members of Parliament; members of Parliament elect governments. Does it matter if they pledged to support a particular government before the election, or decided to do so after the fact? It might, if MPs for the two parties had campaigned on a pledge never to enter into any sort of alliance with each other.
But I can find no evidence that they did, and if they had, it would still entail no harm to responsible government, but would rather enter the long and disreputable list of broken campaign promises. Nothing in the commonly understood role of MPs precludes them from forming whatever compacts or alliances they like.
That’s especially true where, as in the present case, no cabinet appointments were involved. (That’s why it’s wrong to call this a coalition, which involves not only a joint program of government but the sharing of cabinet seats.) Whenever an opposition MP crosses over to the government, there is always the suspicion that some offer of this kind was involved – a suspicion best allayed by the MP resigning and running in the subsequent by-election.
Indeed, until the Second World War it was the practice in this country for all newly appointed members of cabinet to do so before taking up their posts. Why? Because their role had changed: from watchdogs on the government – yes, even as members of the governing party – to members of it. As such, they were obliged to seek their electors’ approval.
That such a rule is inconceivable in present-day politics suggests why one might gently mourn the current alliance, even if there is nothing unparliamentary about it. It may be no different than any majority government, but there are reasons to prefer minority governments, with all their alleged uncertainty. For there are costs, as well as benefits, when governments are guaranteed a majority rather than having to negotiate it with each vote.
Parliament may not have been handcuffed or subverted, but it is reasonable to expect some loss of accountability. This is especially true with regard to parliamentary committees, whose willingness to call governments to account is noticeably different where they are made up of a majority of government, rather than opposition, members.
This wouldn’t matter so much if MPs in the governing party still took seriously the idea that they are elected to be watchdogs on the government, rather than blind cheerleaders for it. Perhaps it is naive to expect them to. But is it so naive to expect it of members of another party, in temporary alliance with it?
This will be the real test of this arrangement, and whether it can be distinguished from majority government as usual. Will NDP MPs be as much in the tank for the government, with regard to its long list of offences against ethics and democratic accountability, as its own MPs have repeatedly proved to be?
The agreement obliges the NDP not to support an explicit vote of no confidence in the government. But it is unclear on what would happen should the Liberals declare a particular vote – say, on whether the government should be required to produce certain documents or witnesses – to be a question of confidence.
Only then will we find out what the NDP bought in this deal, and what it sold.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.