It was only a sliver of time between Parliament’s recall after the election (British parliaments return to work in a matter of days, but ours for some reason need weeks or months to recover) and its rise for the Christmas break. And yet it provided a tantalizing glimpse of what could be.
By which I mean, a Parliament that might actually, on occasion, perform the role for which it is constituted: to hold government to account. That this is what is often called, slightly pejoratively, a “hung” Parliament, one in which no party holds a majority, is not coincidental.
Canadians have been taught to believe this is abnormal, even threatening. In normal times, we are told, the government can automatically count, by virtue of the slavish and unquestioning support of the members of its own party, on control of Parliament and all its proceedings. I say “the government” as a concession to polite fiction. I mean, of course, the prime minister.
Prime ministers have vast powers of appointment – they not only select every member of cabinet, their parliamentary secretaries, even their chiefs of staff, but every deputy minister, every senator, all the Supreme Court justices, the governor-general, officers of Parliament such as the auditor-general or the ethics commissioner, the head of the armed forces and the RCMP, in fact almost every person who could pose any limit on their power or obstacle to their ambitions. Along with that, a prime minister in possession of a majority also controls such matters as which bills are introduced and when, how long they are studied in committee and debated in Parliament and, needless to say, with what result.
It’s not normal, of course, none of it. It’s a parody of parliamentary government, whose centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office – “a presidential system without the Congress,” the political scientist Peter Russell called it – has no parallel in any other Westminster system. About the only time prime ministers’ power is ever subject to any serious oversight is when they have to govern with a minority (a minority of the seats in Parliament, that is: to add to the absurdity of the situation, they are almost always installed in office with the support of a minority of the electorate, thanks to the funhouse math of our first-past-the-post electoral system.)
Not only is it not normal, it isn’t even usual, nowadays. Ten of the past 21 federal elections have returned Parliaments in which no single party holds a majority. And yet, whenever there is a prospect of a minority government, a great wail goes up among the commentariat. A minority! Lord save us! How will government get anything done? Won’t this mean endless paralysis and instability? Or, as the price of opposition party support, runaway spending and borrowing?
In fairness, there is some truth to these claims. Minority governments do tend to be more short-lived: about a year and a half, on average, versus the three-to-five years typical of majority governments. And yes, there are examples of minority governments breaking open the piggy bank – the 1972-74 Trudeau Liberals and 2008-11 Harper Conservatives come to mind – although plenty of majority governments have done the same.
The defence of minority governments is usually to point to all the legislation they managed to pass, as if to say: See, minority governments can get things done, too. But democratic institutions should not be judged based on whether they make life easier for those in power. China’s “basic dictatorship,” in Justin Trudeau’s famous phrase, undoubtedly permits it to get a lot of things done, but we would not ordinarily hold it up as a model.
Rather, the case for minority governments – the reason we ought to prefer them to majorities, even at the cost of the odd early election or grubby bit of parliamentary horse-trading – is that they are more accountable. Take the current Parliament. Although it has sat for only seven days, it has already accomplished something that would have been unthinkable in the previous Parliament, or the one before that: It voted to strike a special committee to look into Canada’s relationship with China, over the government’s objections.
The case for such a public review is obvious, in light of the multiple, overlapping disputes between the two countries – if “dispute” is the right word for China’s kidnapping of two Canadians – and the naiveté and cynicism on the government’s part that arguably brought us here. The committee will have the power, as it should, to call ministers before it to answer for the government’s handling of this crucial file.
And yet, under a majority government, it would never happen. If any standing committee were to take up the issue, it would do so only if and so far as it suited the prime minister to allow it – as, for example, in the case of the Commons ethics committee in most recent Parliament, whose “investigation” of the SNC-Lavalin affair involved calling some witnesses twice, some only once, and some, including most of the key players, not at all.
Whether the same committee takes up the matter again in the current Parliament, now that the government no longer controls a majority of its members, remains to be seen. But that such a thing were even possible – that votes in Parliament, similarly, might not be decided by the nod of a prime ministerial head, that important debates might not be cut off just as they were getting interesting, that the executive might for once be answerable to the legislature, not merely in theory but in practice – this is a revolution.
Why, there’s been nothing like it since, well, since the previous minority government.