Skip to main content

Tom Flanagan

The power-sharing that is essential to democracy comes in two forms: sequential (the alternation of parties in government) and simultaneous (co-operation among parties in government). The main line of tradition in Canadian politics, embracing almost 90 per cent of the years since Confederation, has been rule by majority government. The durability of this tradition has created a parliamentary culture of sequential power-sharing based on the alternation of Liberals and Conservatives in office.

The relatively short and infrequent periods of minority government have not been enough to produce a different culture based on simultaneous power-sharing. Both government and opposition parties have seen minority governments as aberrations, exceptional periods in which the strategic challenge was to elect a new majority government in the next election. And, indeed, that usually happened, except for the 1962-68 and 2004-10 periods, both of which have seen a succession of three minorities in a row.

But it seems that the current period of minority government may go on much longer. As long as the Bloc Québécois dominates Quebec, it's extremely difficult for either the Conservatives or the Liberals to win a majority, unless one or the other collapses even beyond what happened to the Liberals in 2008 under Stéphane Dion.

Parliament is thus stuck with a mismatch between its majoritarian political culture and the reality of minority government. Government continues to bring in legislation but can't move it forward in normal fashion through committee discussion and votes on the floor of the House. Instead of just marshalling a voting majority, it has to resort to all sorts of tactical expedients: threatening an election, bundling other measures together with the budget, playing off the opposition parties against each other, or luring dissident elements within those parties to defy their own leadership.

The opposition parties, meanwhile, play their own games. The Liberals oppose almost everything, even measures they'd previously supported when in office. Or they support bills in the House while trying to block them in the Senate. All opposition parties collaborate to pass private member's bills that they know will be ignored because they infringe on the government's executive prerogatives; and they turn parliamentary committees into kangaroo courts, recklessly pursuing personal investigations for which they have neither training nor resources.

The past six years of parliamentary proceedings have been more entertaining than anything since the fall of Joe Clark's government in 1979. But citizens are turned off, and rightly so, by the endless tactical manoeuvres, threats, bluffs and broken deals.

Despite all that, we had two good examples of power-sharing in the recent session, when all parties supported an amended version of Jason Kenney's refugee reforms, and three parties agreed to a process for scrutinizing Afghan detainee documents while protecting national security. Neither outcome came easily. The Liberals broke an earlier agreement with the government on refugees, and the parties had to be guided by Speaker Peter Milliken to get together on the Afghan documents. But they finally got to the right conclusion.

With an election looming within 12 months, such a co-operative spirit will not predominate in Parliament, but voters should demand it if the next election yields another minority government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper can be a fierce partisan, but he also has remarkable diplomatic skills, which he exhibited in healing the wounds in the Canadian Alliance, bringing about a merger with the Progressive Conservatives and, most recently, in leading the G8 and G20 to support reductions in deficit spending. It would make a big difference if Mr. Harper turned his diplomatic talents inward toward Parliament.

But there also has to be a response from the other side. The other parties, particularly the Liberals as the Official Opposition, have to realize they have a constructive role to play in Parliament beyond trying to get back into office. In a minority Parliament, they are, in effect, part of the government because no legislation can pass without their support.

What would power-sharing look like? More quiet meetings among leaders or their delegates. Government invitations to opposition parties to contribute to drafting legislation. Amendments moved in good faith, not just to obstruct. Honourable compromises. Agreements that are actually kept. Legislation that is widely supported. Not utopia, but better than what we see now.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.