Maxwell Cameron is a political science professor at the University of British Columbia.
The decision of British Columbia's Green and NDP parties to enter a supply and confidence arrangement – whereby, in effect, Green MLAs will vote with an NDP minority government in matters of confidence, including money bills, and other agreed-upon policies, but otherwise reserve the right to support or oppose legislation on a vote-by-vote basis – takes B.C. into uncharted waters. There are big risks for both parties and the province, but there is also a chance that the experience will be transformative and democratizing.
The ball is now in Premier Christy Clark's court. Assuming she resigns or is imminently defeated in a non-confidence vote, what might the Green-NDP agreement mean for B.C.?
The agreement itself represents a spirit of compromise. Executing it will demand even more. The May 9 election result, in which no party was given a majority, was widely interpreted as evidence that voters want politicians to work more co-operatively. Whether that was the intention of most voters, the fact is that making the legislature work will demand an ethos of teamwork, cross-partisanship and consultation both inside and outside the legislature.
With a government holding the narrowest of majorities (44 of 87 seats), the vote of every single MLA will count. A single defection could alter the balance of power, even bring down the government. Assuming the speaker is chosen from the government bench, the two sides will be equally matched (43 seats on each), with the speaker casting tie-breaking votes (which may occur frequently). Legislating will demand both discipline and the ability to work across party lines.
Unstable? Perhaps. But it could be just the tonic needed to restore health to B.C.'s democratic institutions. For the last 16 years, the B.C. Liberals have indulged in pay-to-play politics, selling access for cash and resisting attempts to impose limits on big money in politics. For many voters, the province came to resemble an oligarchy in which wealthy donors had more influence than voters.
A Green-backed NDP minority government can be expected to introduce new rules on campaign finance. It can also be expected to reopen the debate on electoral reform, a key issue for the Greens, who won almost 17 per cent of the votes but only three seats. A major argument for electoral reform will be the evidence, in practice, that minority governments work. Co-operation will be necessary not only to form government and carry out a legislative agenda, but also to demonstrate that false majorities – governments with a majority of seats, but less than a majority of the popular vote – are not necessary for good government. Contrariwise, the unravelling of the NDP-Green agreement would reinforce skepticism about co-operation and weaken the case for electoral reform.
A minority Parliament gives the Liberals an opportunity to play a constructive role as loyal opposition, holding the government accountable while showing restraint. The Liberals will have to be cautious about trying to bring down the government and force an early election most voters do not want. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver emphasized that throughout his negotiations with both major parties, he was impressed by how much common ground they share. For all the polarization among the major parties, there remains a huge middle ground.
The middle ground gets ignored, however, because of the partisan logic of competitive elections, exacerbated by a winner-take-all electoral system. If the parties can work together, it may be possible to shift the culture. We could see more free votes. More legislative initiative from MLAs (what a novel idea!). More evidence-based decision-making. More civility.
For this to happen, it will be essential that the legislature cease to make a mockery of the confidence convention, intended to ensure that governments are accountable to the legislature as a whole, but which has been twisted into a mechanism of party discipline. Not every government motion needs to be whipped. Government bills can fall without the sky falling too.
Making a minority government work will demand faithful reception and spirited enactment of the ethos of our democratic institutions. Our institutions were built on the premise that voters have the capacity to choose representatives with the wisdom and judgment necessary to deliberate and act in the public interest; that loyal opposition helps to ensure responsible government; that respect for the rule of law starts by legislating for the common good.
The agreement between the Greens and the NDP may be based on idealism. It is also consistent with the best ethos of our institutions.