Skip to main content
opinion

Political scientist J.A. Corry (principal of Queen's University, 1961-68), an elegant and eloquent scholar, didn't predict minority government as a permanent characteristic of Canadian parliamentary democracy. But he did warn, based on tendencies apparent two generations ago, that it could happen. Writing in Democratic Government and Politics, published in 1946 against the backdrop of cataclysmic wartime destruction, Mr. Corry said that third parties invariably produce weak governments and ultimately imperil democracy. Who then could deny it? The proof lay in the ruins and the rubble of Europe.

Mr. Corry wasn't talking of transient splinter parties that rise and fall, complicate politics for an election or two and then disappear - such as the Progressives in the 1920s and the Social Crediters in the 1960s. He was talking of minority parties that exploit ideological or political grievances, manage to survive for a longer period and then - "like all organizations" - perpetuate themselves simply for the sake of their own self-interest.

Mr. Corry cited two examples. The first, he said, might be a splinter party dedicated to socialism. The second, he said, might be a splinter party based on French-language nationalism. This party could arise, he said, "if the French-speaking people of Canada were to consolidate in a minority party of their own." Such a party, never able to form a government, would turn truculent - causing English-speaking Canadians to turn truculent, too. As grievances expanded, Mr. Corry asserted, it would become more and more unlikely that any one party would ever again get an absolute majority in the Commons.

This is where we are now with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois - with (as Mr. Corry expressed it) a "consolidated" French-speaking third party, with electoral gridlock, with a hobbled executive, with a kinetic legislature and with a poll-driven Parliament. Based on the results of the past three federal elections, which produced three minority governments, it is unlikely that either of our major parties will win an absolute majority in the foreseeable future.

J.A. Corry was eerily prescient. Quebec has twice since produced a minority party of its own, one right-wing and transient, the other left-wing and permanent. In the 1960s, the Créditistes briefly held the balance of power. In the 1990s, the Bloc established itself as the majority party in Quebec. With no pretence of national responsibility, indifferent to the functioning of the federal institution in which it operates, the Bloc has ensured three minority governments in the past six years.

Parliamentary democracy can sustain an occasional minority government. It cannot sustain one minority government after another. Why? Because democracy bestows an authentic legitimacy only on parties that win absolute majorities - which forces major parties to seek consensus and to act more responsibly than minor parties. "Where only two parties are in the field, each knows that it must work for a majority in [both]the constituency and in the country," Mr. Corry said. "Each must court significant minorities. Each must develop middle-of-the-road platforms. These necessities draw the parties closer together rather than further apart."

This is the genius of the American system. J.A. Corry: "To win the presidency, it is necessary to win a clear majority of the votes of the Electoral College in favour of one candidate. This compels each party to aim at winning a majority of the popular vote. The result is that most presidents take office with either the explicit or implied consent of a majority of the people."

Presidents can assume office with fewer than half of the votes cast. In fact, 10 presidents have done so: most notably John Quincy Adams in 1824 (with 30.5 per cent of the vote); Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (with 39.8 per cent); Woodrow Wilson in 1912 (with 41.9 per cent); Bill Clinton in 1992 (with 42.9 per cent); Richard Nixon in 1968 (with 43.4 per cent); and George W. Bush in 2000 (with 47.8 per cent).

In most instances, though, these presidents won solid majorities in the Electoral College, that eccentric but utilitarian institution that prevents two or three densely populated states from determining the presidency by sheer force of population - a risk that could imperil Canadian democracy in years to come (should Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver form an alliance to run the country). In the Electoral College, Mr. Nixon prevailed against Hubert Humphrey (and third-party candidate George Wallace) by a vote of 301-191; and Bill Clinton prevailed against George Bush Sr. by a vote of 370-168. Even George Bush Jr., who won fewer votes than Al Gore, assumed office with a majority in the Electoral College: 271-266.

In Canada's 2008 federal election, only 25 of 308 candidates won by majority votes; in Quebec, one Bloc candidate won with 29.1 per cent. Canada needs some form of run-off elections to ensure that each MP assumes office with a majority of votes cast in his or her constituency. These run-off elections would not eliminate minority parties. They would bring back a certain minimal electoral legitimacy that Canadian democracy now emphatically lacks.