Virtue found amid the pandemonium
The unexciting part of this spectacle is that the Canadian population is becoming accustomed to perhaps even desiring minority government as a more or less permanent way of life.


By Ralph Surette
Published May 23rd 2005 in The Chronicle Herald
Well, gee, let's see what's up in dull old Canada — broken hearts, political daggers between the shoulder blades, accusations of perfidy, treachery and whoring, fortunes reversed in a flash, cliffhanger suspense and finally, the government surviving amid more theatrics than in a swooning Italian drama.

Is there any method in all this — any larger message we can salvage that we can pass on as a positive lesson in case the children start asking questions?

Oddly enough, there is. The unexciting part of this spectacle is that the Canadian population is becoming accustomed to — perhaps even desiring — minority government as a more or less permanent way of life. The notion is around that governments, parties and bureaucracies can be kept more responsive and transparent that way. The public's overwhelming preference for no election now is a statement of that.

Two other significant events this week add to the argument.

The Nova Scotia budget passed easily — after a minor drama of our own involving an NDP motion that might have inadvertently brought down the government, but which was withdrawn at the last minute. That means the minority Conservative government will move into its third year of existence. This has got to be some kind of a record. I don't know of any minority government in Canada that lasted that long, much less one that passed into its third year more or less peacefully.

Assuming that the next test of confidence is next spring's budget, the government will be into territory traditionally reserved for clear majorities. Keep in mind the reason for this longevity: The parties heard the anger of the public at the dysfunction of traditional party politics and the havoc it wrought.

And in B.C., a referendum on a form of proportional representation (PR) that accompanied the election got 57 per cent approval. This is under the threshold of 60 per cent set by the B.C. government, but it is considered highly significant and will advance the cause of PR in Canada.

Under PR systems, the number of sitting members for any party is more or less determined by the percentage of the vote. For all practical purposes, this is the institutionalization of minority government — since very few governments come to power these days with more than 50 per cent of the vote.

PR is gaining more and more adherents for the simple reason that the traditional first-past-the-post system is not very representative. It is the source of increasing alienation of voters from their representatives and from the apparatus of democratic life. Now that the old two-party system has become a multi-party one, no matter who wins, the majority loses. In Canada, for example, with four major parties, one could theoretically win every seat with about 26 per cent of the vote.

The argument has been made for some time that PR would blow some life into declining democracies where fewer and fewer people vote. I was skeptical of this for a long time, but apparently it does work. Most continental European countries have a version of it — and 75 to 80 per cent habitually vote, compared to 50 per cent in the U.S. at the last election and not much more here, where voting is increasingly considered futile by many.

PR is advancing everywhere, and may be tomorrow's idea. P.E.I. plans a referendum on it this fall, and New Brunswick and Quebec are examining it. In Australia and New Zealand, various state and upper-house levels have it. In the U.S., there are serious lobbies for it in a number of states and at the Senate level.

The fabled “democratic deficit” in Ottawa, the notion of one arrogant party (the Liberals) ruling eternally, is circumvented if the Liberals are also in perpetual minority, with the public saying: Make it work, damn you! The leading question is: When is there going to be a move to recognize this formally through PR voting?

Minority governments do have their downside. The circus in the Commons doesn't at first glance look like an argument for minority government, but that's in part because of the sponsorship scandal which will pass into history shortly, and because federal politics is not keeping up with more progressive jurisdictions, like — get this — Nova Scotia.