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One-and-a-half cheers are all that minority government deserves -- other accountability measures are key to good government in Canada

Set out below is a book review of Peter Russell's book Two Cheers for Minority Government by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in edited form in the September 2008 issue of the Literary Review of Canada

University of Moncton political science Professor Donald J. Savoie is quoted on the back of University of Toronto Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) Peter Russell’s timely, well-written, and very digestible (both short and concise) book Two Cheers for Minority Government as saying that the book “paints a picture of how parliamentary democracy can work better, and also serves as a warning to those with easy solutions to complex problems.”

Professor Savoie has also just released a book I have not yet read, entitled Court Government and Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom which has been reviewed and covered by the media in articles with  headlines like (in the May 5, 2008 Ottawa Citizen) “Time to Stop Prime Ministers From Ruling Like Kings, Expert Says”.

I mention this because one of the central claims of Prof. Russell’s book is that minority government is the best solution to the problem of over-centralized “prime-ministerial government” and (as he calls them) “false-majority governments” (in which the ruling party wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons with the support of a minority voters).

Overall, I think both the good professors are exaggerating, as there is evidence in Prof. Russell’s book adequate only to hoist one-and-a-half cheers for minority government, and of course there is clear evidence that the power of Canada’s and the U.K.’s prime ministers is checked in far more effective ways than any king (at least, any king who still rules more than symbolically).

Their claims make for great newspaper headlines and book titles, but like many (if not most) newspaper headlines and book titles, they are inaccurate.

In addition, Prof. Russell’s book (and, from what I have read, also Prof. Savoie’s book) fail to consider several solutions to excessive prime ministerial/false majority power, many of which are well-known, have been proposed by political party leaders or implemented by one of more governments in Canada, can be easily implemented (unlike the constitutional reform Savoie advocates), and don’t have the downsides of some types of minority government.

As well, Prof. Russell fails to consider the downsides of some types of voting systems that would produce minority governments that would very likely cause more problems than they solve.

Prof. Russell also includes a very highly questionable claim in his book, namely that for political scientists a democratic regime is one “in which government offices are filled as a consequence of contested elections”.  Really?  I hope not, as any political “scientist” should be taking into account much more than just whether an election is contested before they describe any regime as democratic.

And I suggest that any political scientist who doesn’t take into account many, many other factors check out www.globalintegrity.org where they will see analyses of more than 70 countries based on more than 300 indicators of democratic and good governance.

Dismiss it as a pet peeve if you like, but I think this kind of lack of evidence, logic and full consideration of possible solutions (and the over-abundance of dishonesty, hype and narrow thinking) in discussions and writing about so many political and societal issues in Canada is demonstrably a fundamental problem both inside and outside government. 

As someone who has closely monitored 10 government accountability and corporate accountability issues across Canada for the past 20 years, and who regularly communicates with 10 people each of whom closely follow another societal issue or two, I could give you dozens of examples of dishonesty, hype and narrow-thinking from the past year alone, and hundreds more if you had the time. 

I don’t have the evidence that this problem has always existed in Canada, so I won’t claim that it has, and it is for this same reason of lack of evidence that I find it hard to swallow Prof. Russell’s and Prof. Savoie’s claims of a kind of “golden age” of limited prime ministerial and government power that existed 30 or so years ago (and for the decades before that), or has existed in various minority governments.  I also have difficulty with the lack of evidence for their claims that prime ministerial powers are not as limited now.

From what I have read, C.D. Howe was the “Minister of Everything” during his tenure 50 years ago (ok, so he was a Cabinet minister not prime minister, but does that make his power acceptable?).  And while effective checks still don’t exist in many cases on the Prime Minister’s power to appoint Cabinet ministers, and all ministers’ powers to appoint people to courts, agencies, boards, commissions and tribunals, they were even weaker in the past.

In addition, there was also, among other things, no Charter of Rights and Freedoms (and not even a bill of rights law before 1960), no Access to Information Act, no Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, no Conflict of Interest Act and no Lobbying Act (and, of course, no agencies enforcing these acts (not that all the agencies have yet the independence and powers they need)), as well as no donation limits or disclosure or campaign spending limits under the Canada Elections Act, no impartial setting of riding boundaries under the same Act, and no disclosure of Cabinet spending on travel and hospitality. 

Is this not irrefutable evidence that prime ministerial and “false majority” government power was much greater in the past than now?  And that far from government/prime minister accountability collapsing (as Prof. Savoie claims), it is actually stronger than in the past?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, their staff, MPs, senators, provincial and territorial premiers and legislature members, Cabinet appointees, city councillors, government employees across Canada, and even government watchdog agencies, currently face enough effective accountability measures.  In fact, Democracy Watch has identified 90-100 (depending on the government) loopholes in their accountability rules or enforcement systems that effectively allow all of these people to act dishonestly, unethically, secretively, unrepresentatively and wastefully in many situations  (To see the list of loopholes, click here).

But again, the accountability system now in the federal government, for example, is demonstrably much better now than it was even 10 years ago (and much, much, much better than it was 35 years ago or any time before in Canadian history).  And the Prime Minister’s power is checked by this system demonstrably more than it has ever been.

And I think there is a very strong argument for trying closing the 90-100 loopholes before, as Prof. Russell proposes, we use voting system reform to ensure minority governments as the check on the Prime Minister’s (and premiers’) power.

I will come back to some of the key loophole-closing changes that could be tried, but let me first give Prof. Russell’s book all that it’s due.

The book is essentially half history of minority government (including Canada and other jurisdictions, as well as a comparison of presidential democracy vs. parliamentary democracy), and half analysis and argument for minority government vs. “false majority” government and as a check on prime ministerial government.

The key points of the history are that the federal Conservative government elected in January 2006 and led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the twelfth minority federal government in Canada, with five of the 12 ending because of a vote of non-confidence by opposition parties (don’t be confused by the small typographical error at the top of p.45, which makes it seems like seven ended this way (and ignore the other couple of typos in the book, such as the reference on p.58 to John “Manly” as opposed to “Manley” (which is good fodder for a “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” or “Mercer Report” sketch)).

Since 1921, the federal political scene has had more than two viable parties and, not surprisingly, the 1921 federal election produced the first minority government.  Only one of the 12 minority governments had the ruling party change without an election, through the King-Byng affair.

In the 26 elections since the 1921 election, 12 “false majority”  and two “true majority” governments  have also been elected.

Meanwhile, in western Europe and Commonwealth countries that are parliamentary democracies (which make up almost all of the 50 parliamentary democracies in the world), 13 percent of the governments between 1945 and 1987 were single-party majority governments, while 87 percent were coalition majority governments or minority governments (lasting usually about three years).

One historical tidbit thrown in the mix is that Paul Martin was the first new leader of an incumbent government to go from majority to minority.

From this history, the four general conclusions Prof. Russell reaches are that:
  • Canada with 30 percent minority federal governments is far above the average compared to the other parliamentary democracies;
  • Canada’s sole coalition majority federal government is far below the average (mainly because under Canada’s voting system single-issue small parties don’t win seats, and so ruling parties in minority governments don't need to form coalitions with them to govern);
  • Canada’s minority federal governments have been short-lived compared to other governments (averaging about two years instead of three), and;
  • minority governments can make tough decisions and be effective.
While Prof. Russell qualifies this last conclusion when talking about other countries, pointing out that it is hard to generalize, he doesn’t hesitate to claim that nine of Canada’s 12 minority federal governments have been “effective” (as have been all provincial minority governments, he claims)

What he means by “effective” is not made clear, and a political “scientist” should be clear when using such loaded words.  And beyond the definition, the book should have included at least a summary list of the bills passed and programs and initiatives undertaken by minority vs. majority governments in Canada, which would have let readers decide whether they they agree that either majority or minority governments have been “effective”.
From the brief description provided of each minority government, I concluded (before reading Prof. Russell’s conclusion) that only the 1957, 1963 and 1965 (combined track record), 1972 and the current minority federal government have been effective (and maybe also the 2004 minority federal government).  In other words, I concluded that 50 percent of Canada’s federal minority governments have been effective, not 75 percent.

The flipside conclusions Prof. Russell reaches are that false majority governments can be dictatorial and that in such governments the legislature “as a meaningful forum for the discussion of public affairs virtually disappears” and that therefore make bad decisions.  However, again no description is given as to what constitutes a bad decision, nor is any evidence presented that any type of government is more prone to making bad decisions.

As a result, when addressing Parliament’s ability to check the Prime Minister’s power, Prof. Russell similarly jumps to the conclusion that minority government is the most effective check (and voting reform the best way to get it).

This leads him to note that the federal government and a few provincial governments have passed a law fixing the dates of elections, which both somewhat checks the Prime Minister’s power to control election dates and also has a stabilizing effect on minority governments.  And he fully explores the implications of the Prime Minister going to the Governor General to request that Parliament be dissolved and an election called even if a non-confidence vote has not occurred, and comes to the conclusion (which I and many others agree with) that the Governor General should refuse to call an election before exploring with the opposition party leader forming a government by coalition or agreement with other opposition parties.

I note this not only because it is an pertinent development, but also because I think we will see Prime Minister Harper go to the Governor General before any non-confidence vote in his Conservative government occurs, and before the fixed election date in October 2009 passes.  It will be more than interesting to see what the Governor General will do.  (To see details about Democracy Watch's court challenge of Prime Minister Harper's election call in September 2008, click here)

However, unfortunately Prof. Russell fails to fully, and fairly, canvass other means of checking the power of the Prime Minister and ruling parties (whether they form a “true majority” or “false majority” or “minority” government).

For example, Prof. Russell claims that the House of Commons is not much of a check on the Prime Minister (or any Cabinet minister) when the ruling party holds a majority of seats (again without giving any evidence).  To give one example of many that counters this claim, the 60 or so Liberal MPs who established their own committee, held their own hearings, and issued their own report on bank accountability and bank mergers in 1998 definitely had an effect on the decisions of then-Finance Minister Paul Martin (in part because he knew he would never become leader of the party, let alone prime minister, without their support).

Beyond the over-reaching claim about the lack of power of MPs, Prof. Russell fails to address empowering members of the House of Commons (MPs) as a solution.

One key power MPs are lacking is the power to be nominated as a candidate in the next election through a democratic process.  Throughout the history of Canada, prime ministers have over-ridden riding association nomination processes, so all MPs live in fear of losing their jobs.  This alone very effectively often keeps them toeing their party leader’s line. Current Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to introduce a bill prohibiting all party leaders from interfering in local nomination races, but has broken his promise.

And while Prof. Russell points out that Prime Minister Paul Martin allowed MPs to choose the chairs of parliamentary committees, the fact that Prime Minister Harper has withdrawn this right leads to Prof. Russell not fully exploring this other key way to empower MPs.  Indeed, a law should be passed giving MPs this power and the power to choose who sits on committees, as they are Parliament’s committees, not the government’s.

Prof. Russell also addresses the issue of confidence votes, but again I think fails to consider fully the beneficial effect of passing a law with a very restricted definition of such votes, which would ensure that MPs were much more free to vote according to their conscience or the will of their constituents (after a hopefully meaningful consultation with those constituents).

Of course, MPs also need to be disempowered in a key way, especially during minority government times, namely take away their right to change parties in between elections only to satisfy career ambitions (they should be allowed to make this change if they have a valid reason such as their party leaders breaking a key election promise, or their party shifting policy in a fundamental way, or their party leaders being found guilty of serious legal violations and refusing to resign, or if they themselves agree to resign and run in a by-election).

Prof. Russell does address reform of Canada’s Senate fully, but then again dismisses the possibility of it happening (even the small, easy change he advocates of the Prime Minister committing to agree to be advised on Senate appointments by a commission).  Overall, I think the strongest case in the book for changes Canada should make at the federal government level is set out in this part, and it is to follow Australia’s example in both voting system reform (the system used in Australia usually produces majority governments in its “House of Commons”) and Senate reform (elected in Australia through a voting system that usually gives no party a majority of Senate seats).

However, there are many other key changes Prof. Russell doesn’t mention that would also check the power of prime ministerial government very effectively without having to change the voting system, nor try to achieve clearly difficult reforms to the Senate.

For example, establishing the Public Appointments Commission promised by the current Conservative government.  Measures concerning the structure and operation of the Commission are set out in the so-called “Federal Accountability Act (FAA), but the FAA says Cabinet “may” establish the Commission, not “shall” and so far the Conservatives have failed to set up the Commission.

Passing a “meaningful public consultation” law requiring Cabinet to consult in a meaningful way with the public, and make the results public, before making any significant decision would also be an effective check.  Prof. Russell mentions such “deliberative democracy” in theory but fails to consider how it could be brought into practice, even though we have a model already in environmental assessments laws across Canada, which require merit-based hearings with funding for intervenors before decisions that will have a significant impact on the environment are made (although these laws do have some loopholes which need to be closed that allow Cabinet to override this requirement).

A comprehensive “honesty-in-politics” law with an easy, low-cost complaint process and high fines for misleaders would check the Prime Minister’s power to spin policy (note, the FAA actually cut the one ethics rule that required the PM, Cabinet ministers, their staff and senior government officials to be honest).

If the Conservatives had kept their promises, the federal Access to Information Act, which is currently actually a “How to Keep Information Secret Act,” would much more effectively require open government, checking the Prime Minister’s power to hide reports that contain evidence that goes against whatever agenda the ruling party has.

Other key open government measures that would check the PM and Cabinet’s powers are the Conservatives’ promise to require ministers and senior officials to disclose their contacts with lobbyists (by breaking this promise, the Conservatives have allowed secret lobbying (especially by corporate lobbyists) to continue)), and strengthening the new whistleblower protection system in the ways the Conservatives promised to ensure full protection to anyone who blows the whistle on government wrongdoing (not even all public servants are adequately protected from retaliation by the new system).

Also, if the Conservatives had kept their promise to remove the loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Act that let the PM and other senior politicians and government officials above make decisions in which they or their relatives or friends have a financial interest, then their power to make decisions that help them and their families and friends would be checked.

If this was a book as opposed to a book review, I could set out scientifically the evidence for and against these reforms, as well as explore in detail many other loopholes that could easily be closed with simple changes to laws, changes that would also add checks on the power of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (and, if they were made in each province and territory, would similarly check the power of premiers and territorial leaders).

However, space does not allow me to do so, and so I have to request that you, as reader, open your mind to these proposals, as opposed to dismissing them simply because they are presented briefly and you can think of some possible downsides.

Finally, his is not, as Prof. Russell notes, a book on voting system reform, but such reform is offered by him as the ultimate creator (and stabilizer) of minority government.  However, I think I am correct in projecting that, in the recent past, if one type of voting system had been in place for federal elections, Liberals would have received a huge majority of the seats in a few elections in a row (as polls showed that the Liberals were the second choice of all voters).  Of course, we can never know how voters would have voted if such a system had been in place, but I mention this because I think that Canadian vote-system reformers are not fully considering, or presenting, possible unintended consequences even in book-length treatments of the subject.

And while Prof. Russell mentions that minority governments that involve coalitions of parties (which are the most common form in other countries) have the undemocratic negative of allowing parties (in reality, party leaders) decide who governs (instead of voters), he doesn’t even begin to explore other negative implications of such coalitions.

Again, a “scientific” examination of minority government world-wide should, I think, include a summary of what types of compromises have been made by larger parties with their small-party coalition partners.  Have these compromises, which small parties can essentially force under some voting and parliamentary systems, usually been in the public interest (defined how?), or have these compromises usually been in the singular interest of the small party?

And have these compromises gone further in the direction of the public interest (again, defined how?) than the compromises many “false majority” Canadian governments have made because of opposition party, interest group (including through lawsuits), media and public pressure? 

After all, as the helpful chart at the beginning of Prof. Russell’s book makes very clear, the ruling parties in the 12 “false majority” federal governments in Canada since 1921 (the year viable third and fourth parties appeared on the scene) won on average only 14.75 percent more seats than they won percentage of the popular vote, and if they dropped in popularity by on average only six percent of the popular vote during their time in power, the next election would turn them into a minority government. 

So it is a complete overstatement to claim, as Prof. Russell and other supporters of voting system reform do, that these governments have been all-powerful and completely unfettered.

Nor would some types of voting system reform lead to a lower percentage of what vote reformers like to call “wasted votes”.  If, for example, Canada set out a minimum percentage of votes needed to win a seat in the House of Commons (say five percent), three small parties could each win 4.5 percent of the vote, none would get seats, and 13.5 percent of votes would be “wasted”.

So overall, given that even with our current first-past-the post voting system just under half of Canada’s federal governments have been minority governments in the past 75 years, and given that we haven’t tried any of the 90-100 accountability measures that will check the powers of all types of governments, and given that the case is still to be proven that minority governments are “better” and more “effective” and more “democratic” than “false majority” or “true majority” governments, how about we try these other ways of checking the PM’s power first before we take a chance on voting system reforms that will guarantee minority governments (or that will guarantee majority governments).

And in the meantime, how about we give minority governments one-and-a-half cheers (ie. just 50 percent approval), not Prof. Russell's false majority of two cheers.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Clean Up the System page