Andrew Coyne: A minority government looks possible in 2015, and we still don’t know the rules of the game

Andrew Coyne, National Post, Monday, Dec. 15, 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, we got ourselves a horse race. After a year and a half in which the Liberals led in the national polls by six to 10 points, the gap has narrowed appreciably in recent weeks. As of last month, an average of polls compiled by put the Grits ahead of the governing Conservatives by just three points, 35-32. The latest Ekos poll has them closer still, just a point apart: effectively, a tie.

This is not entirely surprising. The prime minister has had a good run these past few weeks, speaking at the United Nations, meeting with world leaders, signing trade deals, sending troops into battle. To the advantages of incumbency, add a terrorist attack or two, of a kind that historically has tended to produce a “rally round the flag” effect. Round it off with some encouraging economic numbers and a hefty package of family tax benefits, and the only surprise would be if the Conservatives did not show some gains.

There’s still a long way to go until the election, of course, and a lot can happen before then — never mind the radical swings in sentiment that can happen in the course of a six-week campaign. Justin Trudeau is a particular wild card, both his party’s biggest strength and its biggest potential liability, depending on how he performs under the closer scrutiny the campaign will bring.

But while we should beware of making any predictions, 10 months before the event (at least, if you believe the government will follow its own election law), we should also be preparing. Because on present form what we are looking at is a return to minority government, whatever its stripe.

The era of Conservative dominance that seemed to beckon on election night in 2011 looks far less likely today, done in not by bad luck or unavoidable controversy, but by their own determined efforts to alienate people. At this point a Conservative minority seems the only sort of victory they can hope for, though perhaps not enough of one to save Stephen Harper’s leadership.

I say perhaps because a return to minority government would bring with it all of the uncertainties and unresolved issues that entangled the last — political, of course, but also constitutional. This is why we need to be ready. Because on the evidence of those seven tumultuous years, we are notably lacking in consensus in this country on even the most basic rules of the game. We flirted with an all-out constitutional crisis on more than one occasion then. The next time we might not be so lucky.

Suppose, for starters, the Conservatives win a plurality of the seats in the election, and suppose, as seems likely, they are defeated in the Commons shortly thereafter on a matter of confidence: the Throne Speech, for example. What then? Would the prime minister go to the governor general and demand that he dissolve the House, triggering another election so soon after the last?

Would the governor general be obliged to do as he was told, or could he call upon some other party, perhaps even a coalition, to try to form a government? Mr. Harper has been adept at presenting this as dirty pool, an attempt by “the losers” to steal the election. Traditionalists like me insist that’s precisely how our system is supposed to work. We do not elect governments in this country: we elect Parliaments. The prime minister is whoever commands the confidence of the House, full stop.

The prime minister is whoever commands the confidence of the House, full stop

That, at any rate, is the convention. But it’s only a convention that we follow conventions, a convention that has itself been all but destroyed by the consistent disregard with which successive governments have treated every other of the conventions by which we are supposedly governed. I include in this even the confidence convention: ignored by Paul Martin in the mad May of 2005, subverted by Mr. Harper in the prorogation crisis of 2008.

The point is we cannot say with any certainty what would happen. The consensus that might once have persuaded all parties to adhere to a common set of rules no longer exists. Even the experts at a conference devoted to that very subject at the University of Toronto in 2011 could not agree, some maintaining that a new convention had since arisen requiring the interposition of an election before any new government could be formed.

And that’s just the start. Many people think the party with the most seats is automatically called upon to form a government, but that’s not actually the case (again, if convention means anything): the sitting PM is given first crack at it. Similar doubts and divisions surround other issues, many of which were raised in the last Parliament. Should the prime minister have the unilateral power to decide what is or is not a confidence vote, depending on whether he wishes to threaten the House or defy it? Having lost a confidence vote, should his advice still be binding on the governor general? What if he has not yet lost it, but is plainly about to? Should even the governor general enjoy this sort of discretion, or should he, too, be guided by an explicit rule?

We avoided a disaster in 2008, in part, because the alternative to the governing Tories, the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition, was so obviously incapable of governing. Headed by a party that had just been massively rejected by the voters, under a leader who was fresh from resigning his post, the whole propped up by a party devoted to the country’s destruction, the coalition began to fall apart almost from the moment it was formed.

But there will be other coalitions, with better credentials. If the prime minister is as determined to cling to power then, the consequences could be much grimmer. We need to start thinking about this now.