The terror of the minority

By John Leung

The Speech from the Throne last week in the House of Commons is the traditional start of a new parliamentary session. For governments coming off election victories, the speech is their way of outlining what they will set out to accomplish in the first session of their newly-minted mandate. Usually, when Parliament votes on the speech, it is easily adopted by a majority government, with the opposition having little say. However, for the first time in 25 years, the speech was drawn up for Her Excellency by a minority government, and today, the passage of the Throne Speech is no longer a sure thing for the government. But while the opposition parties are enjoying and employing to the fullest the clout that they have not experienced in a quarter century, they too cannot afford to be callous. However, there is room for great things to come for Canada during these times, and history has set a precedent for this fact.

Canada has been governed by minority Parliaments six times in its history; and some of the most significant events in Canadian political history have occurred during those times, and some of the nation’s greatest prime ministers have been forced to govern with minorities. For example, the now infamous King-Byng affair of 1926 was the result of a hung parliament, where the Mackenzie King Liberals won fewer seats than the Meighen Conservatives, yet was able to form a government with the Progressives, triggering a constitutional row with the Governor General. Other less dubious minority governments, such as Lester B. Pearson’s successive minorities between 1963 and 1968 and John Diefenbaker’s first minority government in 1958 achieved much in their short lifetimes. The two Pearson minority governments gave Canada the Auto Pact, a new flag, universal medicare and more, while Diefenbaker in his first minority government increased old-age pensions and cut taxes. And all of these were carried out without a parliamentary majority.

But conversely, the re-powered Opposition must remember something: even though their numbers are greater than the government’s, they are not in power. While it would be wise for a government to seek counsel with the Opposition on its legislation in order to secure its passage through the House of Commons, it would be unwise for the Opposition to try to hold the government ransom with this power, for it does tend to reflect poorly on them in the media. Opposition parties in minority situations have been elected to check–not continually vehemently oppose and hinder–government legislation and policy. A strong deterrent for opposition parties may be the cost of another campaign so soon after the previous one. The cost associated with election campaigns have become staggering, running into millions of dollars. It takes time for a party to re-build its “war chest”, and opposition parties should be leery to dive into it before it is somewhat full.

But regardless of what the outcome may be in these next few months, the threat of a “friendly dictatorship” that Jeffrey Simpson wrote in 2000 has now subsided. There is simply no way that Paul Martin can be the friendly dictator that some of his predecessors tried to be: In 1968, Pearson was on vacation in Jamaica when his government was defeated in a budget motion but was saved on a separate non-confidence motion, and in 1979 Joe Clark tried to govern like he had a majority, and within a year his government was defeated on a budget, and then lost the subsequent election. Perhaps now, some of the answers that Canada has been looking for from the sponsorship scandal that led to this minority parliament can finally emerge. The seeds that have been planted for political upheaval in Canada are now beginning to sprout, and if historical precedent is any indicator, the flowers will bloom beautifully this parliamentary session.

Leave a comment