The Métropolitain

The Confidence Game

By Akil Alleyne on December 27, 2010

In mid-November, I logged on to Facebook to be treated to the following status on the profile of a friend of mine: “What’s the matter, Harper? Afraid you’ll lose the confidence of the House if you put your Afghan war plans to a vote?” My immediate response—which I promptly posted as a comment on my friend’s status—was “Probably.” Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, of course, remains parked at “minority”, theoretically vulnerable to sudden death via a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons. Given this Damoclean threat to his political survival, Harper’s evasion of Parliament did not exactly take me by surprise. Nor was I especially taken aback at reports that the Opposition Liberals had quietly acquiesced in the Tories’ artful dodging. Michael Ignatieff’s Grits have so far struggled to create the “winning conditions,” if you will, for another federal election. Those efforts might not be helped by abandoning an honourable mission that a past Liberal government initiated in the first place.

So the wily Mr. Harper looks likely to get clean away with this latest gambit. His constituents, meanwhile, are left to wonder what this portends for the state of Canadian democracy. Surely, the people’s elected representatives should play some role in determining whether their sons and daughters are to remain bogged down in this seemingly endless quagmire. Yet even on so salient an issue as this, an enfeebled legislature has again been circumvented by a dismissive executive branch. On what can we blame this Canadian tragicomedy, rather recently dubbed the “democratic deficit”? I, for one, point the finger in a most unconventional—and counterintuitive—direction. The venerable old British parliamentary tradition that governments must maintain Parliament’s confidence in order to govern has backfired horribly. Paradoxically, the very principle that ostensibly enables Parliament to hold the Prime Minister accountable has encouraged and empowered the latter to bully the former—or to bypass it altogether. 

Much ink has been spilled, and much oxygen burned, on the viselike grip of party discipline on Canadian politics. In his 2001 book The Friendly Dictatorship, political columnist Jeffrey Simpson lamented, “Canadian parliamentary parties, especially the governing ones, are like military formations: sharply hierarchical, with a top-down command structure led by the prime minister, with all rewards demanding loyalty and all penalties taxing dissent.” The historical landscape is littered with examples to back up Simpson’s thesis. Both Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien punished MPs who voted against the hated GST and sundry other controversial policies by expelling them from their parliamentary caucuses. Even Opposition leaders like Reform’s Preston Manning occasionally felt the need to suspend unruly—and sometimes bigoted—backbenchers, even if it meant violating their own principle of legislative freedom. According to the Library of Parliament, 25 MPs have been suspended from their party caucuses in the House of Commons since 1990. If this leaves you unmoved, ask an American what he or she would think of a President who exiled Congressmen and Senators from their party simply for defying his legislative will.

Why do party leaders so desire to keep their MPs “singing from the same hymnbook,” as Mulroney once put it, that they are willing to crush dissident choirboys thus? Most obviously, bosses have policy agendas to fulfill; corralling their backbenchers removes one obstacle to their success. Yet Prime Ministers can also argue that any legislative defeat risks being portrayed as a loss of Parliament’s confidence by an opportunistic Opposition. This, of course, could bring down the sitting government, triggering an election which it might very well lose. The confidence convention, then, gives Prime Ministers a perverse and pernicious incentive to manhandle Parliament or, as with the Afghan war, to sideline it. 

This paradox is a shame, not only because of its lamentable political consequences, but also thanks to its twofold farcicality. First, the idea that a government whose bill has been voted down in the legislature has necessarily lost the latter’s “confidence” is both empirically and theoretically absurd. Look at the “mother of all Parliaments,” that of Great Britain, where government bills routinely go down to defeat without knocking their sponsors out of power. In Margaret Thatcher’s first term, ten or more Conservative MPs voted against her on sixteen occasions.  In 1986, her “Sunday Trading” bill was slapped down by the House of Commons, thanks in large part to substantial Tory dissensions. “Cross voting” by Conservative backbenchers handed John Major at least nine defeats in floor votes in the Commons. Forty-seven Labour MPs voted against Tony Blair’s single-parent benefit bill, while 67 of them rebelled against his plan to cut disability benefits. 

Not one of these governments was brought down on confidence grounds; not one of the obstreperous MPs was banished from his or her party’s caucus. The British seem to understand that a vote on one bill is not necessarily a pronouncement on the executive’s overall fitness to govern. There is no reason why MPs cannot reject a particular legislative project while still allowing the government to fulfill the mandate to which it was duly elected. Surely even the most domineering prime ministers know this. They merely capitalize on the confidence tradition as a pretext for bulldozing the pesky checks and balances that obstruct the furtherance of their agendas.

This brings us to the second farcical prong of the paradox—the secret fallacy at the heart of the confidence convention. Just what on God’s green Earth does “the confidence of Parliament” mean, anyway? No freely elected legislature is a monolith; in every responsible government, Parliament is composed of at least two separate parties with opposing viewpoints on most issues. Is “confidence” supposed to mean that the governing party cannot function without the approval of every party in Parliament? I certainly hope not. The minority parties are not called “the Opposition” for nothing; if anything, it is their job to be thorns in the government’s side. How ridiculous would it be to require a government to seek a new popular mandate because it failed to obtain the opposition parties’ cooperation?

Does “confidence” then mean that the Prime Minister must maintain the support of his own party’s representatives, lest the government collapse? As reasonable as this definition sounds at first blush, it, too, is fatally flawed. Are parliamentarians skittish beasts of burden, to be kept firmly bridled lest they turn and stampede their own leaders? At any rate, as stated above, the idea that government backbenchers who reject this or that particular bill have completely deserted their leaders is nonsensical. Practically speaking—as the British have shown—a government can lose a vote in the Commons and still live to legislate another day. It is preposterous to suggest that a government that fails to get its way in Parliament every time will never get its way at all.

Furthermore, I find it downright despicable in principle to claim that a Prime Minister must be able to emasculate Parliament in order to govern. One of the main purposes of having legislatures at all is to check executive power. To vitiate that function is to do violence to the very notion of democracy itself. If Parliament truly must be relegated to such a rump role in political decision-making, we might as well abolish it altogether and allow an elected king to rule Canada by decree. At least this would be honest with the Canadian people about the manner in which they are truly governed.

Yet what—short of such a radical step—could be done to eliminate Canada’s democratic deficit? The answer might surprise you.

Five years ago, I made it to the final round of Magna International’s “The Next Great Prime Minister” competition. Before a judging panel composed of former Prime Ministers Clark, Turner, Campbell and Mulroney, I outlined the course I would chart, were I at the helm of the ship of state. Among other measures, I advocated reforming our system of government to elect the Prime Minister separately from Parliament. This way, I reasoned, the PM could govern without feeling the need to suppress intra-caucus dissent in order to maintain his hold on power. The last few individuals to wield that power were understandably cool to this proposal. Nonetheless, I stood by it, especially since it was achievable without amending Canada’s constitution, a pursuit fraught with peril. 

Though I fell short of winning the competition, the experience inspired me to delve more deeply into the subject for my university senior thesis. In the course of that research, I discovered that nothing as drastic as presidential-style direct election of the Prime Minister would be necessary. Most of the edifice of executive power in Canada is built on rather simple statutory foundations. The Canada Elections Act, for instance, requires parliamentary candidates to obtain party leaders’ signatures on nomination papers in order to be allowed to use the party’s name on campaign literature, on signage and on the ballot itself. This and other provisions give the Prime Minister too much power to decide who gets to run for seats in Parliament and should be repealed. Each MP’s party membership or candidacy should be determined by the local riding association, not by the party leader—as is the case in Britain and other Westminster parliamentary democracies, I might add.

It is not enough—indeed, it is rather naïve—to propose, as John Turner did to me, that party leaders commit to holding more free votes in the House of Commons. The bosses simply cannot be trusted to do so consistently on their own recognizance. As soon as they feel that reform will obstruct their own political success, they will crack down on their backbenchers without hesitation or remorse. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin raised high hopes when he ended the practice of vetoing candidate nominations in late 2003. Yet he reverted to prime ministerial type after the 2004 elections, when the Liberals were busted down to minority-government status. The Tories staunchly defended Parliament’s prerogatives until they won power; since 2006, Stephen Harper has cracked the whip as unapologetically as any of his predecessors. 

What Canada needs is the kind of institutional change that will give prime ministers no choice but to respect Parliament. Legislative independence should not be subject to the whims of the executive branch of government. Every vote in Parliament should be a free vote—whether party leaders like it or not. What is at stake is nothing less than the viability of Canadian democracy itself.