Elections Do Not Equal Governments

My brother made a great point in a recent letter to the Georgia Straight. Though we may vote on the basis of party leader, we don’t actually vote for a premier or a prime minister. On election night, we vote for a local representative who will ostensibly represent our riding’s interests in parliament or the legislature. In an important sense, election night is really about 308 simultaneous elections federally, and 85 provincially. When those different elections are tallied, the party leader with the most support from the elected members takes the seat as the head of government. That is the essence of parliamentary democracy. In other words, there is a fusion of the executive and the legislative, insofar as control of the legislative branch (usually the lower house) gives you power over the bureaucracy. If you want to vote for your head of government directly, you’ll have to move to the United States.

Unfortunately, “legions of politically illiterate British Columbians” (and Canadians in general) were incensed when, in 2008, the Liberals and NDP proposed a coalition to take over from Harper’s minority Conservative government. Anti-coalition types, mostly Conservative, argued that they didn’t vote for Stephane Dion, the leader of the Liberals. (They also said relying on the BQ was treasonous, forgetting that the Conservatives under Harper had proposed such an arm’s length alliance with the BQ in 2004.) The argument against Dion, however, showed that many Canadians were under the mistaken belief that, since they didn’t vote for Dion, he couldn’t become PM. Actually… nobody voted for Dion, except for a majority of voters in the riding of Saint-Laurent/Cartierville. Moreover, not a single person voted for him (or Harper) qua prime minister.

So of course Dion could have become PM. It’s not up to voters, whether we like it or not. In our indirect democracy, it’s up to the members of parliament, whose support is required for a government to stand. That’s why our parliamentary system is a “system of confidence“. Even in Canada, in the early 1920’s, the Liberal Mackenzie King was our prime minister even though the Conservatives had more seats. King had the support – the confidence – of the Progressives, and that’s all that mattered.

Another distinction that helps clarify the situation is to understand the difference between government and election. The two are not necessarily symmetrical in a parliamentary system. This is the logical outcome of a confidence system. You can have more governments than elections, because you might have different coalitions – based on the results of one election – as confidence shifts and changes. Here’s a case in point: since World War Two, Canada has had more elections than Israel or Italy, though many fewer governments. Canada has had 20 elections (starting in 1949), Israel has had 18, and Italy has had 17. The difference is our electoral system. We use the first-past-the-post election system, which tends to create artificial majorities (or limited coalition options) and therefore more stable levels of confidence. Israel and Italy use various types of proportional elections, which tend to elect more and smaller parties, and therefore less stable government coalitions. But the system of confidence remains in all three parliaments, because that’s what we mean by parliamentary democracy. If Canada isn’t used to a lot of coalitions, it’s because of our election system. But that does not affect the reality that confidence from the sitting members remains central to who becomes prime minister.

Posted by Colin Welch at 8:06 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 5:54 PM
Categories: BC Politics, Canadian Politics, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid


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