Politics and Procedure in a Minority Parliament

By Strahl, Chuck | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Politics and Procedure in a Minority Parliament

Strahl, Chuck, Canadian Parliamentary Review

The minority government elected on June 28, 2004 will force everyone to rethink how the parliamentary system works. This article looks at some new realities facing legislators, standing committees, parliamentary and governmental officials, lobbyists and everyone who deals with Parliament.


We have to start by remembering that old adage: you have to deal with things the way they are, not the way you wish they were. This is especially true in a minority Parliament, with all its intrigue and tension, political posturing and real drama. Historically, the country has muddled through its share of minority governments, but none in recent times. Thus our elected officials have only theoretical knowledge and zero practical experience about how to handle this situation. So the potential for misunderstandings, improper reactions and even out-and-out political blunders in our nation's capital is considerable.

Even so, it now appears that all of the official parties represented in the House of Commons have concluded that the electorate actually meant it when they gave 'none of the above' a decisive mandate for the 38th Parliament. Making it work--at least for awhile--is now everyone's stated intention, and that may well break new ground for our democratic system in this first part of the 21st century. It will certainly not be business as usual.

Five realities of minority Parliament

First, the last election never really ended, and the next one has already begun. This has always been the case for a few political operatives in Ottawa but now it is truly the prism through which everything should be viewed. MPs and political parties have one eye on the business of the government and the other on the business of campaigning. Since the next election can happen at any time (either by connivance or by accident), votes, policy decisions, press releases, statements, motions and Bills will frequently have both a policy and a partisan raison d'etre.

Secondly, all MPs want to be part of the next government, but they do not want to be blamed for forcing an election. This is the political equivalent of "everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die". Political parties and MPs will be pushing for their ideas and policies harder than usual, but they will always be thinking about the electorate's reaction to their decisions. Push too hard and there could be an election, and if that happens, the writ could be nailed to your political coffin.

Third, backroom deals and tradeoffs will be standard fare on this minority diet. This is a consequence of the second reality, and added to that (for the same reason), any decisions that can be made at the executive level will be made there--privately--rather than in the messier and more public route of Parliament. That is why we have already seen executive deals on Health care funding and equalization payments. Addressing the democratic deficit may have been an interesting political discussion during the last campaign, but the reality is that executive decisions are less likely to be derailed than Parliamentary debates and votes. That is why the opposition parties united to try to force a vote on the Missile Defence system--they know that the Executive can sign international agreements and Accords without Parliamentary input, but they are trying to keep themselves 'in the game' by forcing some decision making into the House.

Fourth, Private Members' Business, Motions, and Supply Days (when the Opposition Parties supply a resolution for debate and vote) actually matter, because they are not easily stopped by the government. In fact, Private Members' Bills and Motions can be even easier to get through the House than government orders, because much less time is required to debate those items before the vote is called and the decision taken. This is especially true on issues involving process, or non-money bills. The Opposition loves them because they generally transfer power to the House, and away from the Executive branch.

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