That sound you hear emanating from Ottawa — a dull rumble of umbrage and purported principles — is the sound of your democracy at work.
Maybe it’s not the sound of your democracy working beautifully — NDP leader Jagmeet Singh used the word “farce” — but your democracy is still basically working.
Minority parliaments such as the one we have now — where no one party has a majority of seats in the House of Commons — always seem very good in theory. In a minority situation (in theory), the government of the day can’t run roughshod over the opposition, parties have to work together to find compromises and Parliament is in a much stronger position to hold the government to account. The end result is (hopefully) a better form of governance and democracy.
And sometimes a minority Parliament can live up to that promise. But it can also be a series of conflicts — a House of Commons held together less by the necessity and righteousness of compromise and more by loud threats of an election.
“The Liberals are threatening an election in the middle of a pandemic to avoid any further scrutiny,” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said this morning.
“The opposition is going to have to decide whether they want to make this minority Parliament work, or whether they have lost confidence in the government,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a couple hours later at his own news conference.
The current dispute goes back to the summer and the opposition’s desire to pursue the WE affair.
When Parliament resumed in September, the opposition parties attempted to revive their demands for disclosure. The Liberals balked. With two committees tied up by Liberal filibusters, the Conservatives moved the fight to the House with a request that MPs create a special “anti-corruption committee” that would be empowered to pursue the government on several fronts. The Liberals renewed their objections — and countered with a proposal for a special committee to study all of the government’s pandemic-related spending.
There are at least three points of dispute here.
The Trudeau government argues that the opposition parties have gone too far in demanding that the Speaker’s Spotlight, a private agency, turn over information about public engagements for which the prime minister’s mother and brother have been paid over the past 12 years. The NDP offered to drop that demand but it remains part of the Conservatives’ proposal.
The opposition parties say government officials went too far in redacting information from the documents that were provided to the finance committee. The Liberals would like the committee to hear from the officials who did the redaction before MPs on the committee decide whether their parliamentary privilege has been breached. The Conservatives argue the officials can be heard from later.
But the most hotly contested aspect of this is the meaning of what the Conservatives are proposing.
The Liberals seem to believe that the implication of the Conservative motion is that the government is corrupt. They insist that passing the motion would be an expression of non-confidence by the House that must trigger an election.
A non-confidence game
The Conservatives responded by amending their motion to rename the committee: instead of calling for an “anti-corruption committee,” they now propose to create a “special committee on allegations of misuse of public funds by the government.” The Conservatives also added a clause to their motion to insist that “the establishment of the committee shall not, in the opinion of the House, constitute legitimate grounds for calling a general election.”
That proviso has no statutory power. It would not stop the government from declaring the vote a matter of confidence, or prevent the prime minister from asking the governor general to call a new election (and, a year after the last election, the governor general would be expected to grant such a request). But the point is moot: the Liberals were not persuaded that the amendments changed the implication.
The more cynical view would be that the Liberals have something to hide and are going to great lengths to conceal it. The slightly less cynical view would be that the Liberals would rather not face an open-ended inquiry into whatever can be alleged about them — the sort of thing that would, regardless of anyone’s innocence or guilt, produce any number of news reports about the mere possibility of corruption.
Canadian democracy depends, in part, on the opposition holding the government to account — and the will of Parliament is ultimately paramount. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the government has to happily agree to whatever the opposition proposes. The Conservatives are pursuing the government with a certain zeal and the Liberals are pushing back with the leverage available to them.
Which way will the NDP jump?
The NDP could step into the breach — they might not want to go to an election right now and they might also see a chance to split the difference between the Conservative and Liberal proposals, allowing them to walk away looking both reasonable and relevant.
All of this might be regarded as the normal push-and-pull of a minority Parliament. At worst, it might be further evidence that Canada’s major political parties are fundamentally incapable of working together except in the most pitched and acrimonious of circumstances.
But you also don’t need to look very far right now to realize that a functioning democracy is a rather precious thing — and that the long-term threats posed by dysfunction and cynicism are not purely hypothetical. That is something that might lurk in the minds of participants and observers alike.
The most likely scenario remains a compromise that avoids an election. If that happens, of course, another flashpoint will emerge in the Commons a week or a month from now, another occasion for more manoeuvring. The example of our last era of minority Parliament (2004 to 2011) suggests that there will be (at least) another half-dozen opportunities to worry about the possibility of an election before the next election actually occurs.
A certain amount of brinkmanship is inevitable — even healthy. As long as everyone understands that this is not just fun and games.