Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Undemocratic?" Oh, that's just precious.

From the Canadian Press:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has guaranteed the survival of his minority Conservative government for at least another week and is imploring Canadians to reject what he says is an undemocratic and illegitimate coalition.

"The opposition has been working on a backroom deal to overturn the results of the last election without seeking the consent of voters,'' Harper said late Friday in the foyer of the House of Commons. "They want to take power, not earn it.'
Do you people really have to get an immigrant to explain to you how your system works? All right, fine, then.

You might have noticed at some point that when you go to the polls and draw your X, you're not actually getting to place that X next to the name of a party leader. This is because you're not actually voting for a party leader.

No, seriously, you're not. Your power is limited to voting for your MP. Really and truly.

Among other things, this means that Stephen Harper, in and of himself, did NOT win the 40th general election. Oh, he did win an election in Calgary-Southwest, fair and square, but last I checked, the voters of Calgary-Southwest hadn't been gifted with seekrit powers to choose the prime minister.

Now, it is the case that his party didn't just win the election in Calgary-Southwest, but a bunch of other elections, too. In fact, they won more elections than each of the other parties did. But calling that, in and of itself, "winning the election" is...not accurate. A strange and unique Canadian custom, yes. One that would completely flummox most residents of most of the world's parliamentary democracies, absolutely. But accurate? No.

Why? Let's look at the numbers. In the last election, Stephen Harper's party had the support of precisely 37.65% of Canadians. Now, our voting system turned that number into 46.4% through a kind of Seekrit Voodoo Magic known as First-Past-The-Post, but even our Seekrit Voodoo Magic isn't powerful enough to turn a 37.65 into a 50. And if it's not a 50, you can't say you won the election. Nobody can.

So how do we pick the government when our voting system doesn't produce an outright winner? Well, we don't, actually. The group of people who won the smaller elections get to do that. That's what that there phrase "parliamentary democracy" means. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

If you live in Canada, you tend to solve this dilemma by collective delusion. Together, all of the politicians, all of the media, and all of the voters, decide to say: "What, 46.4% isn't 50%? Details! U R Da Winnar, Mistar Harpar!!! Here, have the whole country to do with as you please!!!"

But if you live in a sane country, like...well, pretty much any other parliamentary democracy in the democratic world, you say: "Ooh, goody for Mr. Harper! His party's got more seats than everybody else, and he's that party's leader! He's won the right to pick the additional set of MPs that gets to help form government with his MPs!" And if for some reason he can't or won't do that, they look for a different set of 50% or more who can, and will.

You might notice that our Mr. Harper skipped this step. Funny, I noticed that, too. It's a pretty powerful collective delusion, what can I say.

But powerful as it is, it is still a delusion. And if a larger portion of those people we elected can get together and say: "Um, pardon us, but the emperor has no clothes you've only got 46.4%," then the delusion kind of collapses. And if they can also add: "And we have 37%, and together with that other group of MPs who are willing to support us, we actually add up to 52.9%", well...then the election finally has a real winner.

Because '52.9' is not just a bigger number than '46.4'--it's also more than 50. And if you can get to more than 50? Well, that's how you actually win an election in this system of ours, without a collective delusion to help you along. (And for that matter, if you take our Seekrit Voodoo Magic out of the picture and look at the real numbers, you get 54.42%. Which is also more than 50%, and certainly more than 37.65%. A lot more.)

Now, you can call this crazy. You can call it silly, or ridiculous, or even unfair. Some of those things I might even agree with, on a bad day. But if you call it undemocratic, you are saying that 52.9 is not, in fact, a bigger number than 46.4. And that will make those of us who really understand how parliamentary democracies work--or for that matter, how numbers work--point at you and laugh.


Unknown said...

So, eleven more seats and you'd be fine then?

Interesting take -- you're probably a Canadian equivalent to a Ron Paul supporter in the US.

Honestly, do you believe the logic you've used in this foolish post?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I was going to invite you to present evidence that what I've said in this post is incorrect, but who am I kidding--you won't find it. This is, in fact, how parliamentary democracies work, around the world. Canada is and has always been alone in its collective delusion that 37% is equivalent to "winning an election".

Tyrone said...

Eleven more seats and, yes, the Conservatives would have a majority and could not possibly lose a no-confidence vote.

That is how the Canadian Parliament has worked for 141 years (and the British for long before that). Why is that so hard to believe?

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Not sure what Richard doesn't understand about this: it's basic Canadian politics 101. Best description I've yet read.

Oh, and I suspect Harper understands this. He's playing to those who don't.

Unknown said...

Excellent summary — thanks for posting.

Harper ruling without the backing of a majority of Parliament is the “undemocratic” thing here. Canadians did not elect the Conservatives to form the government. They certainly don’t represent the interests or values of the majority of Canadians.

If the other parties form a coalition consisting of a majority of MPs, they will be the government we elected. I hope they fulfil that responsibility they volunteered for when they ran for office.

Candace said...

The problem I have with your argument is the Bloc being required to get that majority in place. And I would have that same problem if the Bloc were representing Albertans who wanted to separate from Canada.

And I agree that calling a coalition "undemocratic" is BS.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Actually, this post isn't about what I think of this proposed coalition, just about the ridiculousness of the Conservatives calling a new government formed from duly elected MPs in a parliamentary democracy "undemocratic". So from what you say here, I don't think you have any problems with the specific points I make in this post.

As for what I DO think about this coalition:

- I'm not a fan of single-party minority governments, but I'm not a fan of multiparty minority governments, either. So I'm very concerned about that. Minority governments of any stripe or combination of stripes tend to promote strife and conflict. I'd like to see us using coalitions to get away from them, not using coalitions to continue them.

- On the other hand, I do think this new government, if it's formed, will be slightly more stable. Why? Because it will have a formal arrangement with a party outside of it to support it. And unlike you, I think that's this coalition's saving grace, not a dealbreaker. I do see where your concerns are coming from, but the fact is that Bloc won't even promote separatism right now as a part of their own agenda. If they won't do that, they're certainly not going to use it as a stick to pressure the Government of Canada. They will try to get the new government to do favours for Québec as a condition of their support, but that will be no more an issue with a new minority government than it would have been with the old Conservative one. The Bloc is simply not an issue here--at least no more an issue than they always are.

- On the other hand, the NDP and the Liberals have only very rarely been willing to set aside partisanship for the good of the country before. How do I know that they'll do that now? Will the new cabinet really function as a cabinet? Will the new caucus really function as a caucus? I want to try it, but I have my concerns. I would hate to see it not work out well and then have Canadians think that's how coalition governments are supposed to work. That wouldn't be worth it.

- On the gripping hand, and this is going to sound incredibly pessimistic coming from a professed idealistic pragmatist: I don't see what else can be tried. The Conservatives have made it clear that they're not going to govern like they have a minority, but continue to pretend they have a majority. Forming an actual MAJORITY coalition, together with the Bloc, wouldn't fly. And as for a grand coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberals--well, if that was ever going to be a possibility, it would have had to happen right after the election, not now. The status quo isn't working, and I'm willing to try something new.

All in all, I guess you could say that I do support this coalition, but warily, tentatively. And I really hope they can assuage my fears, and do a good job governing.

Anonymous said...

Your post is right on target. Canadians don't elect a government, they elect a parliament. Parliament then essentially elects a government from its own ranks. If the Opposition strike a deal, Harper simply doesn't have the votes to 'win.'

Kuri said...

Stephen Harper does know all this. He's just pretending not to.

He can't call himself a monarchist (he has, actually) and pretend he was elected President.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

And now I'm going to be a shrieking fan girl and scream "eeeeee! IP said 'gripping hand'!"

I love it when I see casual references from sci-fi novels. :-D

Anonymous said...

The basic principle of the Canadian parliamentary system is that parliament is sovereign. This is the key to understanding the Westminister system, and it is fundamentally different than the US or other, similar presidential systems. Even in in New Zealand, which has multi-member proportional representation, parliament, not the executive, is sovereign.

Whosoever can command a majority in, or in the language of Westminister, "enjoy the confidence of, parliament, forms the executive.

Ben (The Tiger in Exile) said...

It's totally legit -- I spent much of '04 and '05 advocating for an anti-Liberal Grand Coalition. So if the opposition wants to take down Harper, they can.

I just think it's hilarious.

Great theatre.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with your argument is the Bloc being required to get that majority in place. And I would have that same problem if the Bloc were representing Albertans who wanted to separate from Canada.

The only thing wrong with this, Candace, is at this point the Conservatives also need the Bloc to hold a majority. Having lost the confidence of the Liberals and the NDP, the only way for either group to hold the confidence of parliament is by at least not alienating the Bloc.

In other words, as it stands this position cuts both ways.

Candace said...

Sorry, but ""The opposition has been working on a backroom deal to overturn the results of the last election without seeking the consent of voters,'' Harper said late Friday in the foyer of the House of Commons. "They want to take power, not earn it.'"

is back on the table now that Jack has admitted to making a deal with the Bloc, possibly right after the election, to basically negate the election results.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Whatever discussions were had, with whomever, at whatever time, your comment about "negating the election results" is simply ridiculous. Did you read this post at all?

We do not elect a government.

We elect a parliament.

That is what "parliamentary democracy" MEANS.

Forming a new government from the same parliament is not "negating the election results", no matter what Conservative talking points you want to parrot. For that matter, it is not illegal, unethical, or even unusual. It is how things work in parliamentary democracies.

Look it up if you don't believe me.

Anonymous said...

I guess the question then becomes whether the people who voted Liberal and even NDP do so with the assumption that it would never mean those parties forming a government including the Bloc. If you can say that a democratic result specifically means what 50% percent of the people voted for and not how the voting shakes out through the system you would have to take it to that point.

It is perfectly constitutional for them to form a coalition. I don't imagine that Canadians will feel that it represents their democratic choice.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Whether or not people would or wouldn't expect their government to include the Bloc, that isn't relevant in this case, because the proposed government wouldn't include the Bloc. Take another look at a couple of those news stories.

Anonymous said...

You're right that they wouldn't be part of the gov't in the way that in the wikipedia of the King/Byng affair King had 99 members to the Conservives 116. King had been PM before that election and didn't step down as PM, relying on the Progressive Party's 24 for support. The wiki says the Progressives had no cabinet members and so weren't part of the government.

But the NDP plus Liberals have fewer seats than the Conservatives, n'est pas? They need the bloc to reach the democratic number. But with the bloc they lose the claim to a democratic mandate too, I'd say.

It's a wonder to me that Harper is the supposedly sine qua non of putting partisanship before country when a coalition would rely on the support of the Bloc. And the NDP, for that matter!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Oh, get real. How many bills of Harper's have only passed because of the Bloc's support? Relying on a party to help pass your legislation is not the same thing as forming government with them, and you know it.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the conditions of their support.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Do you have reason to believe that their conditions of support would be different with a Liberal-NDP minority government than they were with a Conservative one? 'Cause I ain't seeing it.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. This article argues that the Bloc supported the Conservatives because the Cons prefer a less centralized federalism than the Liberals. This wasn't a concession - it's what the Conservative's principle is. The Cons have been favouring Quebec, but not to boost the Bloc but to undercut it. And I think that if the Libs and NDP hadn't expected the Bloc to support the '06 Conservatives they wouldn't have voted against.

So I think this would be more of a formal thing, unless the Libs/NDP would be willing to look for support from the conservatives who outnumber them if the Bloc asked for too much. I read an article that quoted the Bloc as saying they'd support the coalition if their stimulus helped Quebec manufacturing and forestry. It would prove that the Bloc is more than a protest vote for Quebecers.

Then again it seems that the reason the Bloc kept up this time was that Duceppe argued that he could prevent a majority for Harper.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Thanks for dialing down the scripted panic.

I actually think it's very simple what the Bloc will want--the Bloc is out for Quebec. Not out for Quebec independence, at least not these days, but out for Quebec and its general interests. In that vein, they're willing to support the new minority coalition because they think the Conservatives have been tossing Quebec aside on fronts like arts funding and stimulus for the manufacturing sector, and they think they'd find a more sympathetic audience in the Liberals and the NDP. And just as things were when they worked with the Conservatives on the "less centralized federalism" ticket, the coalition doesn't have to compromise their principles to give the Bloc what they want, either--the Liberals and the NDP believe in arts funding and a stimulus package for the manufacturing sector too.

One thing you've got to understand: The Bloc isn't a protest vote, it's a province-centric vote. It's why they get so many votes from non-sovereigntists who are nonetheless Quebec-centred--they're perceived as being the only ones who are really going to fight for Quebec interests. So having an agreement with the Bloc that you'll help them get goodies for Quebec in exchange for them supporting your government will be a thorn in the side of the new government (if it happens), but that's nothing at all new. The Bloc will always be a thorn in the side of any minority government, so unless we're going to bring in proportional representation before the next election (thus cutting their power down to what they've earned instead of the inflated seat count they get with First Past the Post), we'd better all learn how to work with them.

Tom said...

I really appreciate your article. I agree that parliamentary democracy means that people elect their local MPs who then go to Ottawa and arrange themselves in groups once they arrive there. The popular vote does not elect the government. As a NDP voter I say bring down the Harper government - it did not represent my wishes anyway.
Coalitions are not unknown in Canadian/Alberta history. During the first term of the UFA government, 1921-1926, a Labour MLA served as a cabinet minister (althoug hthe UFA had a majaority of seats on its own). As well, Ontario had a coalition government UFO (United Farmers of Ontario)/Labour in 1919.
I touch on these matters and the King-Byng affair in my book Old Strathcona Before the Great Depression (available in Alhambra Books and other city bookstores!)
Like you, I also am originally from the US. Recently, I read how the Canada-US brain drain works both ways. Canada got you and me and Jane Jacobs and many other left-thinking people, while many business-oriented people move south. A young man I met in Utah said that he had moved from interior BC because he felt that as a white man he had a better chance of doing well in the US than if he had stayed in Canada.
Carry on the good work.