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The Trouble with Minority Government

Posted 12/1/2010 by Grant Mitchell

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When we have majority governments, it seems that people are inclined to think that they like minority governments. The argument goes that minorities curb the excesses of majorities. They have to be more open and responsive to the ideas and desires of the other “side.”

While this may be the case sometimes, there are so many variables that determine the mix of power influence in minority situations that it is certainly not predictable. We have seen some of the variables that have really limited opposition influence in the current minority situation. With the government needing the support of only one of the three opposition parties to maintain confidence, it is often not so difficult to find that support on any given issue. While all three opposition parties might agree to vote against the government and bring it down, they have certainly been constrained by the very strong and visceral resistance by Canadians to an election anytime soon. 

The power of the opposition in a minority situation will also depend on the fervour of the government for an election. If they really do not want one, they will be much less inclined to force their issues and call confidence votes than if they do.

But, the allure of the minority situation for those who think government needs to be curtailed is this belief that the opposition can vote against government initiatives and defeat them. And, certainly, that can be true.

Canadians often expect the opposition parties to have more leverage than they actually do. Ggetting what you want, however, is very different than stopping something that you don’t want. It requires money- spending, program initiative. This is because opposition members, known as private members (any member who is not in cabinet) can initiate bills but not money bills. The same applies to Senators. So, you may be able to stop a government from spending money on something you don’t want them to spend money on, but you cannot get then to spend money on something you do want them to spend money on.

The climate change bill, the Kyoto Implementation Act, of several years ago is a cautionary tale in this regard. This bill originated in the House of Commons as a private members’ bill by Pablo Rodriguez, a Liberal MP. It passed the House because all three opposition parties voted for it. It finally passed the Senate because I and my Liberal Senate colleagues at the time had a majority in the Senate.

But, because of the “no money bill” prohibition on private members’ bill, all the Kyoto Act could do is call for the government to present plans on how to meet Kyoto obligations and report regularly on their progress. So, not quite short of ignoring the law, the government dutifully reports what it doing, which is really nothing.

Bill C311, a good bill developed by NDP member Bruce Hyer who asked me to sponsor it in the Senate, further demonstrates this problem. It called for planning and accountability in the progress of the plans and specified one mandatory and one optional GHG reduction target. But, again, it could not specify programs to reduce GHG’s because they cost money. As it turns out, because we do not now have a majority in the Senate, despite our Liberal votes for the bill, it was defeated by the Conservative Senators.

The other problem with the effectiveness of private members’ bills in the House is that relatively few ever work their way through the system to come to a vote.

So if you are getting what you don’t want from government, a minority might stop it. But if you are not getting what you do want, a minority situation is very ill equipped to fix that for you.

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