A Good Month for Democracy in Ontario and Quebec

Peter RussellSeptember 2012 has been a good month for democracy in Canada’s two largest provinces. One retained a minority government and the other elected a minority government.

What’s so great about minority governments? Well, lets start by thinking about the alternative. If the McGuinty Liberals had won both of the September by elections they would no longer have been in a minority position in Ontario’s Legislative Assembly.

That would mean that a government supported by a little over a third of the electorate could have its way on all issues without needing to find any support from opposition parties.

What kind of a democracy is that?

As for Quebec, think about the position Pauline Marois’ PQ party would be in if it had garnered just a tad more than the 32 per cent of the popular vote in Quebec’s provincial election.

About three per cent more of the popular vote would have given her a majority in Quebec’s National Assembly and a green light to proceed with the party’s sovereignty program, even though that program was rejected by a substantial majority of the population.

In 2008, I wrote a book entitled Two Cheers for Minority Government. The more I consider these Ontario and Quebec possibilities, and the reality of the Harper Conservatives majority government in Ottawa, I think I should have given minority government three cheers.

In Canada today, at both the federal and provincial levels, majority governments are almost bound to be what I have called “false majority” governments.

They are false because their majority in the legislature is based not on majority support by the electorate but by the distortions of our first-past-the-post electoral system. With that simple plurality electoral system, less than 40 per cent of the popular vote can give a party over 50 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the power.

In federal elections no party has won a majority of the popular vote since Brian Mulroney did it – by a decimal point – in 1984.

In Ontario I think we would have to go back to Leslie Frost’s day to find a party winning a majority of the popular vote. It's a hard fact of political life today in Canada and throughout the world of parliamentary democracy that no political party is very popular.

Despite this reality, party leaders in Ontario, in other provinces and at the federal level always say that their election goal is to form a majority government. In their minds, and in too many of ours, political success means wining majority control of the legislature Winning only a plurality of seats and being forced to find support from opposition parties is considered a failure.

But from a democratic perspective, we should welcome situations in which governments rejected by a majority of the electorate have to reach out and find opposition support for their policies. When they do that, their policies have a better chance of responding to the views of a majority of the people.

I think we saw that last spring when the McGuinty Liberals in order to survive had to accommodate the NDP by raising taxes on upper income earners.

When government goes some way to accommodate an opposition party, there is a tendency in the media to say that it has “caved”.

Instead we should see that it has changed its policy to make it more consensual and increase its democratic legitimacy.

The art of governing without a majority in the legislature is to figure out how to secure opposition support without abandoning the core of what your party stands for.

Ontario has had good role-models for that kind of minority government leadership: Bill Davis’ Conservative from 1975 to 1981, and David Peterson’s Liberals from 1985 to 1987. I would submit that during those periods Ontario was governed more democratically than it would have been if the governing party had won a few more votes – enough to form a majority government.

Democracy is not well served by the unfettered rule of the least unpopular party.

So lets hear it! Three cheers for minority government!


Peter H. Russell

Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Principal of Senior College

University of Toronto

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : September 24, 2012

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