The media is trying to normalize a radical rejection of Canadian parliamentary tradition

JJ McCullough

Along with imminent predictions of a “Green Party breakthrough,” there is no trope of Canadian election coverage more predictable and tiresome than condescending media “explanations” of Canada’s parliamentary system from self-appointed experts. While purportedly neutral, such explainers, clarifiers, guides, and so on, exist primarily as a tool of argument, rather than education. Their purpose is to intimidate the reader into accepting a certain political outcome as normal and uncontroversial, and not contest or question it. Important facts are accordingly omitted or only selectively reported in order to make the argument appear as powerful and undebatable as possible.

Currently, the press is spending much time and effort attempting to normalize the idea that Justin Trudeau could remain prime minister of Canada even if the Conservative Party wins the most seats in the House of Commons in the October 21 general election, and the Liberals drop to second place.

This, we are told, would be perfectly defensible, since supposedly an incumbent prime minister “gets the first chance to test the confidence of the House of Commons,” or, in other words, gets to remain in office for some unspecified amount of time between the election and the first sitting of parliament (the scheduling of which he controls).

Accepting this premise would obviously be of maximum strategic benefit to the Liberals.

It would give them the ability to deny an election night victory to Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party, turning what would ordinarily be a clear-cut win into something empty and illegitimate.

It would award Trudeau weeks, or possibly months of post-election breathing space to figure out a way to hang on to power by negotiating some sort of coalition-type deal with the NDP and/or Green Party.

It would also allow Justin Trudeau the ability to continue using the many powers of the prime ministership and executive branch to govern the country unilaterally, as much of the day-to-day functioning of the Canadian government doesn’t involve parliament.

However, it should not be overlooked just how radical and unprecedented such a move would be. If the Conservatives win more seats than the Liberals, it will shatter 94 years of precedent if Andrew Scheer is not permitted to become prime minister.

Despite being a supposedly entrenched tradition of “our system” no incumbent prime minister in modern Canadian history has ever sought to hang on to power and “test the confidence of the House” in the way some are suggesting Trudeau should do.

For the last 94 years, every single time an incumbent prime minister has been defeated in an election, he or she has promptly stepped down and initiated a transfer of power.

This has happened in cases when an incumbent prime minister has been replaced by a majority government, as well as in cases when an incumbent prime minister has been replaced by a minority government. No defeated prime minister in modern history has exercised his or her supposed prerogative to remain in office until the first sitting of the newly-elected parliament in order to “test the confidence of the House.”

The sole exception to this precedent, in all of Canadian history, came in 1925, when Mackenzie King held on as prime minister despite the Conservative Party having won more seats in that year’s election. King’s decision was deeply controversial at the time, and the Conservative leader angrily characterized it as a “usurpation” of power. It wound up causing one of the greatest constitutional crises of Canadian political history, the so-called “King-Byng” affair.

Canada is alone among major western democracies in not having any laws that clearly outline basic facts of our political system, including the mechanics of how, exactly, someone becomes prime minister. As a result, convention and tradition have always played an enormous role in determining what is right and wrong, normal and abnormal. Traditions evolve over time, and with them, new standards of what sort of behavior is proper and ethical.

It is now a deeply, deeply entrenched standard of Canadian federal politics that if a party wins the most seats on election night, that party’s leader should be sworn in as prime minister of either a minority or majority government within a few weeks.

This is the whole reason why a Canadian can even use a term like “minority government” in the first place and take it for granted that other people know what he’s talking about. This is why all of our television stations have ready-made graphics saying things like “Conservatives/Liberals win minority government!” ready to fill the screen on election night. This is the reason Joe Clark became prime minister in 1979, Lester Pearson became prime minister in 1963, and John Diefenbaker became prime minister in 1957. This is the reason why Justin Trudeau correctly stated that letting the party with the most seats govern “is the way it’s always been” in Canada.

This is the reason Prime Minister Paul Martin, with class and dignity went before an audience of Liberal supporters on election night, 2006, and declared:

“I just telephoned Stephen Harper and I offered him my congratulations. The people of Canada have chosen him to lead a minority government. I wish him the best.”

Should he face similar defeat on Monday night, one hopes Prime Minister Trudeau will be equally gracious, and ignore the many voices in the press demanding otherwise.

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