Saturday, October 19, 2019

The small truth in the big lie

During the 2015 federal election, Stephen Harper declared that if he won the most seats, he got to be prime minister again.  Many journalists and pundits said, no, actually whoever can reliably hold the confidence of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons gets to be prime minister.

Now Andrew Scheer has repeated the same claim.

Both Harper and Scheer know perfectly well what they said is inaccurate. Both have long experience in working the rules of the parliamentary system, and Scheer, as Speaker of the House, actually enforced them for many years.

But they are kind of right in recognizing that Canadians do run our elections as much as possible like presidential contests. Justin and Andrew and Jagmeet and Liz, who's it gonna be? Therefore it makes a kind of crude sense to assume that most seats (seats being the tally markers) ought to win. "Those MPs who fill the seats are all nobodies, right, how come they get to have an opinion on this?"

By playing to folk wisdom about elections, both Scheer and Harper claim a kind of populist cred and set up a possible future folk grievance, while also pre-emptively delegitiming any alliance that might successfully keep them out.  But mostly they are just blowing smoke in our eyes.

Update, October 23:  Jared Milne comments:
It's an interesting example of how new constitutional conventions can be formed in Canada. What Harper did in 2008 reminds me of what William Lyon Mackenzie King did with the King-Byng affair in 1926. Everything Governor General Byng did was constitutional, but King's stirring up public opinion arguably made it illegitimate in the eyes of the public. Even if only the party with the most seats has the right to form government is not a constitutional convention, it could end up becoming one.
I like the evidence here that 1926 remains relevant to 2019, or at least 2008. But I don't love this talk of conventions here. The right of a cabinet to remain in office unless and until Parliament withdraws its confidence is not a convention. It is constitutional bedrock, and ensures there is always a government in place, and that it is always subject to the confidence of the House.

Any MP, regardless of party support, who can gain and hold the support of a House majority is empowered to form a government. The place to determine that is in the House, not by convention or among the pundit community on election night. 
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