People and Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 3): A quick lesson on the “c” word

Day 3: In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie gives us a quick lesson on the “c” word

Sir Robert Borden is burning in Hell.

He must be. After all, he’s the only Prime Minister of Canada ever to lead a coalition government.

Sir Bob, as good a Conservative as ever drew breath, wanted to draft Canadian boys to fight in the trenches of Flanders in World War I. So in 1917 he made a deal with the dev…, er, Liberal MPs from English Canada, recruited them to his cause, and cobbled together a Union Government.

Now, I do understand that Stephen Harper would rather be caught by a CBC camera crew in a Hull motel room with Leanna VIP than head anything with “Union” in the title, but I wouldn’t rule out a Harper-led coalition. (And if he did put one together after this election, hey, that’s how the system works.)

Yes, Steve Madely, (who was flayed by Paul Dewar and David McGuinty on CFRA this morning when he tried to re-write the constitution in an exercise in mental gymnastics that became sad and painful to listen to), you read that right. That’s how the system works. The Westminister parliamentary system. Not the U.S. presidential system, though, as Al Gore learned the hard way, he who has the most votes does not always win there, either.

In most elections, the vast bulk of Canadian voters actually cast their ballots for candidates of parties that do not win. A political party can come to power with a majority having won about 42 percent of the vote. That gives almost unbridled control over the mechanism of state to parties that won about two out of every five votes cast.

(Adolf Hitler came to power under the same circumstances, never winning anything near a clear majority. Having taken power in a coalition government, Hitler tossed his opposition into concentration camps, burned down the parliament building, and tore up the constitution. I hope I am not giving anyone ideas here.)

In 1985, Frank Miller, a Progressive Conservative, won the most seats in an Ontario provincial election. He named a cabinet, recalled the legislature, and brought in an amazing budget that did every nice thing, short of giving everyone free Molly Maid service. The Liberals and NDP worked out a deal – what they called an “accord” – published it, and made it clear they would vote Miller down in the legislature.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Frank Miller did not go bawling onto your TV screen. He did not call his opponents thieves or traitors. Despite his taste for plaid suits, acquired during his years selling cars in Muskoka, Frank Miller had some class.

Miller went to the Lieutenant Governor, told him the PCs did not have the confidence of the legislature, and asked the Lieut. Gov. to call on Liberal leader David Peterson to form a government. Peterson did so, governed for two years, then won a solid majority.

And that’s the way the system works. We elect Members of Parliament. We do not elect Prime Ministers. And the person who has the support of a majority of MPs gets to govern.

Stephen Harper knows this. His first two budgets were supported by the Bloc. He’s used the votes of separatist MPs, socialist MPs, and even of Stéphane Dion himself to stay in power. When the rules suited him, he was eager and ready to play by them.

How do I know this?

Got it right from the horse’s mouth. Here’s a clip of Harper explaining it all to the strangely-coifed Paula Todd  on TVOntario in 2004.