Canada’s Conservatives Are Courting Constitutional Chaos


It’s been clear for some time now that when faced with a choice between democracy and power, Republicans in the United States will almost always opt for the latter. It’s why their elected officials at the state level continue to aggressively gerrymander congressional districts in order to favour their candidates, why their elected senators hold up Democratic nominees for the Supreme Court while rushing theirs through, and why so many of them tried to pretend the 2020 presidential election had been stolen — while actually trying to steal it themselves.

Now, that anti-democratic strain of Trumpism is starting to show itself north of the border, albeit in an appropriately Canadian way.

Recent polls put Pierre Poilievre’s Conservative Party of Canada well ahead of the governing Liberals, but none of them show a path to a majority government. Instead, if he wins — and that’s far from certain given Justin Trudeau’s obvious gift for campaigning — it’ll take the form of a plurality of seats, one that will require Poilievre to find a legislative partner willing to support him. That won’t be the New Democrats, for any number of reasons, and it’s hard to imagine the Bloc Québécois siding consistently with the CPC if the combined Liberal-NDP seat count is higher. In other words, there’s every possibility Poilievre could win the most seats in the next election and not become the next prime minister.

This is, by the way, an entirely acceptable — if unusual — outcome in our political system. The party that governs in a parliamentary democracy is the one that can command the confidence of Parliament (or the legislature at the provincial level), and we’ve seen situations where the party with the highest number of seats isn’t the one calling the shots. In 1985, David Peterson’s Ontario Liberals won four fewer seats than the long-governing Tories but formed a coalition with Bob Rae’s NDP to force it from power. In 1987, the Peterson Liberals were rewarded with a crushing majority win. More recently there was John Horgan’s NDP, which won fewer seats than Christy Clark’s BC Liberals but reached an agreement with the BC Green Party that allowed it to govern. Voters there also rewarded Horgan with a big majority in the next election.

And, of course, there’s the famous (at least, to students of Canadian political history) “King-Byng Affair” of 1925, when Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King and then governor general Julian Byng crossed swords. King won fewer seats than Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives but continued to command the confidence of the House and requested the dissolution of Parliament and a fresh election. Byng refused, though, and instead asked Meighen to form a government. It didn’t last long. Meighen’s government fell in 1926, and King’s Liberals went on to win a majority in the ensuing election.

Now, almost a century later, it seems like some conservatives want to repeat this history. In a recent column, the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne flagged the risks associated with an election that produces a Conservative Party of Canada plurality but a continued Liberal government. “The Liberals could cite constitutional principle all they liked, but in attempting to govern from second place they would still be pushing the limits of popular legitimacy. And if there is one thing we know about the present-day Conservative Party, it is that they delight in pushing limits themselves.”

As if on cue, conservative thought leader Sean Speer laid out the path his party might follow. “The Conservative narrative (which wouldn’t be entirely without basis) would be that the Liberals had conspired with left-wing academics, the broader opinion elite and the (publicly funded) media to effectively overturn the election results,” he wrote. “I think it’s hard to overstate the inherent risks to such a political climate. One could envision mass protests and even violence.”

Said narrative is, to be clear, entirely without basis. There is nothing in Canada’s Constitution or its political conventions that suggests the party with the most seats should automatically be the one that governs. Indeed, as Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders noted, it’s progressives who have been disenfranchised by Canada’s first-past-the-post system and its habit of producing false majorities. “In every election since the 1980s, 60% have voted for a left-leaning party. Yet right-facing parties have governed half the time because the liberal/left parties have a tribal resistance to governing together.”

But the fact that someone like Speer is mooting this argument suggests it’s very much on the mind of Canadian conservative leaders. Speer, after all, is no far-right crank. He’s a former adviser to Stephen Harper, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and an editor-at-large at The Hub, an otherwise sane forum for conservative ideas and arguments. Dan Robertson, the party’s chief strategist from the 2021 campaign, has also tried to lay the same groundwork here. “There’s just a natural sense among people that the party that won the most seats is the party that should form the government,” he told The Hub in April. “It’s easy to understand and it aligns with people’s sense of fairness.”

Could the result of the next federal election lead to “mass protests and even violence” from conservatives frustrated by a legitimate parliamentary outcome, as some pundits have warned? Only if Canada’s Conservative leaders allow it to happen.

There’s no question that certain aspects of Canadian parliamentary democracy are hard to understand, and that not everyone is familiar with the outcome of the 1985 Ontario election, much less the intricacies of the King-Byng affair. But there should be even less question that conservative leaders need to tamp down any talk of those outcomes being “undemocratic,” lest they allow Trumpist ways of thinking to take even deeper root in their party. Their party might love to talk about how Canada is “broken,” but if they’re not careful, this is something that could actually break it.

Source: National Observer