Today, Democracy Watch called on B.C. party leaders and the lieutenant governor to agree on eight public, written rules for a minority government, as more than 80 percent of Canadians want. While B.C. may not have a minority government after the recounts in some ridings and the official provincial vote count is finalized in a couple of weeks, agreeing on the rules now will help ensure the legislature runs fairly and democratically through to the next election.
The rules should make clear: which party will get to try governing first; when the legislature will open; when it can be closed; what a vote of nonconfidence is; when and how the opposition parties may get a chance to govern; and when and how the next election can be called before the fixed election date. (See below for the eight rules)
The current rules are unclear because they are unwritten constitutional conventions—even constitutional scholars disagree what lines they draw. The vagueness in the rules effectively allows the elected premier and ruling party to abuse their powers and violate the rules, as the only way to stop violations is for the unelected, unaccountable lieutenant governor to decide that a violation has occurred and to try to stop the elected premier from doing what they want.
Lieutenant governors in other provinces have almost never stopped a premier from doing whatever they want, and have allowed premiers to abuse their powers by not opening the legislature after an election, shutting it down arbitrarily for months, and calling snap elections in violation of fixed-election-date laws. The Governor General allowed Prime Minister Harper to call a snap election in 2008 in violation of the (too vague) fixed-election-date law, to prorogue Parliament in a very questionable minority-government situation, and to declare many votes in Parliament as confidence votes even though they were clearly not confidence votes.
In England, Australia, and New Zealand, political-party leaders and MPs agreed years ago to clear public rules so what happens after an election is fair for all the parties, and for voters. Most countries in the world also have clear public postelection rules.
As well, a survey of more than 2,000 Canadians by Harris-Decima in November and December 2012 showed that 84 percent of adult Canadians want enforceable rules to restrict key powers of the prime minister and provincial premiers.
The Governor General also said last August in an an interview with the Hill Times that he thought these unwritten constitutional conventions should be written down.
“There are no legal or other justifiable reasons for B.C.’s political party leaders and lieutenant governor to fail to approve eight key rules for a minority government,” said Duff Conacher, cofounder of Democracy Watch. “It is clearly in the public interest that the rules be approved to stop unfair abuses of power by the ruling party that violate the rights of the legislature and the democratic will of the majority of voters.”
After the eight rules are enacted into law, the B.C. legislature should, as the legislatures in England, Australia, and New Zealand have, examine and enact other fairness rules to ensure the legislature and MLAs can hold the government accountable. The rules should cover the following key areas: what can be included in omnibus bills; the freedom and powers of individual politicians to vote how they want on resolutions and bills; how members of legislature committees are chosen; and what a cabinet can do during an election campaign period until the next cabinet is chosen.
“As long as the rules for the legislature are unwritten and unclear in B.C., the premier and ruling party will be able to abuse their powers and the legislature’s ability to hold the government accountable will be undemocratically restricted,” Conacher said.
Following are the eight key rules for minority government:
- Until the lieutenant governor has communicated directly with all the party leaders, the lieutenant governor will not make a decision about which party or parties (through either a formal coalition or legislative agreement) will be given the opportunity to govern first (i.e., to appoint a cabinet and introduce a speech from the throne in the legislature);
- The party that wins the most seats in the election will be given the first opportunity to govern, including in partnership or coalition with another party, unless the leaders of other parties representing a majority of members of the legislature indicate clearly to the lieutenant governor that they will not support that party and that they have agreed to form a coalition government or have agreed on a common legislative agenda;
- Within 30 days after the lieutenant governor decides which party or parties will be given the first opportunity to govern, the lieutenant governor and the governing party/parties will open the legislature with a speech from the throne;
- Even if the leaders of parties that represent a majority of members of the legislature do not indicate lack of support for the party that wins the most seats before that party’s speech from the throne, if they subsequently indicate lack of support for the speech, the lieutenant governor will not allow the premier-designate to prorogue the legislature before the speech from the throne is voted on by members of the legislature;
- If a majority of members in the legislature vote against the speech from the throne, the lieutenant governor will give the opposition parties an opportunity to govern (through either a formal coalition or legislative agreement) before calling an election;
- After the vote on the speech from the throne, the only vote in the legislature that shall be a vote of nonconfidence is a vote on a motion that states: “The legislature does not have confidence in the government.”
- If opposition parties introduce a motion of nonconfidence in the governing party at any time after election day, the lieutenant governor will not allow the premier to prorogue the legislature before the motion is voted on by the legislature, and;
- If a majority in the legislature votes to approve a motion of nonconfidence in the governing party before the next fixed-election date, the lieutenant governor will give the opposition parties an opportunity to govern (through either a formal coalition or legislative-agenda agreement) before agreeing to any request by the premier that the lieutenant governor call an election.