Constitutional refresher course: the people do not choose the government

By Harold Jansen on Nov 30, 2008

In the showdown between the Conservatives and an erstwhile Liberal-NDP coalition, one point gets obscured. In the Canadian political system, the voters do not vote for a government. When we vote, we vote for a local Member of Parliament. The formation of government is a byproduct of that, not the direct choice of Canadians. So, who does choose who forms a government. Very simply, it's the Governor General. Most of the Governor General's power's are heavily constrained by convention, in that the GG has to follow the advice of the Prime Minister and cabinet. The one area where the GG has some discretion is in the appointment of the Prime Minister.

So, when the Conservatives complain right now that somehow the idea of a party coalition getting into power is undemocratic, they're right. But by the same standard, so is the fact that they're in power right now. But they're missing the point of Canada's parliamentary system: the voters have never chosen their government. That's why talk of a "constitutional crisis" (the latest media buzzword) is misplaced. This is well within the structure of Canadian parliamentary government.

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I agree, but how is the Liberals and NDP going to sell that...

The one area where the GG has some discretion is in the appointment of the Prime Minister.

That fact is going to be a hard sell by the Governor General's office and the opposition if this coalition goes forward.

From time to time I get emails from people who mistaken MLW as something it's not, e.g. the Liberal Party, Conservative Party, Prime Ministers Office, etc. I presume it's because we have in-depth features on all these public offices and when passionate about something (or someone) mistaken identity online can happen. While certainly not scientific - this specific "crisis" has generated the most mistaken identity emails I've ever seen - the emails I have received are overwhelming against the idea of a coalition.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Whither the GG?

I agree Harold in the technical sense (kind of like a technical recession, technical) the Governor General does choose the government but I think she has a duty to respect the will of the people. Whether that is clear in this case is another thing all together. One might argue that securing 143 seats or so and 38?% of the popular vote in the last election is fairly compelling. Compared with what a Liberal-NDP coalition led by a man whose approval rating is abominable have to offer. Oh the joy of living in interesting times.

If we're doing the math

If we look back at the last election, the Liberal plus NDP share of the vote put them at about 44%, well above the 37% or so the Conservatives got. Add in the BQ and you have a government with a majority of the seats and a majority of the vote. So, I'm not sure that will be a compelling argument to the GG. She must we wondering right now why she took the job. I mean, the travel and Rideau Hall are nice and everything, but ....

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