Monday, December 01, 2008

King-Byng: Lessons from History

I guess it's time to break my silence on the issue of the current who-hah in Parliament. I'm amused watching pundits spin on the issue of what the Governor General can and cannot do, and even more amused at Stephen Harper's denial of his own position of a few years ago. It would have been a lot of fun for me to hash this out in my Canadian political history seminar, but we had our last meeting on Wednesday - so I guess the blogosphere will get my ruminations.

Just for a bit of fun, let's take a walk down the path of history. Picture it: Ottawa, 1925 (It's more fun if you imagine Sophia Petrillo delivering this monologue). A federal election has just returned the following results: Liberals 100, Conservatives 115, Progressives 22, Labour and other: a Few. A younger, psychic-consulting Mackenzie King's Liberals have fallen to second-place in the House of Commons. Who forms the government?

If you guessed Arthur Meighen and the Conservatives, you'd be wrong. Mackenzie King, who governed from 1921-25 with the support of the Progressive and Labour members (and more Liberal seats than the Conservatives) decided to try to make a go of a second term. Lord Byng was offended by what he saw as a lack of sportsmanship on King's part, but constitutional convention allowed King to continue governing, as long as he had the support of the House of Commons. Which he did... for several months until a scandal lost King the support of the Progressives. A vote of non-confidence was slated, and King seemed doomed to lose. At that point, he asked for dissolution of Parliament.

Byng, who thought that King should have given Meighen first crack at forming government after the 1925 election, refused and offered Meighen the opportunity to form government. However, lacking any support from the other parties, Meighen's government fell on its first significant vote. King craftily denounced British interference in Canadian politics (Byng was not a Canadian citizen), and won a majority in the 1926 election.

What lessons, if any, does King-Byng teach us? Well, first of all, it shows us that the party with the largest number of seats in the House - but not a majority - need not be the government (hello Stephen!). Second, it shows that the Governor General need not follow the current Prime Minister's advice all the time. Third, it does show that if you're going to take a shot at replacing an existing minority government, you'd better have the ability to survive a vote in the House, or you may just face some nasty political blowback from the electorate.

It is this third criteria that should be first and foremost in the minds of the Liberal-NDP-Bloc team. If they stab each other in the back too quickly, it will allow the Conservatives to cast these actions in whatever way they see fit, and probably fool the electorate into buying their version of events. However, if the alternate minority can survive for a year or so, it will allow the other parties to spin a better narrative - at least if they are able to develop some constructive policies in the meantime. The question is whether they have learned anything from Harper's last week, or whether they too will be tempted to engage in some ill-advised partisan (or inter-party) bickering and coalition blackmail.

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At 9:45 pm, Blogger Skinny Dipper said...

I hope that Stephen Harper will let the opposition have a confidence vote in his leadership rather than prorogue Parliament until the new year. If and when the opposition votes non-confidence in Harper's government, Harper will resign as prime minister honorably and with class.

At 9:49 pm, Blogger Matt said...

SD - And I hope that I'm going to get a pony for Christmas, but judging from past experience, I'm not counting on it (grin!)

At 9:58 pm, Blogger Skinny Dipper said...

The probability that you are right is high. I think Harper will fight until the bitter end.

At 12:15 am, Blogger Patrick Ross said...

And one wonders if Stephane Dion will muster the class to admit that he's not being honest about the reasons for his sudden change of heart.

If Dion will muster the class to admit to Canadians that this isn't about a stimulus package, but about his party protecting its precious subsidies.

If Jack Layton will muster the class to admit that he's set to serve under a Prime Minister that lied about his intentions in order to get to this point.

At 11:53 am, Anonymous Mark S. said...

Great post.

Have you seen Michael Bliss' rather rhetorical essay for the National Post? The professor doth protest too much, methinks.:

The other scenario for this whole affair is for Harper to resign, which could take the wind out of the Coalition's sails.

At 12:05 pm, Blogger Matt said...


I agree that our distinguished professor emeritus doth protest too much. I don't like the fact that the bulk of Quebec's seats are represented by the Bloc any more than anyone else does, but that doesn't mean that the Bloc was not elected legitimately, nor that they don't have the right to participate in the workings of Parliament.

If you take Bliss' argument to its furthest extension, you could claim that any legislation which passed with the support of the Bloc was illegitimate because it relied on "separatist votes." In my view, that is hokum - although I do recall that some people made that case when gay marriage passed through the House with Bloc support.

That being said, I don't expect that the Bloc will actually be able to resist the temptation to hold the Liberals and NDP for ransom in exchange for their support. But that's a risk that they are entitled to take under our parliamentary system. It's not like Brian Mulroney wasn't beholden to a large number of quasi-separatist votes in his own caucus!

I'd be thrilled if Harper did resign, and intrigued to see who would replace him. Jim Prentice, perhaps?

At 4:22 pm, Blogger Patrick Ross said...

Jim Prentice would be a fine pick for Conservative leader should Stephen Harper resign -- but I doubt he will.

Peter MacKay would be a fine leader as well, but I'm not convinced that he has the killer instinct that often seems so necessary for conservative politicians to survive.

John Baird would be an absolute disaster.


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