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.Recommend this Post