Canada’s system of government isn’t easy to understand. As a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy that relies on rules that have evolved over hundreds of years, the intricacies of our system aren’t obvious and can sometimes seem bizarre. Most people, for instance, probably couldn’t tell you what purpose the Crown serves or how constitutional conventions differ from constitutional law. And frankly, that’s ok. Canadians don’t need to know the finer points of Westminster parliamentarism to be informed and engaged in politics. What they should be comfortable with are the constitutional basics, such as who gets to govern and why.
Many Canadians rely on the news media to provide them with these fundamentals. Unfortunately, the media often falls short when explaining how Canadian government works. There is no one reason why this is the case, though imported American lingo and folk theories of democracy play into it. Election night reporting, in particular, often distorts the essential features of our system. This can have nefarious effects over the longer term and in particular cases. Without asking every anchor, reporter, and editor to become an insufferable pedant (we academics already have that covered), there are a few simple ways to improve how the media presents things on election night.
When a political party is projected to have gained a clear and obvious majority of seats in the House of Commons, networks will announce that it has won a “majority government.” This isn’t a perfect description, but it’s understandable. Given Canada’s tight party discipline, the leader of the caucus holding a majority of seats will have significant control of the House of Commons as prime minister.
Problems arise when no single party has a majority of seats. The party that has the most seats will usually serve as the government, but not always. Declaring that one of the parties has won a “minority government” presents this result as a forgone conclusion, when other arrangements are possible. Notably, the party with the second-most seats might try to govern with the help of the third or fourth parties, as happened in British Columbia. What matters is who can carry a majority of votes in the House of Commons, not who has the most seats.
Equally important, pronouncing that the party with the most seats has “won” a minority government suggests that alternative arrangements with third- or fourth-place parties are less legitimate. If the party with the most seats is the winner, does that mean the other parties are all losers? Not when the smaller parties can together hold the confidence of the Commons. This type of language of winners and losers doesn’t fit with a parliamentary system and shouldn’t be encouraged. It distorts how our democracy works and fuels harmful, erroneous rhetoric.
So, what should media do and say instead? Going with the language of majority and minority “parliaments” would be a start. It wouldn’t prevent discussions about who would govern in a majority; it’s not hard to say, “so and so will be prime minister” in a “majority parliament.” Or, when no party has a majority, it should be enough to say that the election has produced a minority parliament. If the prime minister resigns on election night after a poor showing at the polls, then it will also be pretty clear who will be the next prime minister. If, however, the prime minister doesn’t resign on election night, then it should be enough to state that there’s a minority parliament and the current government will try to stay in power, as Brian Gallant attempted in New Brunswick last year.
The importance of the prime minister’s resignation, or lack thereof, speaks to another regrettable tendency: talk of electing a prime minister. People often vote for a party based on the leader. Campaigns centre around leaders. There’s no sense in denying that our elections are focused on leaders above parties. But that doesn’t change the fact that we elect members of Parliament, while the prime minister is appointed. Here again, this may not matter much when a party has a majority of seats. Yet it can have an impact when a prime minister tries to govern even if his or her party doesn’t have the most seats, or if there’s a change of government within a single parliament, as can happen in the early months of a minority.
Prime ministers can also resign and be replaced by another member of their party during a majority. Kim Campbell and Paul Martin are recent examples. While people may vote based on who they want as prime minister, talking about the election of the prime minister is an unhelpful distortion of our system.
Talk of a “prime minister-elect” is wrong, too. This is an obvious borrowing of American terminology that isn’t applicable in Canada. A prime minister who stays on after an election simply remains prime minister. There’s no transition of power in these cases. Indeed, they don’t even need to “form” a new government. They simply remain the head of their current government. When the prime minister resigns, the new prime minister will be appointed by the governor general. The correct title for that individual during the transition is “prime minister-designate,” which signals that person has been designated to form a new government. However, the designate title should only be applied after a leader has been commissioned by the governor general, particularly if the election results aren’t clear and the incumbent prime minister hasn’t resigned.
There other terms the media should avoid. For example, talking about a government’s “mandate” doesn’t make much sense if a party has won less than 50 percent of the popular vote; furthermore, research shows that the electorate rarely votes for particular policies, let alone an entire platform. It’s also not clear why we started inserting the prefix “sitting” when talking about cabinet ministers (that is, they serve as ministers, sit as parliamentarians.) But these are relatively minor quibbles. If we fix how we speak about majorities, minorities, and how prime ministers attain their office, that will be a significant, and important, improvement.
This article is part of The media and Canadian elections special feature.
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