British Columbia could be headed for a Parliamentary crisis
Welcome to the first week of our post-Conservative leadership race lift, Vice readers! Before getting to your (pointed) questions on the affable-seeming Saskatchewanian who ultimately prevailed on the 13th round of vote-counting, I must sheepishly return to a question that was — most awkwardly, as it turned out — left waiting in the queue last week: Namely, what happens if a razor-tight election leads to a parliament where the numbers are so uncomfortably close that no party is willing to let one of its members serve as speaker, as it could literally change the balance the power?
Or, as the gang at CPC Vancouver Centre (@VanCentreCPC) put it:
— CPC Vancouver Centre (@VanCentreCPC) May 24, 2017
So, full disclosure, back when this query first made it into my reply column, I mentally slotted it in with all the other delightful-but-purely-theoretical procedural thought experiments that periodically crop up: What if nobody shows up to debate a bill, or the governor-general refuses to give royal assent, or a Boston Terrier wins a seat in a by-election?
Sure, the always mercurial British Columbia electorate seemed to be doing its best to orchestrate such a scenario, but with the prospect of a deal between the B.C. Liberals and the Green MLAs that will adjust the dynamics just enough to avoid such a quandary, it seemed unlikely that the various theories on what might happen next would remain just that.
That’ll teach me to expect the expected.
As of today, it appears that Canada’s most westerly provincial legislature may be about to replace that question mark with an exclamation point.
Although the legislature hasn’t been recalled, thanks to the deal struck between the B.C. New Democrats and the Green trio, we can tentatively assume, barring a sudden twist in the plot, that when it opens for business later this month, 44 MLAs aligned with either the New Democrats or the Greens will face a 43-strong B.C. Liberal caucus.
Technically, that puts them one seat ahead — and it is on that basis that they will, at some point, make the case to the lieutenant-governor that New Democrat Leader John Horgan should be given the chance to try to form government with the support of the Greens.
But before the assembled MLAs can do anything — up to and including holding, and voting on, the speech from the throne that incumbent B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark has vowed to put forward, even if its fate is all but sealed — they have to hold a secret ballot vote to choose a speaker, which is literally the first order of business for any freshly convened parliament.
With the exception of members of the executive (cabinet ministers, that is) all MLAs are considered to be in the running unless they formally request that the clerk withdraw their name from consideration — which, according to the latest dispatches from the front, each and every B.C. Liberal MLA, including the previous speaker, intends to do. That, in turn, would put the possibly-soon-to-be-governing New Democrat/Green alliance in a seriously awkward position, because giving up just one member to the speaker’s chair would eliminate their mathematical majority in favour of a perfect tie.
And while speakers can vote to break a deadlock, there are very specific conventions on how to exercise that normally rarely-used power: The speaker votes to continue the debate until the final division — which virtually always means siding with the yeas, and against defeating a bill or motion — at which point they vote to preserve the status quo, which usually means defeating whatever has been put forward.
(There is some debate over how that works on a confidence motion, mind you, but let’s leave that aside for now.)
By installing one of their number in the speaker’s chair, the Liberal/Green caucuses would be serving a pre-emptive death knell to virtually any bill or motion that Horgan and his government would bring forward.
But if neither side is willing to allow a candidate to stand, the legislature can’t proceed further — not to that promised throne speech, nor though to the confidence vote required to formally remove Clark’s government from power.
Such an impasse has happened in the past — the distant past, mind you: Most recently, in 1908, when a similar stalemate in Newfoundland ultimately led the lieutenant-governor of the day to dissolve the just-formed Parliament and hold a new election.
Still, it’s hard, although not impossible, to see that happening in BC, simply because Canadian voters are — how can one put this politely? — seem far less enthused at the prospect of heading back to the polls now than back in the day before they knew exactly how many millions of taxpayer dollars it would cost for a re-do.
The most likely outcome would seem to be for one brave MLA to defy the order from on high in the party and take the gig — which comes with a 30 per cent boost in salary, although no idyllic cottage residence, as is the case on Parliament Hill — fully aware that they likely wouldn’t be permitted to run for re-election under their current party’s banner.
Alternately, as suggested in this thread, the B.C. Liberals could offer up a candidate who serve just until Clark’s government has formally been deposed through a confidence vote, and then resign and leave it to the incoming government to find a replacement. Which would, of course, put the legislature back in exactly the same position as it is right now.
In the meantime, there is no shortage of lively discussion on what might happen next, which is really all a procedural nerd could ask for, so, thanks, British Columbia voters! It may all end in tears and doorknocking, but at least we may end up with an answer to CPC Vancouver’s question!
Now, as promised, on to newly elected Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, whose surprise triumph over Quebec libertarian Maxime Bernier, at least in part due to a surge in last-round support from social conservative voters, has left a lot of people wondering just how he’ll handle a push to return to the battlefronts in the culture war.
Or, as Dean Spironello puts it:
Do you believe Scheer will mitigate social conservatism within cpc similar to how Harper did?
— Dean Spironello (@deanspironello) May 29, 2017
First off, I can direct you to VICE News compatriot Justin Ling’s exhaustive rundown of just where Scheer, at least, stands on the issues, according to statements he made during the campaign, including those lumped under the “social” rubric like abortion, equal marriage, and the transgender rights bill — against each and every one of which he has, at the very least, expressed opposition at various points in his career. Most recently, he voted against the aforementioned legislation, which would enshrine federal human rights protection on the grounds of gender identity and expression.
But while he argued passionately against extending the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions when the question was before the House a decade or so ago, he also supported last year’s move to remove any definition of marriage from the Conservative party policy declaration, and he’s repeatedly suggested that, like his predecessor, Stephen Harper, he won’t attempt to “reopen the debate” on abortion.
At the same time, he’s made it clear that he wouldn’t stop individual MPs from bringing forward bills on “life issues” — which, in this case, likely also includes physician-assisted suicide, which he and his party vigorously opposed when the Liberals brought forward legislation responding to the landmark Carter decision earlier this year.
He also hasn’t been entirely clear on whether, as prime minister, he would instruct his cabinet to vote against any such initiatives that emanate from the backbench, which does raise at least the possibility that he wouldn’t take action to slam the door if the debate was reopened.
As someone who, by all indications, really didn’t harbour any desire to re-regulate abortion, Harper actually lucked out, because he knew that the vast majority of Liberal, New Democrat and other opposition MPs would vote down any attempt to do so, he could allow his own caucus to vote freely, even if it meant a majority backing such proposals, secure in the knowledge that the nays would ultimately prevail.
If he finds himself in government, Scheer may well be in the same position — although at that point, his own vote might be scrutinized more stringently than that of any other Conservative, for obvious reasons. But in a scenario where his Conservative caucus held a substantial majority, he could find himself forced to decide whether to allow pro-life MPs to test those numbers even if there was a good chance it would result in new laws being passed.
It’s much easier to champion free votes when you’re quietly confident that you’ll be comfortable with the result, in other words.
This may be the most important factor in figuring out how Scheer will handle his social conservative supporters, as there is virtually no evidence of overwhelming — or even whelming — support within either his caucus or the party at large to radically revise the status quo position on these issues. Yes, those votes may have been crucial to Scheer’s victory, but was still only 15-per-cent-or-so of the total votes cast, and even that was likely disproportionate to social conservative representation within the party itself, as there’s reason to think a fair number of those memberships were purchased at the encouragement of pro-life groups like Campaign Life Coalition specifically to send precisely that message.
In any case, we’ll probably get a better idea of where Scheer and post-Harper party leadership are planning to go on this front when card-carrying Conservatives converge on Halifax next year for the last policy convention before the 2019 election. That, more than anything else, will tell us just how strong the social conservative wing really is.
Until then, expect the speculation — on all sides of the debate — to continue.
Finally, because I always like to wrap up on an unambiguously positive note, Jordan Carlson (@jordantcarlson) wonders:
Finally thought of a good one: which party (or maybe specific MPs) is, in your experience, the *most* cooperative with others in committees?
— Jordan Carlson (@jordantcarlson) May 24, 2017
Is… is it wrong that I want to say “all of them!”? Because I kind of do, just because, with occasional admittedly spectacular exceptions (like, say, the marathon filibuster at procedure and House affairs earlier this spring over changing the House rules) committees really truly are the best part of parliament, both in terms of actually burrowing into key public policy issues, keeping tabs on government spending and making sure proposed legislation isn’t riddled with constitutional glitches and unintended consequences.
But because that’s not a particularly illuminating response, here’s what I’ve noticed in this parliament, with the caveat that committee makeup is, of course, determined by the number of MPs each party holds, and there will inevitably be a pretty significant difference in how an MP deals with his or her colleagues across the table when their party is in government versus opposition:
By and large, Liberal committee members really don’t seem to want to be at forever war with their opposition counterparts, which means they’re less likely to shut down debate or force it behind closed doors than was the case than in the previous parliament, although they occasionally end up using their majority to do precisely that. At least they tend to look mortified when they do so, which is a good sign. Because so many are new to Parliament, however, some Liberal MPs seem more timid about expressing views that go beyond the standard government talking point, although most are getting braver as the session goes on.
As for the Conservatives, it took the caucus a bit of time to collectively process the fact that their party no longer held absolute power over parliament or its creature committees, and there was a bit of sulking along the way, but at this point, most Conservative MPs have thoroughly embraced their role as Her Majesty’s Loyal Factcheckers. I’m not sure if “cooperative” is precisely the word I’d use to describe their contributions to the process — although there have been a good number of committee reports tabled with the unanimous endorsement of all members, which is pretty much the ultimate sign of a cooperative, congenial and functional body. Really, though, if forced to choose between “cooperative” and “zealously sceptical of any attempt to slip something past parliament,” I’d always opt for the latter.
The New Democrats — who, as the smallest recognized party, only get one seat per committee which drives their members to be extra-efficient in how they use their time. New Democrat MPs tend to be the least predictable, as far as what side of any question to come before committee they’ll take: they seem to side with the Liberals as often as their Conservative colleagues, offering their allegiance on a case-by-case basis. (Not that the Liberals need it to win a vote, but it’s always nice to see cross-party harmony.) As a party that has never had a break from opposition, New Democrats are also the most procedurally wily, which means they can also be counted on to keep a committee chair from inadvertently violating longstanding convention. They may never again want to be dismissed as the “conscience of Parliament,” but having individual MPs act as the consciences of their particular committees is seemingly not just allowed, but encouraged.
Finally, a special shoutout to Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who, as a member without formal caucus recognition, isn’t normally granted permanent membership and voting rights at committee, but shows up regularly to ask questions — which requires the consent of her colleagues — and present amendments, as well as raising concerns over the unequal status accorded to MPs in her position.
That’s it for this week, see you on the flip side! And keep those questions coming!
Cover: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press