Op-Ed by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Your Canada, Your Constitution, September 1, 2012
With polls showing that a minority government is likely after Tuesday’s Quebec election, the party leaders should immediately begin negotiating clear, written rules about key situations in the formation and operation of the government and legislature.
If they don’t write down the rules, the provincial lieutenant-governor, as the unelected representative of the British monarch (in a province where more than 75 per cent want to cut ties to the monarchy), will effectively decide which party governs, how it governs and for how long, and when the next provincial election will be, with a premier of possibly questionable legal legitimacy trying to direct these decisions.
In constitutional monarchies like Canada, these rules are usually known as “constitutional conventions.” When they are not written down, they are of course unclear, and as a result cause ongoing problems and conflicts — as has happened with Canada’s federal government in the past five years.
Politicians from all parties in New Zealand, Australia and Britain agreed to clearly written conventions for essentially every area of government operations when they faced minority governments in recent years. The written constitutions of most countries in the world contain these rules.
As politicians in most countries in the world have done, the Quebec provincial leaders should agree on written rules to clarify:
Which party will be given the opportunity to try to govern first after the election, and what form of an agreement is specifically needed to establish a coalition government made up of two or more parties.
How many weeks after the election the legislature must be opened and the inaugural address (speech from the throne) introduced.
What decisions the initial premier and cabinet can make before the National Assembly opens and the inaugural address is voted on.
What votes other than the inaugural address will be votes of confidence.
What the required form for a resolution of non-confidence in the government is.
Under what circumstances a second party would be given the right to try to govern if there is a vote of non-confidence in the first ruling party (instead of an election happening after that vote).
What decisions the cabinet can make after a vote of non-confidence occurs until a new cabinet is formed, or, if another election occurs, through that election period until a new cabinet is formed.
If these rules are not agreed to before Tuesday’s vote or as soon as possible after voting day, and no party wins a majority of seats, everyone should expect a very messy and destructive fight for power that will last for months, if not years, as happened from 2004 to 2011 at the federal level (a fight that is still not fully resolved).
Politicians in all provinces could also prevent future divisive fights over these issues by writing down clear rules in these areas.
Duff Conacher is the spokesman for Your Canada, Your Constitution/Votre Canada, Votre Constitution, a national educational charity dedicated to involving Canadians in their democracy and their Constitution. He is based in Toronto.
This letter appeared in the Montreal Gazette as a Special to the Gazette.