In Canada’s system of government, one can be confident in two outcomes.
First, parties tend to win a majority of seats in Canadian elections. Canada’s electoral system is designed to reward winners and punish losers, and so the winning party usually gets a seat bonus that allows them to win a majority of seats. The result is that Canadian governments tend to be single-party majority governments. There have been minority governments, but they are relatively rare.
Second, once a prime minister is selected and a majority government formed, the prime minister does pretty much whatever they want. The reason for this is party discipline: with a majority of MPs whipped to support the government and ensure its survival, prime ministers can introduce whatever legislation they see fit to introduce. Discipline also ensures most single-party governments last roughly four years.
Party discipline in Canada is very strong; indeed, likely the strongest in the democratic world. It is rare to see MPs in Canada snub their noses at the party leader.
But doesn’t the prime minister make decisions in consultation with cabinet ministers? To some extent, yes. But the prime minister can easily override ministers. And, in recent decades, we have seen a concentration of power in the prime minister and the partisan staff in the Prime Minister’s Office that serves their interests. The result is that the prime minister is a very powerful political figure.
Sometimes we see raw displays of such power from majority governments. One example is when they introduce omnibus bills: single bills that contain many items that should be separated into individual bills. It is already hard enough for Parliament to examine bills and hold governments accountable. Omnibus bills and other attempts by governments to drown Parliament in paper make it even harder. Such attempts to run roughshod over Parliament, and particularly opposition MPs who are there to hold the government accountable, should be viewed dimly.
All of this applies equally, if not more so, to the Canadian provinces, where premiers are similarly powerful figures. Sitting atop single-party majority governments characterized by strong party discipline, premiers get what they want nearly 100 per cent of the time. Which makes the rare occasion when premiers do not get their way all the more interesting.
This brings us to the remarkable spectacles that unfolded recently in the Manitoba legislature. At the time of this writing, the Opposition NDP had been delaying the introduction of the government’s budget and several bills for more than a week (the budget was finally presented on Thursday). The nuances of how NDP members did so, and the rules surrounding the delay of bills, make for excellent reading if you are suffering from insomnia. But, suffice it to say: the NDP achieved this using perfectly legitimate procedural tactics in the legislature.
The NDP’s explanation for its lengthy filibuster is that the government was trying to ram an unprecedented number of bills through the house and would not give the opposition sufficient time to examine them. Indeed, along with the budget, the government intended to table 21 bills last week, touching on a wide range of potentially explosive topics, from public school processes to the act that governs civil service pensions.
The onslaught of COVID-19 has strengthened the NDP’s resolve, as the thought is that the crisis surrounding the virus might distract public attention from the government’s legislative program. "We’re not going to let the government sneak a bunch of measures through while people are paying attention to other things," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
For its part, the Pallister government was more than a little ticked off that it was not able to use its legislative majority to introduce the bills it wants to introduce. The government invoked the COVID-19 crisis to argue that the NDP should stand down. In a period of crisis, so the argument goes, opposition parties should not play political games and stand in the government’s way.
The Tories, however, were not strangers to legislative delay tactics while they were in the opposition. Indeed, back in 2013, Davis Hirsch and I wrote a column in the Free Press praising Tory MLA Kelvin Goertzen for staging a lengthy filibuster in order to delay an NDP bill. Goertzen’s filibuster, we argued, asserted the power of both the Opposition and individual MLAs in a system that was overly dominated by the government.
"While the powers of both legislatures and MLAs have seemingly weakened considerably," we argued, "Goertzen’s filibuster reminds us individual MLAs can still make a difference."
Goertzen is now the government house leader, and the chief critic of the NDP’s delay tactics.
Now as then, delay tactics provide a small legislative check on a very powerful government. I wish we would see such assertion of the power of the opposition more often.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.