Responsible government: an old idea becomes new again

First published: Jan. 25, 2006

As the Tory minority government waits to take power, it would appear Canadians have followed in the footsteps of their forefathers. Back in the 1830s, in Upper Canada, the term responsible government was coined. It called on the politicians of the day to stop the unfair practice of appointing members to the executive council (a group of elite, wealth settlers with strong ties to Britain) and return power to elected representatives in the House of Assembly.

The results of the election Monday night created a similar situation. With the Conservative Party in power with a slim margin, it will be absolutely necessary for them to seek some kind of coalition to advance any agenda. With the Liberals in opposition, the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP remain the most likely parties to be courted. Both sit on a very different end of the political spectrum. Certainly, Conservative leader Stephen Harper could try to woo individual Liberal members over to individual pieces of legislation. But, it would be a very risky strategy, particularly if the Liberals can maintain party discipline.

As speculative as this argument is, what is abundantly clear is the Conservatives will need to broker deals to survive. This means any strident policies will be tempered. The results will be the type of legislation, which is more “responsible” as compared to the type of policies introduced when there is a majority.

Minority governments can accomplish many good, groundbreaking pieces of legislation. Old age pension was introduced by Mackenzie King’s Liberal minority government in 1925. Lester Pearson’s minority government implemented the Canada Pension Plan, assistance for university students and universal Medicare in the 1960’s. The Auto Pact between Canada and the United States was signed in 1965 with a minority government in power (and in light of Ford’s announcement earlier this week, there is something to think about). We also saw the birth of PetroCanada and the legalization of same-sex marriage under a minority.

Northumberland residents played a key role in creating this responsible government. Identified as a swing riding early in the campaign coverage, voters delivered by ousting Liberal Paul Macklin handily, giving Conservative Rick Norlock a decisive victory. The Tories hoped to make major inroads within Ontario, but when the night was over, the blue tidal wave turned out to be a minor ripple.

Notable the south-central region, which Northumberland is part of, walked away from the Liberals. Peterborough riding elected Dean Del Maestro, toppling a Liberal stronghold once held by retired Liberal Peter Adams. With Colin Carrie in Oshawa, Darryl Kramp in Prince Edward-Hasting, a Conservative pocket has emerged.

This should not be a big surprise to Northumberland residents. With the newly minted Conservative Party coming into the last election, many former Progressive Conservatives were not ready to make the leap. And while Macklin was respected in the community, his campaign failed to overcome the scandal-riddled image of the Liberal Party. For those critical swing voters, the Liberals failed to convince them to stay. Macklin held his support in the western, urban portion of the riding, but it was the rural areas that turned their back, mostly in the east end of the riding.

Reviewing past poll results will also show Liberals, like Christine Stewart, would have been defeated had the former Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservative vote were combined.

There was another factor hurting the Tories in the last election. A study done by the Political Support in Canada Project in the United States at Duke University showed only one-third of voters were able to identify with a particular political ideology when they voted in the 2004 election. That means the vast majority did not see any ideological differences.

In reviewing the campaign this time, it would appear the campaign, at least for the Conservative Party, drew clearer ideological distinctions, such as day care, same-sex marriage, taxes and the gun registry. For those former Progressive Conservatives, it was all they really needed to see to return to the fold.

Another factor was the strong showing of NDP candidate Russ Christianson. About one week ago, NDP strategists said the soft left wing of the local Liberal Party were migrating to their man. As it turns out, the NDP did do considerably better.

Nobody should envy Mr. Harper; he has a tough task ahead of him. And, looking back at the Conservative fiasco when Joe Clark ran his minority government into the ground in 1979 in less than six months, Mr. Harper will not want to repeat that mistake.

In the meantime, voters can relax, feeling good about themselves that they have created an opportunity for a responsible government to act on their behalf. Maybe we are the big winners coming out of Monday night.

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