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B.C.’s political drama proves that parliamentary system is alive and well

Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University.

When the votes were counted in British Columbia on the night of May 9, the results were anything but clear. Christy Clark's Liberals had the most seats but were one short of a majority. The opposition parties soon thereafter came together to announce their intent to defeat her government at the earliest opportunity and form a new governing alliance that would command the confidence of the legislature. Indeed, they have now done just that.

A week after a Liberal Speech from the Throne that absorbed many of the policies that the opposition parties had themselves championed, the government was defeated on a vote of non-confidence. We now await the swearing-in of an NDP government that will rely on the support of the Green Party.

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When elections produce unclear results, this can be very frustrating for the politicians whose fates hang in the balance. But political scientists live for this stuff. Elections such as B.C.'s, as well as the machinations that came after the vote, give us a chance to understand more clearly how our parliamentary system works.

We need to take advantage of these opportunities when they come along. Parliamentary systems are hard to get to know because important things such as government formation and transition, confidence, and the role of the lieutenant governor are governed by convention rather than written rules. Conventions are supposed to make the system more adaptable to new and unique realities, but they also breed confusion, which can undermine the force of the conventions themselves.

The events in B.C. have reminded us that in parliamentary systems, it is entirely legitimate for a legislature to choose a new government without holding a new election. In recent history, some misguided rhetoric has placed doubt around this fundamental constitutional convention.

In 2008, when Stephen Harper's Conservatives were facing what seemed to be an imminent loss of confidence in the House of Commons, the Liberals and NDP proposed that they form a coalition government to replace the Conservatives once they were defeated. The Conservatives engaged in an aggressive communications strategy that rejected the legitimacy of the proposed coalition on the grounds that opposition parties were attempting to seize power unduly from the Conservative government that Canadians elected. Even though the defeat of the Conservatives and the formation of a coalition government, without an election, would have been entirely legitimate, the Conservatives' argument resonated with a significant number of Canadians (including, apparently, Michael Ignatieff, who called it a coalition of losers in his 2013 book Fire and Ice.)

There seems to be no such campaign in B.C. This is a very good thing from the perspective of parliamentary democracy itself, as there seems to be a general acceptance around the legitimacy of the transfer of power from the Liberals to the NDP.

Some might feel that the Lieutenant Governor would have been wise to grant Christy Clark's request for dissolution. This is a fair point. The majority that the opposition parties hold together is the slimmest possible and it will be the Speaker's job to break tied votes. The legislative agenda before the government is ambitious and complex, with the Kinder Morgan pipeline, electoral reform and other major issues on the docket. The durability of the NDP-Green alliance will face difficult and continuous stress tests, as will citizens' comfort level with the fact that the survival of the government and the passage of transformative bills will depend on the Speaker's votes. The legislature might prove to be unworkable and if that's the case, another election will come soon enough. Conversely, events such as by-elections might bolster the government's stability.

Whatever the future holds, the events in B.C. over the past seven weeks have given us a clear precedent to refer to when instances such as this come up in the future. If the electoral reform agenda progresses in B.C. (or anywhere else in Canada) to produce a form of proportional representation, then minority governments, coalitions and alliances will no doubt become more common. Unless we want what political scientists call a steady diet of elections, we have to accept the legitimacy of government transitions without elections, as appears to be the case in B.C.

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Video: NDP set to form government in British Columbia (The Canadian Press)
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