The 39th Parliament
A dysfunctional or productive session?
Last Updated Sept. 9, 2008
For political partisans, this was an eventful Parliament, chockablock with audacious manoeuvres, surprise victories, floor crossings and the ongoing drama of watching a vigorous prime minister negotiate his agenda through the shoals of minority government.
But from a legislative point of view, was the 39th Parliament a dud, given Prime Minister Stephen Harper's claim for the Sept. 7 election call that it was dysfunctional?
When Parliament was finally put to pasture — more than two years and seven months after the Conservatives won their minority, and more than a year longer than the previous average minority government — the final legislative record was 125 government bills introduced and 65 passed.
It was not the least productive minority government in modern times. That honour belongs to Joe Clark's nine-month regime in 1979: Elected in May, Clark didn't convene Parliament until October, and from then until his eventual defeat over a controversial budget in mid-December, only 38 government bills were introduced and seven passed.
One year into Harper's minority, 53 government bills had been introduced, 17 passed. Four of those were from the government's first budget and were passed accidentally one afternoon when the opposition forgot what exactly they were voting on.
In Paul Martin's 13-month minority government, 93 government bills were introduced and 54 were passed, including the legislation that legalized same-sex marriage.
The average over the past six years, according to the Parliamentary library, has been in the order of 46 government bills introduced in a year and slightly fewer than 26 passed.
Some minorities have been productive. The 1972-74 Pierre Trudeau minority was based on a semi-formal alliance with David Lewis's NDP and saw 93 bills introduced and 68 passed over that two-year period. Among those enacted were the laws that created PetroCanada and the Foreign Investment Review Agency, as well as a new election expenses act.
The Harper Parliament's first budget introduced a host of tax cuts (including fitness and transit credits), changed the nature of the child-care (and possibly the Quebec) debate through financing changes and boosted defence spending in a way that will affect Canada's foreign policy for years.
What's more, its resolutions to maintain Canadian troops in Kandahar until 2011 and to recognize the Québécois as a nation within Canada have broad reverberations in a host of areas.
If there was any lack of legislative productivity, particularly in the early months, you can blame that on many things. An obstinate prime minister who was more interested in creating a partisan agenda than political compromise. Or a leaderless (for part of that period) Liberal opposition that merely went through the motions of playing nice.
Do numbers matter?
Minority governments can, in the words of the late Senator Eugene Forsey, Canada's pre-eminent parliamentarian, be "an opportunity, not a threat." Indeed, several were rich with legislative achievement.
Lester Pearson's successive Liberal minorities in the mid-1960s introduced the Canada Pension Plan, student loans and medicare, among other things, like the Canadian flag.
Mackenzie King's in the 1920s also tilted left to survive, with new pension and labour legislation.
Harper's first throne speech was lauded for taking into account opposition sensibilities, even input. But after that, events took a sharply partisan turn. The Conservative government's mammoth Accountability Act, its response to the Liberal sponsorship scandal, was its first piece of legislation. Introduced in April 2006, it took eight months before it gained royal assent.
Of the other Conservative bills that passed, probably only the Election Act changes (limiting individual and corporate donations to $1,000 a year) and the bill to authorize the softwood lumber agreement can be said to more than just housekeeping.
Harper government legislation
Harper eschewed any kind of formal arrangement with the opposition parties, preferring to try to play one party off against the other depending on the bill.
This is a time-honoured tactic even though the most productive minorities have often been the ones with formal or semi-formal alliances — witness Trudeau's from 1972-74 or David Peterson's in Ontario from 1985-87, with its written "accord" with the NDP.
These minorities have also been the ones that have tended to deliver a majority at the end to the person in the first minister's chair. That's a bit of history not lost on opposition parties.
At the beginning of a minority government, a prime minister probably asks himself, "How long do I see this going? How accommodating do I want to be? "
This time, that assessment is qualified a bit by the fact that Parliament passed a fixed elections act, which would have set the date of the next federal contest for 2009 or four years after the last one. However, the act also stipulates that the Governor General can dissolve Parliament at his discretion, which means at the discretion of the prime minister.
One popular assumption is that minorities that last a couple of years lend a comfort factor to the incumbent prime minister, which can translate into a majority at the next election. But that's not always the case.
It worked for Trudeau and Peterson, but it didn't for Pearson in 1963 and '65, nor for Bill Davis in Ontario through most of the 1970s.
Many new leaders who come to power in a minority situation undoubtedly feel the huge responsibility of the situation as well perhaps as the partisan promise that was John Diefenbaker's in 1958. After a year as a minority prime minister, he was able to translate a continuing sense of Liberal arrogance into one of the most dominating majorities the country has seen, a veritable sweep through every region.
But for every Diefenbaker in 1958 there is, well, another Diefenbaker, who ended up losing power after holding a minority in 1962-63, as well as a Paul Martin in 2006 or a Joe Clark in 1979-80.
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|Updated: Nov. 7, 2008, 5:00 PM EST|
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