Nova Scotia·Analysis

Is a big election win a blank cheque to govern?

The premiers of Ontario and Nova Scotia differ in many ways but Doug Ford and Stephen McNeil share a similar view when it comes to big and controversial decisions — their majority mandates give them the right to act. But two political scientists say a mandate isn't the be-all, end-all.

Governments with 'we win, you lose' attitude are bullies, says political scientist

The so-called notwithstanding clause has never been used in Ontario until now. And Premier Doug Ford says he won't hesitate to use it again if necessary. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's plan to override the Constitution using the notwithstanding clause in order to slash the size of Toronto city council is unusual, but his justification for doing so has become commonplace in Canadian politics.

"We have a mandate from the people," Ford said earlier this week as he announced his intention to invoke the controversial clause. 

The premier is forging ahead with his plan despite a court ruling the cuts to council are unconstitutional and the fact Ford never campaigned specifically on reducing the size of council.

"The people will be the judge and jury," an unapologetic Ford told reporters.

Like Ford, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil did not campaign on eliminating school boards in the last provincial election, but that's exactly what his government did last spring. And it did so with limited debate and an attempt to drive legislation through the House as quickly as possible.

Just eight months prior, the party's election platform promised "a new Liberal government will also complete a full review of the administrative structures of school boards." That's as far as the party seeking re-election was willing to go in telegraphing that school boards were in its crosshairs. 

McNeil once again defended the decision to eliminate the boards Wednesday, using roughly the same argument as Ford.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says voters will decide at the end of his government's mandate whether they're happy with his performance. (Canadian Press)

"If people elect, in a democracy, a group of people to govern, if you're fortunate enough to get a majority, you deliver what you believe is the best government for the citizens of the province and then people get a chance to review you, decide whether you come back or not," he said.

But making decisions that have legitimacy — and respect parliamentary democracy — extend well beyond four-year election cycles, according to two Nova Scotia political scientists.

"It was never intended by the architects of our parliamentary system, and by those who participated in the evolution of the parliamentary system over centuries, that there would be a majority blank cheque," said Tom Urbaniak of Cape Breton University.

"There has never been, in the context of Canadian society, this notion that a majority mandate ... means that everything you care to do is legitimate, without deliberation, no one else has the right to interfere."

Winning an election is just one part of "political legitimacy," he said. 

"There's also an expectation [of] deliberation, of changing views and compromising based on that deliberation."

When governing becomes bullying

That sentiment was shared by Jeff MacLeod who teaches political science at Mount Saint Vincent University.

"An election isn't an end of a conversation politically or policy-wise — it really should be the beginning of one," he said.

MacLeod said governments that adopt a "we win, you lose, we get to do what we want" attitude are authoritarian and represent "the opposite of leadership."

In a word? "It's bullying!"  

MacLeod also disputed the claim any government has the support of the people because of a majority mandate.

"Since few governments are ever elected with a majority of the voters, given the plurality system we have, it is spurious to claim that the people are supporting anything the government had on its bucket list during the election, or didn't have."

The McNeil government dissolved school boards last spring even though the Liberals did not campaign on the issue. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

In the 2017 election, McNeil's Liberals took 39.5 per cent of the vote but less than 54 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. It was the lowest voter turnout ever in the province.

Urbaniak and MacLeod said a government is free to bring in major policy changes, unanticipated during an election campaign or when platforms were designed, but they also agreed governments should respect what the public and political opponents have to say about those changes.

It may be worth noting that until 1928, Nova Scotia had its own upper chamber to review the work of the legislature.

"That was meant to be a check on impulsive or authoritarian or overly populous, knee-jerk action by the legislative assembly," said Urbaniak.

Another check on power in the years following Confederation was the fact politicians, even those who belonged to political parties, were "loose fish." They had to be won over and unlike today, leaders simply couldn't count on full caucus support.

Read more articles from CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

Jean Laroche


Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.