The Weekly Writ for Jul. 12: Election calls and legitimacy
Why the networks need to be careful when they call the next election, plus the PPC's finances, a hung parliament and much more.
Welcome to the Weekly Writ, a round-up of the latest federal and provincial polls, election news and political history that lands in your inbox every Wednesday morning.
In short, it raises the possibility that the Liberals could continue governing after the next election even if they finish second in the seat count, especially if the count is close or if the Liberals’ and NDP’s combined seat total constitutes a majority. After all, whoever commands the confidence of the House of Commons gets to govern, and Justin Trudeau would be within his rights to try to stay in office even if Pierre Poilievre wins more seats.
But what I thought was more interesting was Coyne’s threaded response to a tweet by Sean Speer, editor at The Hub and a former Conservative staffer. Speer had tweeted that he agreed with Coyne, and that the consequences could be “explosive” and potentially “violent” if the Liberals tried to hold on with a “coalition of election losers” to “overturn” the results.
Coyne pointed out that it seemed Speer had missed his point — not that the Liberals should be loath to take the option of the constitutionally-legitimate route of testing the confidence of the House, but that the Conservatives should make greater efforts to get to a point where it isn’t majority or bust for them, rather than fan the flames with that kind of overheated rhetoric about some sort of illegitimate coup.
It’s been observed elsewhere, for example in this piece by Aaron Wherry, that minority governments may now be the norm rather than the exception, and that Canada’s political parties probably need to start adapting to the new reality.
I expect to return to this theme often in the future. I’m a stickler for the rules, and the Liberals would be playing by the rules if they decide to meet the House even after coming second in the seats. If they still have a deal with the NDP, or at least have a chance of working with them, they might actually be better placed to maintain a government than the Conservatives, who have few friends to turn to in the House.
And though we have to go back a century to find the last precedent of a second-place party trying to govern at the federal level, we only have to go back a few years to find precedents in the provinces. John Horgan’s New Democrats came second in the seats (and the votes) after the 2017 British Columbia election, but were able to form a government with the support of the B.C. Greens. Not only was this legitimate at the time, but it also got the stamp of approval from voters when Horgan was re-elected with a majority of his own in 2020.
In New Brunswick in 2018, the incumbent Liberals finished second in the seat count (though first in the votes, by a lot) and stayed on to test the confidence of the House. The numbers didn’t work out for them, they lost the confidence vote and the Progressive Conservatives under Blaine Higgs were invited to form a government. There were no massive protests in the streets of Fredericton and it all worked out as it should.
It was almost as if we lived in a mature, stable democracy.
But my hope that federal politicians will show the same maturity should be extended to our media, too. Speer laments that the mainstream and “publicly-funded” media will try to convince Canadians that this is all by the board (of course, it is, so why shouldn’t they?) but I am just as convinced that other sections of the media, mainstream or otherwise, will happily rile up discontent if the Trudeau Liberals lose the election but keep the government. I feel that would be far more irresponsible than quoting some constitutional experts.
Still, I’m not so convinced that the bulk of mainstream media will be on the side of those constitutional experts. I find it easier to imagine them both-sides-ing the debate, giving equal standing to both proper constitutional procedures and accusations of coups.
Election night itself will be the first moment for the media to take a stance on this.
When the networks make an election call, they decide on two things: firstly whether it will be a minority or majority government, and secondly which party will be the winner. When it’s a majority government the call is straightforward. When it is a minority government the networks usually have to be a little more careful. But they choose a winner nonetheless.
They don’t do that in the United Kingdom, where our electoral and political systems are effectively the same. Instead, when there is no majority they call a “hung parliament” and leave it at that. No winner is declared.
This is where a judgment call needs to be made by the networks here — and one that goes beyond which number is bigger than the other.
If the Liberals finish second in the seats but are either very close to the Conservative count or could control a majority in the House with the support of the New Democrats (assuming the NDP has not ruled out another working arrangement with the Liberals), then it would be irresponsible for the networks to call a Conservative minority government. Otherwise it would cast any attempt by the Liberals to continue in office as illegitimate and improper and a denial of the result of the election as defined and legitimized by the network’s call.
In such a scenario it would be better to call an unspecified minority government with the Conservatives controlling the most seats and letting the chips fall where they may post-election. Analysts on set can prognosticate on who has the best chance to govern, but there’s no need for an entire journalistic organization to take an editorial stance that sets the narrative even before the vote-counting is finished.
(Before anyone says that this is a partisan position, the same applies to Heather Stefanson and the Progressive Conservatives in Manitoba, who could also finish a close second in a minority legislature after October’s election and still have the potential to continue in government.)
If the Liberals finished in second place in the seats and Justin Trudeau did not resign as prime minister on election night, there’s no denying that the post-election climate would be volatile and fraught. But the media would be better off staying out of it rather than contributing to the volatility.
That’s not to say such a decision on the part of Trudeau couldn’t be up for debate — the Conservatives would be completely within their rights to argue that the Liberals should do the “right thing” and resign in such a scenario, especially if the Liberals’ losses in seats and votes are significant. There is a fair argument to be made that, if such a thing were to occur, Justin Trudeau should take the hint and step aside because he would have lost the moral legitimacy to stay in the job.
But the actual legitimacy? The legal legitimacy? Anything that lends credence to the notion of an illegal act, an undemocratic coup or a stolen election needs to be avoided, denounced and stamped out. Both participants and observers in the political sphere will have a role to play. We’re supposed to be a mature democracy, after all.
Since this was inspired by a Twitter thread, let me take this opportunity to point you toward my new Threads account on Mark Zuckerberg’s new platform. Between Zuck and Musk, we don’t have great options, so hedge your bets and follow me there as well as on the bird site.
Now, to what is in this week’s instalment of the Weekly Writ:
News on a Nova Scotia byelection and more on party finances.
Polls on which parties are winning which issues and whether Trudeau and/or Poilievre should resign.
A near-tie in the federal seat count (and in Manitoba) if the election were held today demonstrates the perils of calling a winner in a very close result.
Riding profile for Scarborough–Guildwood, which goes to the polls on July 27.
Enjoying the benefits of patronage in 1910 Manitoba in the #EveryElectionProject.