Saturday, May 26, 2007

Forgetting history

I heard this a few times yesterday on the CBC and in the Quebec media: the idea that, in 1985, the Ontario Liberals assumed office because the Lieutenant Governor preferred to ask them to do so, rather than call an election.
That was not the case.
The 1985 election, (which began with a Tory majority government under new leader Frank Miller, inherited from Bill Davis) ended with the Conservatives having the most seats, the Liberals following quite closely, and a strong NDP contingent. The Liberals actually polled 1% more votes than the Tories and were just 4 seats short of tying them. The Liberals and NDP reached a very public written accord that they would, at the first opportunity, vote non-confidence in the Tory government and, they expected, the Liberals would be asked to form a government. The NDP promised to support the Liberals in the legislature in return for the passage of some elements of the NDP election platform. This agreement was made before the recall of the Ontario legislature. Miller, to his credit, quickly called the legislature, expecting his government to fall. He brought down a very voter-friendly budget, which was, as planned, defeated.
Now, the kicker, the fact that everyone gets wrong.
Miller went to the Lieutenant Government, submitted his resignation, and told the Lieutenant Governor that he expected the Liberals to be asked to form a government. Miller did not, as in the case of Mackenzie King and Lord Byng in 1925, ask for an election. Miller probably did not do so because the Conservative support had collapsed very precipitously in the last weeks of the campaign, and the party was financially tapped out by a hard-fought leadership race the previous winter. The Ontario Lieutenant Governor used no real discretion in the matter. He followed the very public will and the expectations of all parties in the legislature. The transfer of power went off as planned and expected.
But that's not how it's explained here and in many other Quebec media.
Thompson and Bauch also don't understand the King-Byng Affair.
King lost the 1925 election (Libs 100; Tories, 115, Progressives 22). Acting within his rights, he decided to face Parliament rather than resign. King expected to be supported by the Progressives. This support did not, because of several scandals, materialize. Rather than resign and let the real winner of the election attempt to form a minority government, King succeeded in placing the Governor General in a politically irritating situation. Arthur Meighen, who had actually won the election was, in King's ploy, to be denied the right to govern. Byng, by, in effect, doing the right thing of offering the leader of the party that had, by some 15%, won the most seats, a chance to face Parliament, was cast as a meddling Imperialist. Meighen was given his due, did try to form a government, and was defeated. At the same time, King and the press cast Meighen as an opportunist, again ignoring the fact that Meighen had won the election and both a moral and legal right to try to govern. It would be interesting to see the reaction of the press in 2007 if the Liberals won (extrapolated to the present size of the House of Commons) 30 more MPs than the Harper Tories and Harper somehow manipulated them out of a chancew to form a minority government.
King's version of this complex series of events -- that the democratic will of Canadians was thwarted by a colonial official when King's request for an election was turned down -- won him the subsequent election and is obviously still entrenched in Canada's media.
If Charest's budget is defeated (very much an unlikelihood, I believe. No one seems to consider the idea of a compromised, revised budget, which is the sensible outcome), Charest will almost certainly get an election if he wants one. The ADQ is nowhere near having the type of mandate David Peterson had in 1985 or Arthur Meighen won in 1925. There's no way it will, or should, form a government without facing the voters.

Update: Here's a far better analysis of the political situation in Quebec. Graeme Hamilton of the National Post understands the Ontario power transfer of 1985 and has the good sense not to bring up King-Byng. I'd add just one thing: a warning to Pauline Marois. Take a look at the post-coronation poll numbers of John Turner, Kim Campbell, Paul Martin and even Stockwell Day before you act too quickly.

UPDATE (June 1): I thought L. Ian Macdonald understood the 1985 Ontario precendent. Looks like I was wrong.

Just to refresh: The Ontario Lieutenant Governor invited the Liberals to form a government because Tory premier Frank Miller asked him to. If Miller had asked for an election, he would have got one. Miller did not ask for an election because he knew he'd lose.


Anonymous said...

"No one seems to consider the idea of a compromised, revised budget, which is the sensible outcome)"

Under National Assembly rules, budgets cannot be amended.
It's make or break.

Ottawa Watch said...

Not true. There's no such type of political quicksand in the Parliamentary system in Quebec or anywhere lse in the Westminister system.
Budgets cannot be amended by the opposition parties without the support of the government. They can be amended by the movers of the motion, which are, of course, Government MPPs.
Charest can amend the budget or withdraw it altogether.