© Geoff Brookes
Our Canadian democracy has been described by one political wag as a dictatorship that is elected every 5 years. Of course, this comment pokes fun at the degree of power that a Prime Minster or Premier holds during the term of a majority government. Government “whips” make sure that the elected members of parliament tow the party line.
At such times, we lowly voters often feel like our views are far from the halls of power.
Don’t say that to Margaret Thatcher. “The Iron Lady” was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 – the longest sitting British Prime Minister of the 20th century. She never suffered an electoral loss as leader of the Conservative Party.
Instead, in 1990, she was defeated by her own Conservative Party, in a cabinet-initiated leadership review. Her government’s policies had lost the favour of the public. Although she obtained a majority of the first ballot votes in her leadership review, she was just 4 votes short of the number required to avoid a second ballot. After consulting with her party, she decided to avoid a potentially divisive second ballot. Instead, she stepped down as leader.
The incoming leader, John Major, revamped the Conservative Party’s policies, and won a massive victory for the Conservative Party in 1992, with the most votes in British electoral history.
Margaret Thatcher reportedly left the British Parliament in 1990 in tears. But she saved her party for the next election, by stepping down in favour of a new direction for her party, and her country.
You might say that it seems wrong, somehow, that Margaret Thatcher should be brought down by her own party, instead of by the electorate.
In fact, the British (and Canadian) parliamentary democracy rests upon the principle that the government (executive branch, “Ministers”) is accountable to the elected members of parliament. This is called responsible government. The executive is also made up of elected members of parliament, who may be subject to public questions from other parliamentarians, and whose legislation may be challenged by those members.
Occasionally, Ministers resign when they have lost the confidence of their Prime Minister. Less often, the Prime Minister is forced to resign when he has lost the confidence of his own Ministers. Of course, the entire government can fall when it has lost the confidence of Parliament as a whole (particularly the House of Commons).
The accountability to parliament is the means by which the elected representatives of the people can exert their democratic power. Between elections, it is the latent threat of electoral defeat that may influence politicians. When it comes to the election itself, even the government “whip” can be “whipped” by the voters.
The next time you hear a politician say that they don’t read polls other than election polls, please don’t restrain your derisive laughter. Of course they read them. Opinion polls might not always be terribly accurate, but when there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. And a good politician smells the smoke when the fire is still containable. He (or she) puts it out well before it gets out of control.
All of this brings us to the Honourable Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba.
After promising not to raise taxes during the election campaign, he promptly raised them after being elected. Worse, his explanation for the tax increase changed from time to time. Was it (a) infrastructure; (b) health costs; (c) flood costs; (d) all of the above; (e) any of the above, based on the 6 day school cycle.
Most Manitobans still retain a frontier (or a new Canadian) spirit. “Greg, just tell it like it is. Don’t feed me no lines.”
So the NDP has been trailing the Conservatives in recent Manitoba political polls. The Premier has been front and centre on the issues of the day, in which voter dissatisfaction has been greatest.
In a development that might be unprecedented in Manitoba politics, many senior cabinet Ministers have publicly said that it’s time for Mr. Selinger to step down as Premier. Greg Selinger, meet Margaret Thatcher.
But, unlike the Iron Lady, Greg Selinger said yesterday that he isn’t going to step down. Instead, he told his fellow parliamentarians to get firmly behind him, or be expelled from cabinet.
It’s not like there aren’t any serious issues being debated in Manitoba. The sales tax increase isn’t really the biggest issue for Manitobans. The big dog in Manitoba politics is where the main hydroelectric line will be placed – on the East side, which is “less expensive” and “more direct” per the Conservatives, or through the Interlake region, which is more environmentally favourable (per the NDP).
My point is not to open that debate here in this blog. My point is merely to state that this is indeed a massive issue that deserves the full attention of Manitoban voters.
Instead, by staying on as Premier, the Honourable Mr. Greg Selinger risks making the next election a debate over his leadership of the Province, or the fate of a 1% sales tax increase.
Sadly, unlike the Iron Lady, who stepped down for the good of her party (and perhaps her country), Mr. Selinger may never know whether he could have had a similar effect for his party, and his Province.