Leading up to the Ontario election call last week, we heard a few old electoral canards being trotted out — that Kathleen Wynne hadn’t been elected, that she wasn’t on the ballot in the previous election, and that she didn’t have a mandate to govern. Those are some pretty curious assertions, given that it bears absolutely no relation to how our system of Responsible Government actually operates.
Many of us are inundated with particularly American notions of government — term limits, administrations, separation of powers, the “executive branch,” and even the notions of checks and balances. All of these examples are Americanisms that are so suffused in the popular culture and consciousness that a great many Canadians start believing that they’re a part of our own system of government. It’s even more disappointing when journalists start to adopt them as well, a particular failing in the civic literacy of our nation, but above all, we must actively combat the pervasive notion that somehow we elect the leaders on the ballots during a general election.
Under our system of government, leaders lead until they can no longer maintain the confidence of the chamber, being the House of Commons or the provincial legislative assembly. There are no terms — so long as they maintain the confidence, they govern. Even during an election, the first minister remains such until they formally tender their resignation to the Governor General or lieutenant governor. If that first minister’s party should happen to not win the greatest number of seats in said election, they remain first minister until they tender that resignation, and may even attempt to continue to govern and test the confidence of the chamber if they so choose. It’s not an automatic process of winner-take-all, despite the popular understanding and shorthand.
It is also an intrinsic part of the system that we vote based solely on our local representative. It is those representatives who form the parliament which then decides on leadership. Now, we have certainly created a shorthand for this by party leadership as opposed to the days when MPs were more “loose fish” whose allegiances were far less rigid as they are today, but it is instructive as to how parties formed and became dominant under our system. In order for a leader to maintain confidence, they need to command the votes to do so, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to organize into parties that can be a voting bloc that can be counted on to maintain that confidence. It also allows them to pool both resources and expertise, so that each MP doesn’t need to be an expert in all matters of policy, but can rather align themselves with the party that best reflects their values on a wide range of subjects. But at its core, the system remains one of commanding the confidence of the chamber — and hence the government, drawn from its membership, remains responsible to it in order to continue to govern.
Which takes us back to the question of leaders on ballots. Because our system is dependent on MPs organizing themselves in a manner that keeps the government responsible to them as MPs, it becomes up to them to organize their own leadership. While this has become a much more fraught question in Canada with the advent of the party membership selecting the leader as opposed to the caucus, the core of the system remains intact. We vote for MPs, and they determine the leadership. This provides our particular system with a greater sense of dynamism than you’d find in America, and doesn’t rely on fixed mandates. Instead, it’s confidence that’s key.
Another of those Americanisms that has seeped into the consciousness of Canadians is the notion that we are voting for the leader. When one argues the point that the names of the leaders don’t actually appear on the ballot (unless of course you happened to live in their ridings — in the Ontario case, Kathleen Wynne’s name was indeed on the ballot in Don Valley West), people will insist that it’s not how people vote. Apparently MPs are supposed to just be ciphers for their party leaders — except of course when we demand that they act more independently to better reflect the wishes of their constituents. And no, I haven’t quite sorted out that particular cognitive dissonance either.
Of course, it’s difficult to make blanket assertions about how and why people vote the way they do. There are some very good constituency MPs and MPPs out there who get elected in spite of their parties or leaders, and it’s hard to say that votes for them were necessarily votes for their current leaders. And given the more dynamic nature of our parliamentary system, where it allows for more fluidity in terms of leadership changes, it becomes difficult to try and characterize leaders themselves as having mandates since they were not directly elected. It’s particularly fraught electoral logic to describe it as such, considering the way that our ballots work and system is constructed. And insisting that people vote for leaders on those ballots has about the same validity as asserting that the sun revolves around the Earth – it’s not true, even if you perceive it to be.
We can’t get into the heads of individual voters to determine which particular calculations they make at the ballot box when it comes to making that choice, whether they base their decisions on party allegiances, for the conduct of the leader, for their local nominee, or because they liked the look of their local candidate. What will not change however is that whatever their thinking behind their vote is, it is nevertheless one for the MP or MPP, and nothing else. As Ontarians head into another electoral cycle, and the rest of the country will for a federal election next year, it should be a reminder that this is what the vote that they cast means, and understanding how it works does matter.
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