Learning about confidence motions

In this week of political chicken, all three opposition parties are trying to figure out how to best take away the election timing from the Liberal party, while reducing the public’s wrath (that the media keeps telling us about) for calling an election during the Christmas period.

I’ve been doing some research on what constitutes a “non-confidence motion” and what does not. As this is a posting on a blog, I’ll allow this to be a dynamic document that changes as we learn more about what we call “non-confidence”. Corrections and amendments are welcome. Debate is encouraged.

The most obvious form of a non-confidence motion comes in the form of legislation which involves money. The governing party must write and pass a yearly budget in order for it to have the confidence of the House. On issues of confidence, members of the governing party’s caucus are expected to vote with their party. If one or more dissents, this does not mean that the government has lost confidence, but it may result in that member’s ouster from caucus (this is at the party’s discretion).

This brings up an interesting debate which occurred just a few years ago concerning confidence in the Chretien Liberal government. Prime Minister Chretien often declared that most of his legislation was in fact a vote of confidence resulting in the whipping of backbench MPs into line on virtually every piece of key legislation. This was seen as abhorrent to the Reform/Alliance tradition in that votes by Liberals on any legislation may in fact go against the wishes of a Liberal member’s constituents. One of the founding principle of Reform was free votes and Paul Martin has somewhat adopted this principle in his government.

Other key votes that involve money are called supply bills. If the government loses majority consent on a supply bill, this is called “loss of supply” and must result in the immediate dissolution of Parliament.

To recap, budget bills and supply bills are motions of confidence that the government must win by simple majority in order to retain the confidence of the House.

In the spring, the Conservative Party tried to bring a non-confidence vote to the floor of the House through a committee report. The committee report mentioned that the members had ‘lost confidence in the government and that it should resign’ and was put before the House for approval. The thought was that even though the government House leader had scheduled opposition days to the end of the session to mitigate the fallout from the Jean Brault testimony, the opposition could express non-confidence through a procedural motion. The motion itself was not ruled to be a motion of confidence itself and was referred back to committee.

Hon. Tony Valeri (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, as I have said previously, this motion is not a matter of confidence. The vote this evening is not a matter of confidence. It is a procedural motion to refer a report back to the committee. We certainly will not prejudge what the committee might do. The committee could choose to defeat that amendment. It could choose to change that amendment.

There are a couple of points to note from this motion. While Valeri might have been right to note that the motion was in fact procedural, this allowed the government to only survive upon a legal technicality. While the government continued to exist legally, it was in fact illegitimate to a majority of Canada’s elected representatives. The motion itself did demonstrate a lack of confidence in the government and it aimed to show this fact to the electorate. Further, the final ruling of dissolution does not in fact rest with the Prime Minister (ie. the ruling party), but with the Governor General. She can in fact do this at any time when presented with even a procedural motion from committee expressing non-confidence as approved by majority of the House. At the time, Ms. Clarkson did have the ability to declare dissolution of Parliament, or appoint someone else as Prime Minister who could command the confidence of the House. Of course, Ms. Clarkson did neither and the Liberal government survived. Back in the spring we considered what Constitutional scholar Andrew Heard had to say on the topic:

It should not matter what procedural context a vote of confidence occurs in. The fundamental basis of a confidence vote is that the elected members of the legislature express their collective view of the government. If that view conveys a loss of confidence or states that the government should resign, then the government must either resign or call an election.

In my opinion, stranger things have happened. We’ve all heard about the King-Byng affair. In 1926 when facing his own Liberal scandal of the day, Prime Minister Mackenzie King asked the Governor General Byng for dissolution of Parliament. The Governor General actually refused to do so and appointed Arthur Meighan as Prime Minister. Meighan, of course, lost confidence in the House only a few days later.

The next few weeks:
The NDP plans to introduce a motion that asks the government to resign after Christmas and hold an election in February. This is hardly a motion of confidence. If Mr. Layton believes that the Liberals or the Governor General will respect such a motion they are sadly mistaken. Remember the confidence of the Conservative “procedural” motion of confidence. While it was a de facto motion of non-confidence, the government didn’t respect it based upon it’s procedural status. Now the leader of the NDP wishes to tell the government when confidence expires. This is unprecedented and will not at all be respected by the Liberal government even if it passes. Again, the government will continue to rule without the “confidence” of the majority of elected members but the motion will be rejected as one of confidence. The Liberals got away with it on a razor’s edge back in the spring and they’ll trudge on through Jack’s muddy quasi-confidence motion. This all becomes moot, however, on December 8th when the House votes on a supply bill. If the three opposition parties have indeed lost confidence in the government, they will vote against the bill, defeating the government. Paul Martin will then call for dissolution of Parliament and there will be an election on January 16th with a campaign during Christmas.

There is no reason for Paul Martin to respect Jack’s pseudo-confidence motion when the NDP leader raises it on November 24th because the House either has confidence in the government or it does not. It cannot allow the House to operate in the absence of confidence until a pre-planned future date of dissolution.

Consider the opinion of Ned Franks, Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University:

“There’s something lacking in it. It’s not the first time in Canadian politics that obfuscation has been a substitute for action. It’s simply the House offering advice and opinion to the government, which the government is free to take or not. It doesn’t have the compulsory element of a clear confidence motion.

Of course, in the certain event that the Liberal government laughs in the face of the united opposition’s quasi-non-confidence motion, the House might even witness the same chaos that preceded the budget vote in the spring (the daily adjournment of the House). In the ensuing confusion, the Governor General might then ask if an opposition leader (say, Stephen Harper) could command the confidence of the majority of MPs. If he does (on a temporary basis), he could continue the government’s business (including the native conference) and then ask for dissolution on the pre-determined election timetable of that new coalition government (ie. positioned to reap full benefit from the second Gomery report).