Maintaining Confidence in the Convention of Confidence

In Canada’s parliamentary system, the confidence convention is not written into any statute or standing order of the House, but without it the system lacks democratic legitimacy. The confidence convention gives Parliament the power to hold government to account. In the context of a deadly pandemic, opposition parties who might otherwise have an incentive to bring down the government are trying to have it both ways: they tell us they have no confidence in the government but they allow it to continue to hold office, all to avoid an election. The Trudeau government, for its part, has been misusing the Prime Minister’s prerogative to deem any vote as a matter of confidence as a tool to avoid government accountability in Parliament.

Lori Turnbull 

On November 30, 2020, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland delivered a long-awaited fiscal update to a skeptical House of Commons. In her statement, she proposed a range of measures aimed at economic stabilization and recovery in the short, medium, and long terms, including $100 billion in stimulus spending, extensions of the wage and rent subsidies, and support for the tourism and hospitality industries.

The government survived the confidence votes related to the fiscal update, but expressions of confidence in this government have been hollow and tentative. Opposition leaders have made public statements to the effect that, while they do not have confidence in the government, they allow legislation to pass in order to avoid an unwanted election. For its part, the government has not shied away from using the confidence convention as a political tool to avoid parliamentary accountability. The actions of both the government and the opposition set a dangerous precedent that could contribute to the erosion of the confidence convention. 

The Liberal government is in a minority position, which means that its survival of confidence votes is not a foregone conclusion. Though public approval ratings regarding the federal government’s handling of the pandemic have been high, the government’s claim to holding the confidence of the House of Commons has been shaky, specifically in the second half of 2020. 

The fierce political rhetoric has suggested that opposition parties have serious concerns about both the competence and the integrity of the government but, paradoxically, the government has survived successive tests of confidence. This pandemic period has shone a closer light on a wide range of systemic problems and weaknesses, among them the vulnerability of the confidence convention—a foundational piece of our constitution—to political agendas. 

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland at her Fall Economic Statement. As a money measure it was a confidence vote the government easily survived. But the constitutional convention isn’t always so clear, and in this minority Parliament, Lori Turnbull writes, that could be a problem. Adam Scotti photo

In the early days of the first wave of the pandemic, as emergency circumstances took over and the country braced itself for an indefinite period of hardship, the spirit on Parliament Hill was more cooperative and collegial than we are used to. The partisan bickering that has become typical in Canadian politics was temporarily softened, and all federal parties eventually came together (after some jostling) in support of an $82 billion aid package. But, in the months that followed, this détente was replaced by a climate of partisanship that can be described as particularly nasty even by Canadian standards.

The political drama started in earnest back in June with the discovery that the WE Charity, an organization known for its closeness to the Trudeau family, was chosen to administer the Canada Student Service Grant program. Cabinet ministers, high-ranking civil servants, representatives from the WE Charity, and the prime minister himself appeared before the Standing Committee on Finance and the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. The program was cancelled and Minister of Finance Bill Morneau, himself the subject of a WE-related investigation by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, resigned. 

Though the WE story no longer dominates headlines, it has had a lasting effect on political discourse and on the relationships between political parties. Opposition parties have regularly accused Prime Minister Trudeau and his government of corruption, favouritism, entitlement, and incompetence. For example, in a press conference following the announcement that Minister Freeland would take over the Finance portfolio, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre accused the Prime Minister of “corruption and chaos.” Media pressed Poilievre on the harshness of his words, suggesting that if he and his party believe the government to be corrupt, then surely efforts should be made to defeat it. But this has not happened. 

This begs questions around what, if anything, confidence or lack thereof means, if parties are willing to tolerate a government that they believe to be rotting from the inside out. The NDP has been the Liberal government’s partner since the minority government was elected. They have protected the Liberals from losing confidence votes, even as leader Jagmeet Singh complains of years of broken promises on childcare and other important files.  

Perhaps the most concerning display of the fragility of the confidence convention, not to mention the breakdown in civility between the parties, occurred in October when the Conservatives introduced a motion to create a special committee to investigate government ethics and spending. The Liberals immediately announced that the motion would be treated as a confidence measure, which was the political equivalent to the government saying: “Over my dead body.”

Apparently, the government would have preferred to throw the country into an election during a global pandemic, as the second wave commenced in earnest, rather than face committee investigation. On the other hand, the Liberals suggested that the Conservatives were the ones playing politics. Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez made the point that the Conservative motion was “extremely serious. They go over the limits. It’s irresponsible. It was about paralyzing the government in the middle of pandemic when we need to be there working for Canadians, working for our seniors, working for our families, helping those who have lost their jobs.” 

The NDP voted with the Liberals against this motion, which achieved the dual objective of keeping the government alive and allowing it to avoid the scrutiny of a new committee. However, afterwards, Singh refused to confirm his confidence in the government. For his part, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has said publicly that he does not have confidence in the government. Bloc Québécois leader Yves Blanchet has said that the government is not “worthy” of the public’s trust and has called on the Prime Minister to resign. If none of the parties has confidence in the Liberal minority government, what is it still doing here? A legitimate government is one that holds the confidence of the House. If opposition leaders are to be believed, there is no confidence here.

The key challenge lies in the fact that, in minority government circumstances, the expression of “no confidence” and the decision to go to election are conflated. Ideally, these would be two separate transactions. Under the current conditions, opposition parties are keen to spend their political capital on efforts to drain our confidence in the government, but they do not want to be responsible for an early election in the middle of a deadly pandemic (particularly if they don’t have the money to fight one). The government knows this and is not shy to use a snap election as a threat to avoid losing a confidence vote. 

The “constructive confidence” vote, a familiar practice in other Westminster systems, would be a game changer. This convention would require that, if Parliament wanted to defeat a government, it would have to namethe new Prime Minister in the very same moment. This would allow governments to lose votes without losing confidence. It would take away any incentive to pass laws in order to avoid an election. And it would allow Parliament, rather than the Prime Minister, to determine whether confidence is at stake. Canada might consider this route in order to avoid situations like the one that has boiled over at the present time. In the meantime,parties on both sides of the House need to stand behind their rhetoric: don’t use the word “confidence”, either in the positive or negative sense, unless you really mean it.  

Contributing Writer Lori Turnbull is an Associate Professor and Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. She has been a co-winner of the Donner Prize.