The recent election in New Brunswick highlighted a rare and poorly understood aspect of government formation in Canada: a first minister (FM) can remain in office and test the confidence of the legislature first, regardless of the election results.
New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant has chosen to remain in office, despite the fact that the Liberals were elected with 21 seats, compared with 22 seats for the Progressive Conservatives. Gallant is hoping to secure an agreement with either the Green Party or People’s Alliance, each of which won three seats, in order to secure the confidence of the legislature and stay in power. In addition to reminding us that governments are formed and not elected in Canada, Gallant’s decision provides us a new precedent of a FM bucking the Canadian tendency to resign if their party does not carry most ridings.
Why is Gallant able to remain FM? A common explanation is that this is a constitutional convention, an unwritten political rule that guides how powers are exercised and decisions made in Westminster systems. While this explanation is popular, it’s not quite right. Although there are constitutional conventions at play in a FM’s ability to test confidence first, it isn’t a convention that they can. Rather, the FM can test confidence first because of the office they hold and the rules that govern how they hold that office.
How do we identify constitutional conventions? In Canada, the Supreme Court has endorsed the ‘Jennings test’. The test tells us that rules must meet three conditions to count as constitutional conventions. First, there must be precedents; second, political actors must believe that there is a binding rule; and, third, there must be a reason for the rule.
The ability of a FM to test confidence first only meets one of these conditions: there are precedents. Perhaps the best known of these is William Lyon Mackenzie King’s decision to remain Prime Minister following the 1925 federal election, where his Liberal party won 100 seats compared with the 115 seats won by the Conservatives.
What about the second condition? There’s no longer a general agreement on the fairness or legitimacy of a FM testing the legislature first. In fact, the leader of the party that wins the most seats usually disagrees with this notion quite viscerally. Equally important, it’s unclear how we can say that this is a binding rule. The FM isn’t bound to test confidence first; it’s their choice. The other members of the legislature are bound to accept it, but those from other parties are prone to questioning the decision. This further suggests that that there isn’t a convention at play here, but something else.
Turning to the third condition, it is difficult to see what rationale would underpin a convention here. The democratic logic of having the FM test confidence first, regardless of the election results, is hard to discern. Proponents of direct democracy want to link the selection of the FM to the voter’s choice (see, for instance, those who declare that elections are actually about who the voters want as FM), while advocates of parliamentary democracy would probably want the legislature to vote for the FM, as happens in Scotland. In addition, other Westminster-inspired states have done away with the FM’s right to stay on, since it seems to run contrary to democratic propriety.
Stability of government might be another rationale, but this doesn’t hold either. When a FM stays on, and their ability to secure confidence is unclear, the government is constrained by caretaker conventions that weigh against non-routine decisions by ministers. Instead of bringing stability to government, allowing the FM to stay on before to test confidence, sometimes for months before the legislature sits, fosters uncertainty. Simply put, there is no reason for this rule, at least not one that that would meet the standards of a constitutional convention.
So, if it isn’t a convention that the FM gets to test confidence first, then what is it? The answer lies in the nature of responsible government in Westminster constitutional monarchies.
The office of First Minister is bestowed by the Crown. It’s legally independent of the legislature and the electoral process. The first principle of responsible government is that ministers advise and take responsibility for the Crown and all affairs of government. Since the 18th Century, this principle has evolved such that a FM advises the Crown and takes responsibility for all acts of the Crown and all affairs of government. Consequently, the appointment of a FM cannot be directly tied to electoral outcomes or the make-up of the legislature at a given time. The Crown needs to ensure that there’s a FM, even during elections, and during the period between election day and when the legislature is recalled. Over time, the necessity of always having a FM has developed to ensure that FMs remain in office until they resign or are dismissed.
Resignations are fairly common. FMs often indicate their intent to resign if their party fails to win the most seats on election night or if their opponents win a majority of seats. FMs can also resign if they lose a confidence vote, though they’ll usually do so after a request to dissolve the legislature is refused by the Crown. The dismissal of a FM, by contrast, is very rare –so rare that it hasn’t happened in some time in Canada. Dismissal is effectively an emergency power. The Crown should only exercise it if a FM is refusing to recall the legislature, acting in an unconstitutional manner, under criminal investigation, or no longer has the mental capacities to serve. In most normal circumstances, the FM will remain FM until they resign, usually following an election that has been unfavourable to their party, after the Crown has refused their request for dissolution, if they have lost a confidence vote, or if they are making way for a new leader from their party.
Accordingly, FMs can test confidence first because the Crown must have a FM at all times and the Crown will not dismiss the FM unless they are involved in unconstitutional or criminal activity. Put differently, the FM can test confidence first because they remain in office until they resign or are dismissed. Convention dictates that they resign if they lose a confidence vote and cannot secure a dissolution from the Crown. But they are not required to resign before that confidence vote is held, and the Crown will not dismiss them if they are planning to recall the legislature to test confidence. In extreme circumstances, the Crown could dismiss a FM who is refusing to recall the legislature to avoid a confidence vote. But in nearly all cases, the Crown should allow the legislature to sit and express itself before acting, especially if the issue is the dismissal of a FM who might not hold confidence and the appointment of an alternative FM who might not hold confidence, either. Whenever possible, the Crown should allow the legislature to express itself first.
The ability of an FM to test confidence first, therefore, is a function of the office they legally hold by virtue of the Crown’s appointment and of the conventions that surround the duty of the Crown to have a first minister, and the grounds for the resignation or dismissal of a first minister. Constitutional convention is involved here, but it isn’t a convention that says that the FM gets to test confidence first. Rather, what’s at play is that the FM is FM until they resign or are dismissed, as per constitutional convention.
In conclusion, it’s worth asking why this privilege of Canadian FMs seems so strange. Basically, it strikes us as odd because it reflects the monarchical origins of our system of government, rather than our contemporary democratic mores.