Majorities vs Minorities: Which kinds of Parliaments are more productive?

Political scientist Richard Conley takes a look at legislative activity in Canada’s House of Commons since 1953 with a view towards trying to determine if majority or minority governments really make a difference in terms of a Parliament’s ‘productivity’. He finds they do but, if I read his piece correctly, ‘productivity’ for Conley is really only a measure of the amount of legislation that gets passed by an particularly Parliament.

Conley does not do a qualitative analysis in assessing which is better — minority or majority — but does provide some anecdotal reference to what, 50 year later at least, look like the very productive minority governments led by Lester Pearson and the relatively hamstrung, unproductive minority governments led by Paul Martin and Stephen Harper from 2004 through to 2011.

Minority government is not inconsequential. Analysis of governmental success rates and legislative productivity provides some indirect evidence that the advent of greater partisanship is at least partially the cause of recent minority governments’ woes. Martin and Harper, in particular, found it much harder to forge consensus with opposition parties compared, for example, to the more quiescent minority governments of Lester Pearson. In describing “exit interviews” with 65 departing members of the House, Paperny (2011) reports that “Almost to a person, they felt stymied by their parties’ machinations—from partisan gamesmanship to opaque candidate nomination processes to the seemingly arbi- trary allocation of plum seats in the House of Commons, office space on Parliament Hill and positions on key committees.” Question period has become focused largely on ethics and scandals (Conley 2011), and these dynamics have intersected with increased rancor in legislative debates to the point of bringing down Harper’s government in 2011 over a charge of “contempt of Parliament”—a first in Canadian history.

There’s also a couple of fun little data nuggets in Conley’s piece:

In fact, since 1953—the starting point for this analysis—the Senate has rejected a total of seven bills. And of the hundreds of bills passed each session by the House of Commons, the Senate has historically amended, on average, less than five percent.

Few private members’ public bills are successful in the House of Commons. Of the 7996 private member public bills introduced from 1953–2009, only 162 (2 percent) passed.

One thought on “Majorities vs Minorities: Which kinds of Parliaments are more productive?”

  1. “… to the more quiescent minority governments of Lester Pearson …”

    The author of the study seems to have omitted one major piece of the puzzle: the role of the “mediatized” world, with its 24/7 news cycle scrutinizing how many nose hairs a politician has and suggesting — at times demanding — what (s)he should do about them.

    OK, so I’m exaggerating. The point is that everyone — including opinionated people like me — has become a very loud critic and instant expert on everything, so that whatever noise emanates from the House gets amplified ten-fold, if not a hundred-fold. And little seems to get done, with every decision needing ponderous and interminable consultation processes.

    In the hallowed past of Pearson’s minority government, when parliaments were supposedly more decorous and productive, politicians were able to get their work done largely unnoticed and uncriticized — at least not to the degree we see nowadays. Populations were indeed “quiescent.” Talk radio, news channels, blogs, the twitterverse have put a stop to that quiescence. People are constantly digging for and dishing out dirt, ridiculing public figures and their supporters, at times trying to create controversy where there is none. A lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    However, the Harper government has not been idle, despite what some would have the public believe. You can browse through these lists
    to see what has transpired in the six years of the Harper government. Agree or disagree with whatever legislation has been produced, nevertheless work has been done.

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