The public editor of the Globe and Mail, Sylvia Stead, has written an explanation for why the newspaper will not refer to Premier Kathleen Wynne as “Premier” during the provincial election campaign.
The explanation is unfortunate and reflects the news media’s poor understanding of parliamentary government and an obsession with American-style presidential politics. Essentially, the Globe and Mail‘s argument boils down two facts. First, during a campaign, the premier is not primarily a head of government, but a politician, and second, not referring to the Premier as “Premier” gives an even field to opposition party leaders.
I don’t really know where to begin demolishing this nonsense, but let’s start here. First, whoever is premier is always a politician, whether they are governing or not. By working on the assumption that politics ends when the campaign ends, the news media perpetuate the belief that government decisions are somehow free of politics. I’m glad that we have politicians running the government, and not administrators or technical experts. Politicians are in the business of winning the consent of the people. Administrators and technicians are in the business of getting things done. Ultimately, I know who I want wielding executive authority.
Regardless, this view of what this campaign is about is premised on the belief that we are operating in a presidential system of government, where the winner of the most votes wins the right to wield executive authority. But we do not have a presidential system of government; we have a parliamentary system of government, where people elect a legislature and the executive is appointed based on whether they can maintain the majority of the people’s elected representatives.
Some commentators find the way that political scientists and constitutional experts obsess about this distinction to be invalid in an era of mass democratic politics, where the system functions mostly as if elections were about determining the head of government and that politicians ignore this at their peril. Mostly they are right. Usually, the party who wins the most votes, gets the most seats and the person who leads that party becomes the premier. So the widespread perception that this campaign is primarily about the position of premier is not to be discounted.
But the principles of parliamentary government are set up in such a way that they do not mesh easily with presidential rules whereby whichever candidate gets the most votes becomes the head of the government.
The two views can clash badly in certain situations and when they do, it is incumbent on the news media to inform voters about the nature of the conflict. In 2008, just after Canadians returned a parliament where the Conservatives had a plurality of seats, the parties representing the majority of the seats launched an effort to form a new government ‒ backed by a majority of elected representatives and a majority of voters ‒ and replace the Conservative government. The Conservative government and the news media were scandalized that this could even be possible. But they were scandalized because they were operating on the assumption that our system of government is presidential, not parliamentary, and that only the voters can choose the executive. The net effect of this was to completely demonize the notion of a coalition of parties to provide a stable executive backed by a majority of elected representatives following an election. We are still dealing with the consequences of this and you can see how delicately the NDP and the Liberals address the issue of what might happen should neither party win a majority of seats after the next election.
It is even more frustrating to see this mistake peddled in the current situation because there is a very real possibility that the outcome of the provincial election could be some combination of the Progressive Conservatives winning the popular vote, but finishing second in seats, and either the Liberals or the NDP winning more seats, but less votes, and thus having to find an arrangement with another party. This would be a delicate situation, but one that is perfectly acceptable in a parliamentary government.
What is worse, though, and even a little embarrassing for the Globe and Mail is that this entire election could only have happened in a parliamentary system, where the people choose the parliament, but not the executive. This election wasn’t scheduled, as is the case in presidential election; it became inevitable when it was apparent that the executive lacked the support of the majority of the people’s representatives.
People often look at presidential systems as somehow more democratic because they see a more direct, unmediated relationship between voters and the chief executive and because the executive has no opportunity to ever avoid an election. The Globe and Mail reflects this desire. But by doing so, they are unwittingly obscuring and ignoring the ways in which parliamentary democracy is more democratic than presidential systems. It’s true that presidents never get to dictate the time of the next election. But the downside of that is that when a president becomes deeply unpopular, like, say when a president embroils a country in two complicated, expensive and risky regional wars, voters are effectively stuck with the president until the next election, no matter how much they want to get rid of him.
The beauty of the parliamentary system is that the executive’s position lasts only as long a majority of the legislature is willing to support it. To paraphrase the great Prime Minister James Hacker, of “Yes, Prime Minister,” voters can only vote against the PM (or president for that matter) every four years. Backbenchers can vote against him next week. And the week after that. And the week after that. And that’s exactly what happened here, and with Dalton McGuinty.
Of course, these kinds of pushbacks usually only happen when there is a minority parliament. But not always. Look at what happened in Alberta this year. Despite a solid majority of the Alberta Legislature, Premier Redford was essentially forced to resign by her own party and caucus because of her deep unpopularity. Moreover, behind the scenes, there is a lot more parliamentary participation within the executive and mechanisms for accountability than is often given credit for. It’s just that those affairs are quiet and complicated to understand, thus difficult for journalists to turn into news.
When I teach parliamentary government, I often tell students that the most democratic thing about parliamentary government is not elections; it’s that every day, every sitting, every session, the executive must always be courting the support of the majority of the parliament and is always held to account. This is no doubt easier for the executive in a majority parliament, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.
And it is this constant earning of the support of the legislature’s majority that the Globe and Mail is denying by not referring to Wynne as the premier. By purporting to create an open playing field for the three “candidates for premier,” the Globe and Mail is actually obscuring the fact that Wynne is the leader of the party that has formed the government since 2007 and whose elected representatives have supported all the popular and unpopular decisions that have been taken since then. By not referring to her as “Premier,” the Globe is somehow wiping away the Liberal record and pretending that this is just a free, open contest by three people for one position. In its attempt to cover this election in a presidential fashion, the Globe and Mail is obscuring the most democratic feature of parliamentary government.