The news media keep referring to the current storm in Parliament, where a Liberal-NDP coalition, supported by the Bloc Québecois, are trying to replace the Conservative government, as as a “crisis.” Peter Mansbridge, CBC TV’s news anchor, CBC Radio news, the front page of the Globe and Mail, and more all use the word “crisis.
But is it really a crisis? Or is this just the way the Canadian parliamentary system is supposed to work?
According to some dictionaries, a crisis is “a time of great difficulty or danger.” How much danger does the country face right now, at least from a possible centre-left coalition government? Or even from the change of government without an election?
From the civics classes I took, I understand the system is supposed to work like this. The party that has the largest number of members elected to the House of Commons normally gets to form the government, and remains the government until the next election, or until it loses the confidence of the House. When that happens, either there’s another election, or another party or group of parties that can maintain the confidence of the house—which may be confirmed with a vote of confidence—can form a new government.
So the Liberal-NDP proposal is not a crisis in this sense. It may be a crisis for the government they seek to replace, in this case the Conservatives’, led by Stephen Harper, but the country’s democracy itself isn’t in any danger.
MP Bob Rae said as much today (December 3): "It's not a crisis. In a minority government, things can be more lively than otherwise ..."
Parliament is certainly lively these days. It's inspiring to see Stephan Dion get as excited as he seemed to be in the past few days. If he had acted like that during the past election campaign, we may not be in this situation today.
There is another meaning to the word “crisis”: it can also be a turning point, or the peak of trouble which determines what the future course will be. The question now before Parliament is certainly a turning point. How significant it is will remain to be seen if the coalition does come to power, and then by its actions in government.
Communications professionals should ask themselves: how do we define “crisis.” And if that definition doesn’t fit the current situation in the House of Commons, what is the right descriptor? Then let Peter Mansbridge know.