Congratulations to Political Science PhD candidate Elsa Piersig, who has been awarded the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship – Doctoral Scholarship. It is valued at $35,000 per annum for 3 years.
Elsa’s SSHRC-funded research focuses on the gap between the formal rules and the practice of non-confidence votes in established parliamentary systems. Non-confidence votes are at the heart of parliamentary democracy, not just because they are the ultimate tool for parliament to hold government accountable, but also because they facilitate parliament’s ability to fulfill one of its fundamental roles: removing and potentially replacing a government that no longer commands the confidence of the legislature. Yet the use of this powerful accountability mechanism is infrequent and, as a result, understudied. In the existing literature there is a tendency to emphasize the formal parliamentary or constitutional rules at the expense of their political and institutional context. Doing so overlooks an important question: how does the institutional context shape the practical use of non-confidence votes? Elsa’s project thus investigates the ways in which non-confidence votes interact with other parliamentary and constitutional rules and are modified in practice through processes of gradual institutional change.
The ways in which non-confidence votes become more complex or gain new uses due to their political and institutional context impacts parliament’s ability to hold government accountable. For example, fixed election dates might disincentivize opposition parties from defeating the incumbent government when they are unwilling to form a new cabinet. We can observe this today in the United Kingdom with the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the divisive policy debate on Brexit. If non-confidence votes are transformed through interaction with their institutional context, do they help or hinder parliamentary accountability? I am particularly interested in whether changes to parliamentary accountability contribute to, or are part of, the turn towards electoral democracy. The traditional theory of parliamentary democracy is based on parliamentary supremacy, which gives parliament the ability to select and remove a government. The electoral theory of democracy disrupts and displaces parliament’s central role by arguing that a government must have a mandate from the people. This means that only the electorate can hold a government accountable and select its replacement. If parliamentary democracy is becoming more electoral in nature, then the practice of non-confidence votes is very different from the intended purpose of enabling parliament to hold the government accountable by withdrawing its confidence.