OTTAWA—Let’s get something straight right off the bat: the party that wins the most seats doesn’t always form the next government.
That’s a basic if little understood reality of our parliamentary democracy and, if the polls prove to be accurate, it’s something Canadians should bear in mind when the results come in on Monday, says Carleton University professor Philippe Lagassé.
We could have a minority parliament on our hands, and maybe even a coalition government — an extreme rarity in Canadian politics that emerged as a post-vote possibility when NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said this weekend that he’d “absolutely” be open to such a formal power-sharing arrangement to keep the Conservatives out of power.
That had Andrew Scheer and his partisan supporters crying out for the need to elect a Conservative majority. Only that, they say, will prevent a spend-happy, tax-hiking government from taking shape in Ottawa, the Conservative leader argued on Tuesday.
If all this talk is a harbinger of what’s to come, it’s important for us all to understand how things work if no party has a majority of seats in the House of Commons after the votes are counted.
So there was no clear winner. Now what?
If no party has enough seats to command a majority in the House — at least 170 of 338 seats — Canadians will have elected a minority parliament.
In this situation, even if the Conservatives win more seats than the Liberals, Justin Trudeau will still have the first opportunity to form the next government. This, Legassé said, is because Trudeau is still technically the prime minister. He didn’t lose the gig when Parliament dissolved for the election, so if his Liberals survive a confidence vote in the House, they can carry on as Canada’s federal government.
“They have never lost power,” Legassé said. “The prime minister can stay on simply because they are in office until they resign or are dismissed.”
It’s all about confidence
This exact situation played out last year in New Brunswick, when the provincial Liberals — who were governing under Premier Brian Gallant — won 21 seats in a provincial election, while the opposition Progressive Conservatives won 22. As the sitting premier, Gallant was invited to test whether he could hold power in a confidence vote, but was defeated when three MLAs from the fringe People’s Alliance party joined the PCs to defeat the his government.
When this happens, the sitting prime minister or premier will either resign or go to the governor general (the lieutenant-general in the provinces) to request another election, Legassé said.
There is no law or constitutional convention that sets this in stone, but Legassé says the “tradition” is that if the last election was less than about six months ago, the governor general will look to other parties to see if someone else can win the confidence of Parliament.
That’s what happened in New Brunswick, where Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs won a confidence vote and now leads a minority government.
A similar scene occurred in B.C. in 2017, when the governing Liberals lost a confidence vote and the NDP took power in a minority government with the support of the Greens, even though they had two fewer seats than the Liberals.
“If it’s shortly after an election has just occurred and the parliament can still work, and parties have agreed to make it happen, there’s nothing wrong with it,” Legassé said. “This is how parliamentary democracy works.”
But what about coalitions?
Canadian history is no stranger to the drama of minority parliaments. It’s rarer to have formal coalitions — that is, deals between political parties to share power and govern together in the House of Commons.
This has only happened once at the federal level, during the First World War, when Prime Minister Robert Borden led a Union government in which Conservatives and Liberals held key positions in an all-hands-on-deck arrangement.
You might remember when Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper suspended Parliament in 2008 as the NDP and Liberals — with the support of the Bloc Québécois — agreed to govern as a coalition if they could defeat the government in a confidence vote.
While this was described as the time by Conservatives as an illegitimate “coup d’état,” many constitutional experts say it’s entirely legitimate — under the auspices of our constitution, at least — for parties to band together and form a government.
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In his contribution to the 2009 book, “Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis,” University of Toronto professor Lawrence LeDuc outlines how most of the democratic world is familiar with coalition government. In the Netherlands, the queen appoints someone to consult all party leaders after an election to suss out which coalition combinations are possible. Other Westminster parliaments have also seen coalitions, including Australia and the United Kingdom.
In Canada, LeDuc points out that majority governments have been formed when as few as 36 per cent of voters supported the party that won the most seats. This shows that, in our system of government, the mandate to form power doesn’t come from the voters directly, LeDuc says, but from the House of Commons, and who can win support from the 338 people Canadians send there to represent them.
As Legassé said, “it’s in moments like this” — with the prospect of a fractious minority in Ottawa — “where it becomes pretty important to be clear on what the actual constitutional rules are.”
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