We’re more than five weeks into the election campaign, now entering the second half—or, what we like to call the real campaign, post-Labour Day weekend. The three major political parties continue to poll essentially as equals in voter popularity across Canada, and with roughly 40 days before decision-day on October 19, no one can predict the outcome with absolute confidence. However, there’s one very possible scenario—a minority government—where the governing party holds less seats than the combined opposition.
Who would govern?
Any of the three major political parties could end up winning the largest number of seats without having a clear majority. Under our constitution, a government must establish and continue to “enjoy” the confidence of the House of Commons to remain in power—failing which, the Governor General would traditionally ask someone else (usually the leader of the opposition) to establish confidence. Prime Minister Harper could recall Parliament—even if his party did not win the largest number of seats and seek to establish that he has the confidence of the House by enlisting the support of one of the smaller parties. Harper has made it clear that he would not seek to remain prime minister should another party win more seats than his—seeking the support of another party to stay in power is out of the question. Trudeau has indicated a formal coalition is out of the question, but would be open to seek the confidence of the House to form a government should the current government lose confidence. Mulcair has indicated he would be open to a coalition with the Liberals.
In a minority government situation, the party holding the smallest number of seats necessary to keep a particular party in power is dubbed as having the balance of power. If the current prime minister and their party did win the largest number of seats without achieving a majority, they would in all likelihood want to continue to govern, but would need support of a smaller party. Even then, the future of their government would be uncertain.
For instance, following Ontario’s 1985 general election, outgoing premier Frank Miller and his Conservative government won the most seats but failed to achieve a majority. The two opposition parties very early stated that they would not provide the confidence necessary for premier Miller to remain in power. The premier recalled the legislature and was defeated on the Speech from the Throne. Miller immediately tendered his resignation to the lieutenant-governor. Liberal opposition leader David Peterson—armed with a letter from the NDP pledging its support for an eventual Liberal government for a minimum of two years—was named premier. The rest is history. This was not a coalition since there were no NDP cabinet ministers in the Peterson government.
Interestingly, no federal leader in Canada has ever lost the first vote of confidence without subsequently resigning to allow the Governor General to appoint someone else. However, in both the 1985 Ontario example and another in New Zealand, one of our commonwealth partners, the leader lost the first vote, resigned and was replaced by the leader of the opposition.
Relations between the incumbent Conservative government and parliamentary opposition are at a historical low, which some pundits have qualified as poisonous. The combined opposition might well be tempted to defeat a Conservative minority government early in the mandate to replace it with whichever party wins the second largest number of seats, in a manner analogous to what happened in Ontario. If such were the case, a Harper resignation and a Conservative leadership race would likely follow. In this scenario, some of the present ministers would likely seek to replace him as would current and former ministers who are not seeking re-election.
A government led by either Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau will need to address an urgent issue regarding Senate representation—neither Liberals nor NDP have official representation in the Senate. Current Liberal senators are not members of the national Liberal caucus.
Since the Canadian Parliament is bicameral (House and Senate), legislation is not adopted until it has been adopted in both chambers. Additionally, someone in the Senate must move the actual reading of government bills—failing which, bills cannot begin to be debated. The same applies to certain government motions, including those necessary to kick start a new Parliament, such as appointing the Senate speaker and the Senate government leader.
Mulcair and Trudeau would thus be forced to appoint at least one senator to move government business in the Senate. Alternatively, they could appoint an existing senator to be government leader in the Senate. For the Liberals, the problem could be easily solved by appointing a Liberal senator. As for the NDP, one presently sitting senator, Larry Campbell, has already offered to act in such a capacity if invited to do so. In a recent media interview, Mulcair publicly stated that he would not appoint any senator to any position, but constitutional experts are of the opinion that this is simply impossible.
What to expect in a minority?
First, minority governments are generally less stable than majority governments. Minority governments seldom die of old age—average life expectancy varying between 18 and 24 months, although the 2008 Harper government lasted three full years.
Second, a minority government often has to make concessions to the opposition in order to avoid defeat. For instance, the 2005 Martin Liberal government made significant changes to its budget to keep NDP support. Later that year, the NDP joined forces with the other opposition parties to revoke confidence in the government of the sponsorship program’s administration, thereby causing the 2006 general election that brought Mr. Harper to power.
Third, the opposition on its own can pass legislation that could be at odds with the government’s program by way of private members’ items, particularly bills. Given that in a minority government, the combined opposition holds more seats than the government, the combined opposition not only has a greater chance sponsoring bills, but more significant, a greater chance of passing those bills, which were opposition-generated, sometimes to the consternation of the government, and perhaps even some stakeholders.
Private members’ bills
A majority government generally enjoys sufficient control of the House to avoid contentious private members’ bills (PMBs) from being adopted. However, in a minority situation where the parliamentary opposition’s numbers are greater than those of the government, some bills that would not make it in a majority government could be enacted. Bills dealing with issues such as genetically modified foods, corporate social responsibly in mining, billing practices for banks and telcos, banning replacement workers in strikes or lockouts—to name a few—have been on the order paper dating back from the last minority government. These types of bills could very well be on the agenda of emboldened opposition MPs after the next general election.
How can organizations prepare?
Procedural knowhow will be extremely important as you advance your policy and legislative issues. Simply hoping that a minister or the government house leader will make an offensive bill disappear is out of the question. Understanding party policies and motivations will be essential as these policies could be adverse to stakeholder interests. There will be a need to interact with the opposition on a regular basis to ensure that MPs do not commit themselves or even introduce bills damaging the interest of stakeholders. Educating parliamentarians on client needs and aspirations should become normal procedure. In a similar way, opposition MPs could become important allies in amending government proposals, particularly in committee when such proposals are contrary to client interests. Again, this is only possible when parliamentarians are engaged and knowledgeable of client needs.
Institutional knowledge of the workings of previous minority governments would be a great asset in understanding precisely what has and could happen again were the government to be in a minority situation—the first learning is, to expect the unexpected.