With the polls pointing to a very tight election race and the increased possibility of a minority government, it’s useful to review Canada’s experience with minorities over the last six decades, to explore how they come about, to look at how they are formed and to consider some of the myths and realities surrounding them.

Over the past 56 years, voters have elected federal minority governments on seven separate occasions in Canada. While it’s widely assumed that minorities are the product of “close elections,” this is not necessarily the case. In five of the last seven minorities, the winner led the popular vote by an average of almost seven percentage points over the party that finished second. This means that the efficiency of votes and the riding-by-riding splits between parties are more important in determining outcomes than the overall national vote count.

While minorities can be partisan and volatile, they actually last longer than people generally think. Since 1963, the average duration of Canada’s seven minority governments was 24 months, and four of the seven lasted over 30 months. These four include the most recent two, led by Stephen Harper, from 2006 to 2008 and from 2008 to 2011. The lifespans of minorities can also be shortened by political considerations and events. Pierre Trudeau engineered his own defeat in 1974 after only 20 months because he saw an opportunity to regain a majority, and Joe Clark’s 1979 government ran for only 9 months due to an inability to count MPs on a budget vote.

Another widespread myth about minorities is that Canadian elections always determine who governs. While the seat tallies on the TV screens on election night detail the results, as Philippe Lagassé pointed out in a blog post on October 11, 2018, “governments are formed and not elected in Canada” (emphasis added). And in our Westminster-based system, governments are formed by establishing the “confidence” of the House of Commons.

With 338 seats in today’s House of Commons, majority territory is reached at 170 seats. If a particular party gains that number of seats or more, confidence is guaranteed. But if no party achieves more than half the seats, establishing confidence becomes more complex and may require arrangements involving multiple parties and even independent members of Parliament.

In a minority situation, the process of getting from election night to the swearing-in of a government can involve several factors and influences.

Who gets the first opportunity to establish confidence?

By constitutional convention, the governor general must ensure that the country has a prime minister at all times. In addition, a prime minister re-elected with a minority remains in office until he or she secures confidence or is defeated in the House. As Lagassé points out, in a minority situation, this means that the prime minister “can test confidence first because they remain in office until they resign or are dismissed.” A prime minister’s decision to seek confidence when his or her party has fewer seats than the others will likely be contested by other parties, but the right of a sitting prime minister to seek confidence first and meet the House prevails.

How are the seats distributed among the parties?

In a minority situation, the seat distribution determines whose support is necessary to sustain the government in office. How many seats does the prime minister need to craft a working majority, and where are they located? Obviously if the support of one third party is sufficient to ensure stability, that will simplify the situation. If the agreement of several parties is required to achieve a “working majority,” negotiations will be more complex.

What are the strengths of the parties and their leaders?

The vigour of the party and the age and political strength of the leader in the immediate post-election period can be factors in parties’ responses to a minority situation. A party and leader that have just waged a disastrous campaign may need time to heal, and therefore may be more prepared to prop up a minority to buy the time necessary to rebuild. If a leader loses his or her job immediately following an election, that may give a new minority government a “free” year to get established without the fear of losing confidence and being forced into an election.

While the default choice of nearly all sitting governments returned with a minority is to seek to retain government, there is one notable exception in Canadian history. In 1956, Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was reduced to a minority, receiving seven seats fewer than the Progressive Conservatives. The Liberals had been in office for 21 years, and St. Laurent was 75 years old and yearning to retire. Moreover, he believed that the voters had delivered a highly negative verdict on his government and leadership. Consequently, he decided to forgo seeking to establish confidence, immediately ceded government to John Diefenbaker and retired to make way for a new Liberal leader.

In 1972, Pierre Trudeau’s government was returned with a minority and was only two seats ahead of the Progressive Conservatives. Despite the setback, Trudeau was in his prime and in no mood to retire. He quickly came to an agreement with David Lewis to gain the support of the NDP, righted the Liberal ship over the next 20 months and returned with a majority in 1974.

How does a leader go about establishing confidence?

Canadian political history suggests that at both the federal and provincial levels, the strategies necessary for a minority government to survive through arrangements among the parties result in three basic kinds of minorities:

  • A government in a minority position negotiates support from other parties on an ad hoc, case-by-case or issue-by-issue basis.
  • A minority government forms a loose alliance by agreeing informally to adopt specific policies of another party or parties in exchange for support for its Throne Speech, budgets and major legislation.
  • A government with a minority enters a formal agreementin which two or more political parties that hold a combined majority agree on a written document that details specific policy obligations of the parties and may also set a time frame for the agreement.

Slotting the recent Canadian minority governments into these categories is relatively easy. Most have taken the “ad hoc” approach, with the Pearson, Martin and two Harper minorities all falling into this category. None of these governments had a particular opposition party as a regular “dance partner,” although the Martin government made a one-off deal with the NDP to sweeten its budget and avoid defeat in the spring of 2005. Joe Clark chose to “govern as if he had a majority” with disastrous results.

The 1972-74 Trudeau government was a “loose alliance” minority through its arrangement with the NDP, and David Peterson’s Ontario government from 1985 to 1987 was a “formal agreement” minority, again with the NDP. In that case the Ontario Liberals committed themselves to a two-year written “accord” with the NDP to introduce a series of specific progressive measures that included pay equity, enhanced social housing, labour law reform and stronger environmental protections, with timelines clearly set out.

In 2017, the British Columbia NDP and the Greens signed the most comprehensive formal agreement governing arrangement ever seen in Canada. Their Confidence and Supply Agreement runs to 10 pages and spells out consultation arrangements and many specific policy initiatives, all founded on the principle of “good faith and no surprises.” It even establishes a formal secretariat to manage the consultations necessary to support the Confidence and Supply Agreement. As of fall 2019, this agreement looks durable enough to last a full four-year term.

Minority governments are a well-established part of our constitutional system. Canada has been governed by minorities for more than 14 of the past 56 years, or 25 percent of the time. As the number of broadly based and competitive political parties grows, making clear majorities harder to attain, minorities threaten to become a more frequent feature of our political system.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Michel Loiselle

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Geoff Norquay
Geoff Norquay is a principal with Earnscliffe Strategies in Ottawa. He was a senior social policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1984 to 1988 and director of communications to Stephen Harper when he was leader of the official Opposition.

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