In our parliamentary democracy the party that wins the most seats in a general election forms the government.
Where a party wins just half or fewer of the seats either federally or provincially, then a minority government is the result. This reality imposes on that party the obligation to negotiate with opposition parties, often to adjust policies in order to secure the passage of legislation. Both the dynamic and the psychology of minorities are by necessity different from majorities where the margins of action are relatively easier to deal with.
Minorities have to pay critical attention to contact, communications and negotiations with other parties in order to survive in power and to secure a propitious time for general elections and a return to a majority. Until that happens, minority governments constantly work to maintain the confidence of the House.
Minority cabinets account for more than 35 percent of all government formations in some 15 parliamentary democracies since 1945, according to Kaare Strom in Minority Governments in Parliamentary Democracies: The Reality of Nonwinning Cabinet Solutions. In Canada 11 minorities have been elected at the federal level plus two which were governments replaced between general elections. The average time in power of minorities is less than two years (479 days or one year and 140 days). The longest minority, headed by William Lyon Mackenzie King during our fourteenth Parliament soldiered on for three years, seven months and 21 days.
Majorities have lasted as long as five years, eleven months and thirty-one days (Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government, which delayed an election because of the First World War, governed from October 1911 to October 1917).
In more recent times Canadians have elected three consecutive minority governments, the Liberals led by Paul Martin in 2004, and the Conservatives led by Stephen Harper in 2006 and 2008.
Minority governments are rare in Quebec. In fact, until the 2007 Charest minority, Quebec had just one minority legislature and that was in 1878. That minority was forced when the lieutenant-governor Letellier de Saint-Just, a staunch Liberal, sacked Conservative premier Charles Boucher de Boucherville and appointed Liberal leader Joly de Lotbiniere as premier. (An account of this interregnum is detailed in Louis Massicotte and Gary Levy’s paper to the Joint Session of the Association of Canadian Studies and the American Council for Quebec Studies in November of 2008.)
The election of 2007 was a traumatic experience for Premier Jean Charest and led to an in-depth reflection of both what had happened and, more importantly, what needed to be done to regain the confidence of the people and to return to a majority mandate.
The premier faced a situation where Mario Dumont and the Action democratique du Québec were the official opposition and positioned as the government-in-waiting. In the election, the Liberals fell from 76 seats in the National Assembly to 48 seats, 15 seats short of a majority of 63 in the 125-seat legislature. The ADQ eclipsed the Parti Québécois as the official opposition with 41 seats compared to 36 for the Péquistes. In the popular vote, the Liberals had only 33 percent, while the ADQ won 31 percent, with the PQ at 28 percent.
The startling rise of the ADQ threatened to destabilize the comfortable polarization between the Liberals and the PQ by introducing a third alternative to the decades-long debate on federalism or independence. Just as startling, by September 2008 the ADQ were in trouble and Mario Dumont’s leadership numbers, in the Liberals’ internal polling, dropped from 32 percent to match his party’s voter intentions at 16 percent.
Premier Charest and his ministers had succeeded in defining Dumont as a girouette and in painting the ADQ as a liability for Quebec. This was all inside baseball, aimed at setting a table for a future election. The question to ask, however, is the following: Was the Charest minority government able to govern effectively and secure its political and legislative priorities?
As Massicotte and Levy conclude from their empirical review, 53 percent of the total of all recorded divisions or votes in the National Assembly were successful. The Liberals saved the day by securing support from the ADQ on eight major initiatives and from the PQ on nine. During its minority the Charest government was defeated nine times but only on minor issues that posed no threat to the exercise of power. In Quebec, in essence, the only question of confidence is a budget or treasury vote.
Internal political dynamics within each of the opposition parties was at the root of this situation as much as the capable use of strategy by the Liberals. As second opposition in the Assembly, the PQ needed time to get its act together and feared an early election during the spring and fall sittings. They correctly identified the threat from the right and the popularity of Dumont. The ADQ was the threat both for the Liberals and the PQ.
On the ADQ side as the winter of 2008 progressed, their fortunes diminished and they became more wary of an election. During this period the ADQ sided with the Liberals against the PQ on no less than nine occasions. Charest successfully marginalized the ADQ while avoiding polarization on issues. His fellow citizens meanwhile continued to evolve both sociologically and politically, often complicating life for pollsters trying to gauge their voting intentions.
When I joined the federal public service in 1971, my experience with governments had been minimal. Over the next 40 years I had the privilege of serving or interacting with both strong majorities as well as minority and coalition governments.
My first experience with a minority was during Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s administration in 1972-74, when the NDP and David Lewis held the balance of power. The Ontario Liberal-NDP coalition of 1985-87 with Premier David Peterson at the helm, was short-lived, but it was based on a policy compromise. In exchange for supporting certain Liberal policies and for not defeating the government in the legislature, the Liberals agreed to pass certain NDP policies, policies that Conservative leader Frank Miller had been unwilling to agree to during his attempt to negotiate an alliance. While he had the most seats at Queen’s Park after the 1985 election, and had the right to meet the Legislature, he couldn’t secure its confidence.
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In the 1987 Ontario election, Peterson was returned with a substantial majority only to lose to Bob Rae’s New Democrats in 1990. (I then served as principal secretary to Premier Peterson in his second term.)
My most recent experience was as chief of staff to Premier Charest from 2007 to 2009 during his minority tenure and until his return to his third and majority mandate, which is now running its course. The dynamics and strategizing between majority and minority realities are very different. Usually minorities are the result of either fatigue with leaders or uncertainty regarding the available policy and party options.
There is little doubt that majority governments allow for more freedom of action both on commitments and political priorities. Two examples come to mind. The first was during the Trudeau administration 1980-84 when patriation of the Constitution was the priority. This controversial initiative, opposed by eight provinces and pressure groups, would not have been attempted by a minority government concerned with holding onto its legislative power. The second involves the 1984 and 1988 Mulroney majorities, which saw the negotiation of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in 1987 as well as the NAFTA in 1992, not to mention the reform of our tax structure with the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax. Here again it was majority that enabled the change agenda on issues that required great determination, caucus cohesion and sustained energy to successfully deliver the outcome. I was privileged to work on these files in the Privy Council Office as deputy secretary to the Cabinet for communications. With the hindsight of a participant during these times and the filter of time to properly reflect on the import of these changes, I cannot imagine a minority delivering what we have come to accept as major building blocks in this country. Minorities would have torn themselves apart. The cohesion afforded by a majority does not stifle internal discussion or even heated debate. Inspired and capable caucus management by leaders is, however, a pre-condition for securing major changes in policy often with long-range implications for the country. Minority governments have also proved capable of delivering key initiatives. The 1963 and 1965 minorities of Lester B. Pearson reformed Canada’s social welfare system. The Canada Assistance Program (CAP) and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), not to mention universal health care, were all enacted. This was made possible by the close collaboration of the opposition NDP led by Tommy Douglas. In other words, it was the affinity on policies and issues, a philosophical alignment, that provided the driver in the House for a positive conclusion.
This collaboration was different from those formal coalitions or agreements between Premier Peterson and NDP leader Bob Rae in Ontario. The result might be similar in that both maintained a minority but the structure of that collaboration was different.
Minority governments have also proved capable of delivering key initiatives. The 1963 and 1975 minorities of Lester B. Pearson reformed Canada’s social welfare system.
The greatest advantage of a majority government under our system is also its greatest potential risk — the luxury of time for completion and acceptance of its political agenda. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not only the benefit of opposition parties in disarray for the moment, but a largely unencumbered path forward to introduce and carry forward the changes in his platform.
Just as crucial in uncertain economic times, the government has the ability to make decisions to mitigate economic and social impacts imposed by events beyond our borders and our control. The other side of this equation is that accountability is in direct proportion to response and ability to be transparent in communications. Minority governments place more emphasis by and large on communications, given their precarious hold on availability of time.
From the perspective of internal dynamics some elements remain common to both majorities and minorities. Caucus management, party organization and motivation of a volunteer base, as well as the functionality of cabinet, are fundamental to good government. If these elements are lacking or inefficient, then opposition as well as the media can and will leverage perception to sap the energy and fragment the focus of even a majority administration.
One other factor can take either form of government on to the ropes. Scandal and unwanted or unexpected controversy over ethics and impropriety can rapidly transform the ability of governments to achieve their goals, not to mention smear their legacies. We have only to look at the damage the federal Liberal brand has suffered in Quebec because of the sponsorship scandal. Minority governments have been favoured by Canadians on the basis of a belief that they are more responsive; that they have to take the views of their own members and that of the other parties to ensure passage of legislation. They are, in a word, more apt to be responsive to public opinion. This is partly true but the reverse side of the coin is that the focus is as much a question of what it takes to get to a launch platform in an acceptable time frame to allow a return to majority.
Every calculation of a minority government is conditioned by fragility. While opposition parties can hold a government accountable, the dynamics of a minority encourage more bitter behaviour on both sides. This affects the civility of the legislature and induces a higher level of instability, not to mention disenchantment, among the public with political actors and/or politics in general. It also over a long period of time and in direct proportion to the loss of civility complicates the desire of good people to serve in the civil or political side of public service.
Minority governments are also less consistent. When faced with defeat and loss of power, human nature leads to the compromises required to stay in office. For example, the Harper government extended employment insurance benefits by $1 billion at the end of the Great Recession in 2009. It did so with the support of the NDP and Jack Layton, who was not about to oppose the government on EI benefits when his central mantra was “working families.” The reality is you are either in power and can effect solutions or someone else will.
This is especially applicable in economic and fiscally difficult times, when negotiations with the opposition can be drawn out or, worse, prove inconclusive, leading to a loss of time and effectiveness. Immediate action except in the face of an unquestioned crisis is less likely. The imponderable in these times is political leadership. On more than one occasion, even in this cynical world, I have heard prime ministers, premiers and leaders of opposition enumerate the governing principle as “doing the right thing.” For example, under Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals supported the harmonized sales tax in Ontario. It was the right thing to do.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, David Peterson and Jean Charest in majority or minority situations displayed, in critical moments, courage and a sense of public service. Doing the right thing may not be viewed the same way by all but our political leaders earn the right by popular election, both within their parties and in the country, to define what constitutes “doing the right thing.” Their ability to get that right at moments of crisis or in periods where transformative change is required is what historical legacy is all about.
This capacity to motivate, communicate, convince and decide on occasion irrespective of the short-term “popularity issue” is the common ground of political leadership whether you exercise that leadership in a majority or a minority government.