Background on Minority Governments in Canada
Under the parliamentary system, the sitting prime minister remains prime minister until he or she formally resigns or is dismissed by the Governor General. Following the 43rd general election, the Trudeau government will remain in power so long as it has the support of either the Bloc Québécois, Conservatives, or the NDP for any given piece of legislation.
During the election, there was much talk of “coalitions” and that minority governments in Canada lead to formal coalitions between parties. Despite all the talk about “coalitions,” there has actually never been a formal coalition to resolve legislative stalemates in the Canadian parliament. Nor has there ever been a cabinet where positions were divided among different parties.
Minority governments are quite common in Canadian history. This election marks the twelfth minority government at the federal level since Confederation. There have also been two minority governments resulting from governments being replaced between elections, for a total of fourteen federal minority governments in thirteen separate minority parliaments. It is also not uncommon in minority government situations that the official opposition had a larger share of the popular vote than the ruling party.
The “King-Byng Affair”
The precedent setting case in Canadian parliamentary history is known as the “King-Byng Affair.” In the federal election of October 29, 1925 the Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King won 100 seats, in a 245 seat House, Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives won 115 and the Progressive Party won 22. Even with the support of the Progressive Party, the King Liberals were one seat short of a majority. When a Liberal MP was forced to resign over a bribery scandal, it left the Liberals two short of a majority.
In accordance with constitutional convention, King had the right to present a Throne Speech and test whether his government had the “confidence of the House of Commons.” King decided not to count on the support of the Progressive Party, and instead asked the Governor-General, Baron Julian Byng to call an election. Byng refused on the grounds that the Conservatives held the largest number of seats, and invited Meighen to form a government. Meighen formed a government, but was defeated after only three days on a confidence motion. Byng then issued the writs of election. The Liberals won the election, squeaking in with 127 seats, although the Conservatives won the popular vote, 45 to 43 per cent over the Liberals. King held power with a de facto coalition with the Progressives.
Minority Governments from the 1960s to the 1980s
In 1957, the Conservatives led by John Diefenbaker formed a minority government with 112 seats to the Liberals’ 105 and 12 held by Social Credit in a 265 seat House. The Liberals won the popular vote (40.4 per cent to 38.5 per cent for the Tories). Although the Liberals were entitled to try and form a government by precedent, Liberal leader Louis St-Laurent chose not to do so and retired from office. When the Liberals called on the Conservatives to resign and allow the Liberals to take office, Diefenbaker called an election, which he won with 208 seats of 265.
Both the 1963 and 1965 elections resulted in minority governments, this time with the Liberals led by Lester B. Pearson forming government with the support of the NDP. These governments are often cited for the legislation passed, which included universal health care and the Canada Pension Plan, as proof that minority governments can be productive. More recent experience in the present period of neo-liberal globalization when the democratic institutions no longer function indicates that other scenarios are likely which involve deal-making between the cartel parties in the service of the financial oligarchy, integration into U.S. Homeland Security and the U.S. war machine. Minority governments no longer represent a temporary situation in which the parliamentary equilibrium is maintained on the basis of a party in power and a party in opposition
In 1968 during the second Pearson minority government, another precedent was set when the Liberals were defeated in a surprise vote on an Income Tax Act amendment. As this was a money bill, precedent was that this was a vote of non-confidence and the government should resign. Instead, Pearson introduced a new vote of confidence which passed, and did not resign.
Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals won the 1968 election with a majority, but the 1972 election resulted in a minority Liberal government, only two seats ahead of the Conservatives. The NDP under David Lewis held the balance of power.
The Conservatives under Joe Clark had a short run in office from 1979-1980, in a minority government with 136 seats in a 284 seat House, six short of a majority. The Liberals had 40.1 per cent of the total votes while the Conservatives trailed with 35.9 per cent. Clark’s government was defeated over the budget after only nine months and the Trudeau Liberals returned to power in the ensuing election.
Once again the Liberals, now under Paul Martin, were returned to office with a minority government in 2004 with 135 seats, 20 short of a majority. The Martin government chose to govern through horse-trading with the other parties on a bill-by-bill basis.
Harper’s Minority Governments
Stephen Harper led two minority governments from 2006 to 2008 and 2008 to 2011 when he finally won a majority, to be defeated in the 2015 election. These were the first and second longest lasting federal minority governments in Canadian history. He did so without a formal coalition with any party. He also benefited from the electoral system that requires a lot of money to come out on top. As is the case today, after the election the cartel parties had exhausted their coffers and it was declared that Canadians were in no mood to go to polls so soon after the election which had just taken place.
In 2006 the Harperites had 124 seats to the Liberals’ 103 in a 308 seat House. His first minority government lasted two parliamentary sessions (from April 2006 to September 2008), enacting three federal budgets, an omnibus crime bill which covertly contained all kinds of measures and a bill to fix future election dates, among other legislation. The government was not defeated by the parties in opposition, rather Harper triggered the election in the belief he could secure a majority to act with impunity.
In the 2008 election, Harper was returned to power with another minority government. When this government was threatened with a “no confidence” motion, the Governor-General acceded to his request to prorogue Parliament on December 4, 2008. Before recalling Parliament, he accused the opposition parties of “treason” for planning to work with the Bloc Québécois. When Parliament was recalled, all talk of a coalition government between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party with the support of the Bloc Québécois had disappeared. Instead the minority government lasted through three parliamentary sessions. So long as no party in the House of Commons saw an advantage for itself in an election, one or another party kept the Conservatives in power.
In March 2011, the Conservatives were finally defeated in a 156-145 no confidence vote, triggering the fourth election in seven years.