In Case of Minority, Break Glass

Column / Don Newman

As campaigning heated up over the summer ahead of the October federal election, many public opinion polls were predicting that when the ballots are counted on election night, Canadians will find they’ve elected themselves a minority government.

If those predictions prove true, some will say the results reflect what Canadians really want—for no single political party to have complete control of the country’s agenda for four years, and for  small parties to have some say in the decision making process.

Others will see it the other way. That the instability that comes when no party has a majority to control the House Commons will lead to little being accomplished and the likelihood of, before long, another election.

If history tells us anything, it’s that minority governments often beget other minority governments. In the 1960s, between June 1962 and November 1965, three elections produced three minority governments, one Progressive Conservative and two Liberal.

More recently, between June of 2004 and October 2008, three elections produced three minority governments, one Liberal and two Conservative. As the polls have been suggesting, the coming election may well produce a minority government after two majorities in a row, but whether that happens this time or not, minority governments are likely to be a bigger part of Canada’s political and electoral future. 

That’s because regional voting patterns and the growing number of political parties that are competitive in at least some of the regions presage that success for different parties in different parts of the country could become more common.

This fragmentation breaks with the status quo of the past half century, with the Conservatives having a stranglehold on the prairies and the Liberals anchored in Quebec. There have been exceptions, particularly in Quebec, when first the Bloc Quebecois and then the New Democrats replaced the Liberals dominance. Those exceptions usually produced Conservative governments.

With all the parties competitive in at least some parts of the country, it will be difficult for Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, or Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives—the two leaders and parties that have the chance of forming a government alone—to reach the 170 seats needed to control the House.

With the increasing possibility of minority governments, it’s time for a change in the rules of the House of Commons to make things more stable, and to fit with the fixed date elections act that was also designed to do that.

As the saying goes, “It’s too late to fix the roof when it is raining,” and the partisan self-interest demonstrated by all MPs in the last Parliament when they considered electoral reform shows how difficult any change can be. So, we should consider a plan now for operating in minority parliaments that would, over a period of time, benefit all parties equally.

Under this proposal, a minority government defeated on a budget vote or other confidence measure would have forty-eight hours to collect itself and negotiate with other parties before facing another vote in the House of Commons. At the same time, the opposition parties would be free to make deals among themselves.

The second vote would not be about anything specific. Just the question of whether the government has the confidence of the House. 

If the government won that vote it would continue in power. If it lost, the Governor-General would ask another party leader, almost certainly the leader of the Opposition, to try to form a government. Forty-eight hours later, that new government would face the same simple confidence vote in the House. If it survived the result, it would be in power, at least until the next confidence vote. But if it lost the confidence question, the Governor-General would set the date for a general election.

This plan is attractive on a number of fronts. While it preserves the opportunity for minority parties to force an election if they want to, minority governments, knowing they could also be replaced without an election, would govern themselves accordingly.

Right away, they would be more conciliatory and consultative with the other parties in the House; more careful of things that could grow into scandals and cause major shifts in public opinion. In all, produce better government all round.

If the coming election produces a minority government, it is too bad that the rule changes won’t be in place to make the House of Commons more predictable. In that case, the only thing that can be hoped for is that an increasing number of minority governments in the future would convince politicians and the public that the rule changes are necessary.