‘Modern Convention’ and Minority Governments

Flickr/Andrew Scheer

L. Ian MacDonald

October 18, 2019

Amid a whirlwind of minority government speculation, a quick primer on modern convention.

If there were any residual doubt as to the overwhelming, catalyzing impact of polls on our political narratives, it was dispelled on October 11th. That day, CBC’s polling aggregator, Éric Grenier, reported for the first time since the federal election campaign began that the incumbent Liberals were in minority government territory.

In the week since, much of the oxygen in the campaign’s perpetual news cycle has been sucked up by talk of minorities, Parliamentary norms, coalitions and arrangements. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer weighed in with the observation that if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t win the most seats, “modern convention” dictates he’ll have to resign. Scheer’s interpretation of the legitimacy of minority governing arrangements and coalitions, coming from a former speaker of the House, came as a surprise to many.

On the question of forming a minority government, lacking even a plurality of seats, precedent comes down to Mackenzie King vs. Arthur Meighen after the 1925 election.

It was held on October 29, and King’s Liberals won 100 seats, while Meighen’s Conservatives won 115. A third party, the Progressives, won 22 seats but even their support of the Liberals left King just shy of a majority in what was then a 245-seat House.

To make matters worse for King, he lost his own seat in the general election and had to open up a safe one in Saskatchewan.

Nevertheless, as the sitting prime minister, King had the right to meet the House and present a throne speech. That was the constitutional convention, then as now.

But things took a turn for the worse for King when he lost a member of his government to resignation over a bribery scandal, and faced the prospect of losing a confidence vote if the Progressives deserted him. He thought the way back for him was through an election. He went to see the governor general, Baron Julian Byng, and asked for a writ.

Byng refused on the grounds that the Conservatives held the largest number of seats, and invited Meighen to form a government.

Not only did the Conservatives have a plurality of seats, they had won the 1925 popular vote over the Liberals by 46 to 40 per cent, with the Progressives at 8 per cent.

In the event, Meighen formed a government but was defeated after only three days in the House on a confidence motion. And this time, the GG issued the writs of election.

The 1926 campaign became known as the King-Byng election, with Mackenzie King accusing the GG of interference by a foreign power. In the event, the Liberals were returned with 116 seats, vs. 91 Conservatives. The Progressives, with 11 seats, gave the Liberals a bare working majority of 127 seats out of the 245 ridings in the Commons.

The Conservatives did win the popular vote, 45 to 43 per cent over the Liberals, but that was immaterial. King didn’t just have a plurality of seats, but led a minority government that became a coalition majority with the Progressives.

(King governed until 1930 and then, after Conservative R.B. Bennett had the misfortune of leading Canada through the Great Depression, was returned to office from 1935 until his retirement in 1948).

The particulars of the 1925-26 King-Byng affair, of a party forming government without even a plurality, comprise a unique constitutional convention. It’s not written down in the Constitution Act, but it’s there in our political history.

Scheer has another view, that “the party with the most seats should be able to form the government.” He says “that is a modern convention of Canadian politics,” and that accordingly, Justin Trudeau should resign as prime minister if the Liberals don’t win the most seats on Monday.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh further stirred the pot last weekend when he said that as leader of a third party in such a House, he would “work” with Justin Trudeau to thwart a Conservative government. “We’re going to fight a Conservative government,” he declared, “we’re going to fight it all the way.”

As for Trudeau, he has been wisely avoiding the minority hypothesis, saying he is working to lead a “strong, progressive” government to a majority.

For his part, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet says he’s not interested in an alliance with any other party, just as none of them want to be aligned with him.

But should he hold the balance of power in a minority House, he might well do business with Trudeau or Scheer on an issue-by-issue basis that works for Quebec. For the Greens, Elizabeth May’s raison d’être is to win enough seats to push a centre-left coalition across a majority finish line.

That magic majority number is 170 in a 338-seat House.

By most accounts, neither Trudeau nor Scheer is there, or even on the threshold of a majority at the last weekend of the campaign.

Which brings the conversation back to minority government, a place we’ve often been in the post-war era.

In 1957, in what was then a 265-seat House, the Conservatives won 112 seats against the Liberals’ 105 with the CCF at 25 seats and Social Credit at 12. Though the Liberals won the popular vote, 40.4 per cent to 38.5 per cent for the Tories, Louis St-Laurent decided not to contest the outcome and retired from office after two terms as head of a majority government. When the Liberals unwisely suggested the Conservatives hand office back to them, a delighted Prime Minister John Diefenbaker called the 1958 election in which he won 208 seats, a number surpassed only once in 1984 when Brian Mulroney won 211 seats in a 282-seat Commons.

Lester B. Pearson led the two most productive minority governments of the modern era after the 1963 and 1965 elections, doing business with the NDP and Tommy Douglas as a natural partner. Together they gave Canada the Maple Leaf flag, universal health care and the Canada Pension Plan, among other achievements.

In the 1970s, Pierre Trudeau barely won a plurality in the 1972 election when the Liberals won 109 seats to the Conservatives’ 107 under Robert Stanfield. The Liberals then contrived their own defeat over John Turner’s 1974 budget and were returned with a majority. In 1979, Trudeau lost to Joe Clark’s minority Conservatives, who were defeated on their budget months later. Though Trudeau had announced his retirement as party leader, Liberal brain truster Allan J. MacEachen talked him into running against Clark the following February. Trudeau was returned with a majority, and played a critical role in the federalists winning the Quebec referendum of May 1980.

Conservative Stephen Harper won a thin minority over Paul Martin’s Liberals—124 to 103 in a 308-seat House—in 2006. And in 2008, Harper was given a stronger hand of 143 seats against 77 Liberals, 49 Bloc members and 37 New Dems.

The Libs, Bloc and NDP leaders—Stéphane Dion, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton—became known as the Three Stooges for their announcement that would defeat the Conservatives in the House. Harper circumvented them, asking the GG to prorogue instead. Governor General Michaëlle Jean agreed after consulting her constitutional advisers, and a major crisis of governance was averted.

The key historical fact—no GG had ever turned down a PM’s request for a prorogation, adjourning without dissolving. Presumably, all the potential political outcomes are being written up for Julie Payette’s weekend reading.

This is where constitutional advisers earn both their reputations and their consulting fees, by getting both the history and the politics right.

L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine.