In Q&A: So, you want to learn about Canadian elections? We went over, very briefly, the electoral system in Canada. We also talked about how a government is formed.
There, we said that at the federal or provincial level, the party with the most representatives (MPs, MPPs, MLAs, MNAs) in the legislature (that is, the parties with the most seats), is asked to form the government. Here, we will get into more details about the composition of governments and how they work given their numbers in the legislature.
Governments in Westminster parliamentary systems can take one of three forms:
A majority government occurs when a single party forms the government while *having a majority of seats in the legislature. With a majority government, a party is almost always going to have the confidence of the legislature to pass budgets and other legislation without having to count on the support of the other parties.
This image shows the make-up of the 41st Parliament of Canada. It represents the result of the 2011 election which gave Stephen Harper’s Conservatives majority control over the House of Commons (Conservatives: 166 seats, NDP: 103 seats, Liberals: 34 seats, Bloc Quebecois: 4 seats, Green Party: 1 seats) *
This also means that the government does not necessarily need to work or compromise with the other parties (for example, to pursue policies or programs the other parties may wish to have put in place). Of course, the government may be forced to compromise if there is enough public pressure or discontent.
A minority government occurs when a single party has more seats than any one other party, but does not hold the majority of seats. In our electoral system, it may be the case that while one party received more seats individually, the other parties combined have more seats together than the governing party.
This image shows the make-up of the 39th Parliament of Canada. It represents the result of the 2006 election which gave Stephen Harper’s Conservatives minority control over the House of Commons (Conservatives: 124 seats, Liberals: 103 seats, Bloc Quebecois: 51 seats, NDP: 29 Seats, Independent Candidate: 1 seat) **
You will often hear during a minority government that while the government has more seats, most of the electorate (the voters) “voted for someone else”, that is, most voters voted for candidates of parties which did not form the government.
Ideally, the governing party, in this situation, must tread carefully and offer to work with the other parties in order to retain the confidence of the legislature. Failure to compromise may result in a vote of non-confidence if the other parties vote as one block to defeat the government. This would result in either:
1. An election being called as a result of a dissolution
2. The Governor-General inquires as to whether the Official Opposition party can hold the confidence of the legislature.
In order for the Official Opposition (the party with the second greatest number of seats) to do this, they may need to include members of the other parties in their cabinet, or at least complete an agreement to be assured of the support of the other parties (that is, their ‘yay’ votes on key legislation such as the Speech from the Throne or the Budget) in the legislature. This creates a coalition government.
A coalition government can either form a majority in the House (made up of two or more parties) or a minority of the House (still made up of two or more parties). In the case of the latter, the coalition government will need the support of other parties to retain confidence.
It is important to reiterate that coalitions in parliamentary systems like Canada’s are perfectly legal, perfectly constitutional, perfectly acceptable. Governments are not given mandates in parliamentary systems: parliament is supreme and are given their mandates by the people who elect them there.
If a minority government ‘fell’, that is, lost the confidence of the legislature in a no confidence vote, a coalition of opposition parties could form a government if asked by the Crown- the Governor-General.
The legality and validity of coalition governments was a subject of contention during the so-called Constitutional Crisis of 2008/2009 though it shouldn’t have been.
For further information on minority governments, coalition governments and the Constitutional Crisis, I recommending looking at these to name a few:
CBC. (2008, December 08). Coalition crisis stories. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2008/12/01/f-coalition.html
John English for Historica-Dominion Institute. (2012). Coalition government. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/coalition-government
Hogg, P. (2010). The 2008 Constitutional Crisis: Prorogation and the Power of the Governor General. Revue nationale de droit constitutionnel, 198.
McIsaac, I. A. (2012). “over the heads of the members of parliament”: Democratic rights and the royal prerogative. National journal of constitutional law, 30(2), 147-169.
Russell, P. (2008). Two cheers for minority government: the evolution of canadian parliamentary democracy. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications.
Russell, P., & Sossin, L. (2009). Parliamentary democracy in crisis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Topp, B. (2010). How we almost gave the tories the boot : the inside story behind the coalition . Toronto: Lorimer.
** Wikipedia (7, Dec. 2012). Canadian Federal Election, 2006. Retrieved December 22, 2012 from, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_federal_election,_2006 (*I have checked the results with other sources to collaborate the validity of this page including Simon Fraser University, http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/2006-results.html, )
*Wikipedia (16, Dec. 2012). Canadian Federal Election, 2011. Retrieved December 22, 2012 from, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_federal_election,_2011 (*I have checked the results with other sources to collaborate the validity of this page including Simon Fraser University, http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/results.html).