It seems increasingly likely that none of the federal parties will win enough seats on October 19 to form a majority government. Broadly speaking, this leaves two possibilities: a minority or a coalition government. Both options demand cooperation and compromise between our parliamentarians—and both may offer many advantages over a “false” majority government (in which a government wins less than half the popular vote but more than half the seats in parliament).
Minority or coalition governments can represent the broad interests of a majority of Canadians. Although coalitions are rare at the federal level, Canada has a long history of minority parliaments. Minority governments have given Canadians our national health care program, our pension plan, and bilingualism. But the effectiveness of minority governments depends on the leadership of the parties involved.
The key to forming government in a minority parliament is securing the trust and confidence of a majority of elected representatives. This is because in Canada we do not directly elect our Prime Minister. We vote to choose an elected Member of Parliament (MP). Our elected representatives form the government. A party leader must earn the confidence of the majority of MPs in order to become Prime Minister. It is not necessarily true that elections decide who will form the government. If no party wins a majority, government is formed after the election by determining which party or coalition can command the confidence of the House of Commons.
The effectiveness of minority governments depends on the leadership of the parties involved, their spirit of cooperation, and their responsiveness to the public. Minority governments often rest on a “supply and confidence” arrangement whereby one party governs with the support of another party or group of MPs who provide votes of confidence and votes for budgets.
Coalitions are another democratic alternative. They are commonplace in many parliamentary democracies around the world. Coalitions involve agreements among parties to share cabinet and other appointments. They are often highly stable and tend to be broadly inclusive.
Parliamentary systems of government are uniquely well suited to ensuring that stable governments are formed even when no party wins a majority of seats in Parliament. We have a history in Canada of productive minority governments that have worked cooperatively in the best interest of Canadians and examples abound of successful coalition governments around the world.
If our leaders act in a spirit of cooperation for the common good, the advantages of post-electoral parliamentary cooperation—whether minority or coalition government—could include restoring independence and integrity between the government and legislature, introducing policies favoured by broad majorities, and giving greater say to our elected representatives. It could also result in policies supported by a broad majority of the public: action on climate change, electoral reform, a fairer tax system, and a new relationship with First Nations. More voices in government mean better policies for a stronger Canada.
This post was adapted from the paper Trust and Confidence:Post-Election Cooperation in Parliament.
Max Cameron is a Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC anad a research associate with the CCPA-BC. You can follow Max on Twitter @MaxwellACameron.