There’s less than two months to go before the next federal election. Many people are expecting that, no matter who wins, the result will likely be a minority government. That makes this an ideal time to discuss exactly what a minority government is, and the options political leaders have under it. For the purposes of this article, the "government" refers to the prime minister and his cabinet. The same principle applies at the provincial level, albeit with the premier, his cabinet and MLAs.
Canada’s constitution is founded on the idea of "responsible government." The government is responsible to the representatives of the people (all of the MPs), and can’t make decisions or pass laws unless it has Parliament’s confidence. Confidence votes can be called if the government loses a legislative vote, particularly an important one like the budget bill. If the government loses the support of most of the MPs in a confidence vote, it can’t govern. The government either has to let some other party try to form government itself, or an election must be called.
A ‘majority’ government occurs when a majority of MPs are of the government’s own party. A ‘minority’ government occurs when a majority of the MPs belong to the Opposition parties. In a majority, the government doesn’t usually have to worry about its legislation being defeated. It can count on its MPs to support it, and it will usually last until the normal time for an election.
A minority government is a trickier situation. It won’t have enough MP support to pass legislation on its own, and if the Opposition parties all vote against it, it’s done for. This is a safeguard meant to ensure that governments that "burn out" are replaced with new ones. When the Paul Martin Liberals ran out of gas in 2005, the Opposition triggered a non-confidence vote and the resulting election brought former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to power.
Minority governments have a few options on what to do. Lester Pearson only had two minority governments from 1963 to 1968, but he always managed to get one of the Opposition parties to support his government’s legislation. Former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau relied on the NDP’s support from 1972 to 1974 until he was in a position to regain a majority in the 1974 election. During his minorities, Harper almost dared the Opposition parties to try and defeat his legislation, knowing most of the public didn’t want another election so soon after the previous ones. When he was nearly replaced by the Stephane Dion Liberals in 2008 who were planning a non-confidence vote following the fall election, Harper correctly anticipated the public backlash against being replaced after having won the most seats in the election.
What happens if this fall’s election gives us a minority government? It’s impossible to predict. Jagmeet Singh said the NDP won’t prop up a Conservative minority, while Elizabeth May said the Greens probably would. Justin Trudeau hasn’t said what he’d do in Opposition, and it’s hard to say which of the other parties would support a Liberal minority.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.