Minority assumptions

At the outset of the most recent Canadian federal election campaign in March of this year, I wrote a post addressing how the concept of coalition government had become almost toxic in Canada. This phenomenon didn’t start this year – it dates back, as the posts states, to events in 2008. The Canadian media has not always helped on this front; there have been far too many op ed pieces dismissing the idea of coalition government as being, if not actually illegal, at least foreign and certainly undesirable (see, for example, my dissection of one such column here).

There will be a general election in the Canadian province of Ontario this October. The outcome of the previous election, in 2007, resulted in a Liberal majority government. This time around, if polls are accurate, we will end up with a hung parliament. Already we see some in the media jumping to conclusion as to what sort of government might emerge.

For example, back in August, polls were showing the Official Opposition party, the Progressive Conservatives, to be ahead slightly, with the Liberals running second and the New Democratic Party (NDP) third. Based on those current polls, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy released an attempt at projecting a seat count for each party. The province’s Legislative Assembly has 107 seats. The Institute projected 51 seats for the PCs, 41 for the Liberals and 15 for the NDP. The news article carried on the Global News website was headlined: Laurier professor projecting Conservative minority in Ontario.

The professor projected no such thing. The only thing the Institute projected was a hung parliament. Yes, they projected that the Progressive Conservatives might emerge with the most seats, but they were still short of the 54 seats required for a majority. The Liberals and NDP together, however, would have a majority, 56 seats. Similarly, the PCs and NDP together would be in an even stronger position, with 66 seats. The Institute made no attempt to determine what form of government would emerge, they simply projected that no party would win a majority. It was Global News which unilaterally decided that this meant the only possible outcome was a PC minority government.

More recent polls have shown similar results, sometimes with the Liberals slightly ahead in the seat count, but still short of a majority, sometimes the PCs and Liberals are shown to be in a dead heat. And the media never fail to trumpet minority government. Most recently, for example, a new poll has the Liberals and PCs tied at 35% each. The story’s headline: Massive poll finds minority looming. The first sentence of the article reads:

Ontario is headed toward a minority government for the first time in decades with the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives deadlocked, according to a major new poll.

Again, this isn’t accurate. The poll indicates that Ontario is headed toward a minority parliament. It is impossible to determine what sort of government will emerge and it most certainly isn’t up to the media to dictate what form of government should emerge in the event of a hung parliament. It doesn’t have to be a minority government. It could be a majority government, if two of the parties are willing to work together and form a coalition. Or it could be a minority government that would be as strong as a majority government if the third place party agreed to support one of the other parties (and it wouldn’t have to be the party that finishes “first” in seat count). Perhaps our journalists simply don’t understand the difference between minority parliaments and minority government?

No poll has yet indicated that any party would end up with a majority. So what happens in the event of a hung parliament?

As the incumbent party, it would be up to the Liberals to determined if they have any way of commanding the confidence of the Legislature. Depending on the outcome, this might or might not be possible. If they had the most seats, but shy of a majority, it could be possible. If they finished second to the PCs, then on their own, obviously, they could not. However, this does not mean that they would have to immediately concede defeat. They could enter into discussions with the NDP and if they secured the support of the NDP, either via a formal accord similar to the Liberal-NDP accord of 1985, or by forming a full-fledged coalition government similar to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the United Kingdom, they would command the confidence of the Assembly. However, the NDP is under no obligation to work with the Liberals. They could also negotiate with the PCs, offering supply-confidence support in exchange for certain NDP policies to be implemented, or even explore coalition with the PCs. In the UK, after the May 6 2010 election, it took five days for a government to emerge, as both Labour and the Conservatives negotiated with the Liberal Democrats to see what might be possible.

My only point here is to yet again bemoan the Canadian media’s penchant for assuming any hung parliament result can lead only to minority government.

Voters in Ontario will not be electing a government in October, they will be electing a new parliament. It will be the MPPs elected to form that parliament who will determine which party or parties can command the confidence of the House. It may well result in a minority government, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that – it will all depend on the numbers and parties’ willingness to work with each other. With polls as close as they are, a hung parliament could allow for at least six possible outcomes, not one or two.* I would simply ask the media to remember that a minority government does not have to be the only option on the table.

*If the October election did result in a minority or hung parliament, depending on the actual seat numbers, any of the following types of government would be entirely legitimate. 1) a Liberal minority government. As the incumbent party, they get the first shot at trying to form a government which can command the confidence of the House. They could attempt to govern on their own even if they finished second to the PCs. If they did finish second to the PCs, this would be highly unlikely, however, since the government would be very unstable, quickly brought down on a confidence vote by the opposition and, perhaps more importantly, the optics wouldn’t look good at all. 2) A PC minority. This would be the most likely outcome if the PCs end up with the most seats, but shy of a majority. However, it too would be unstable and easily defeated by the opposition parties (see 1985). 3) A Liberal minority with formal support from the NDP (à la 1985). While not officially a majority government, it would act like one since two parties combined would command a majority of the seats. 4) A Liberal-NDP coalition government, which differs from option 3 in that the NDP would actually be part of the government, with some cabinet posts going to NDP MPPs. 5) A PC minority supported by the NDP (see point 3). 6) A PC-NDP coalition government. These last two are less likely than their Liberal-NDP alternatives simply because there is a wider ideological divide between the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives than there is between the NDP and the Liberals. I would add that there even exists the possibility of cooperation between the Liberals and PCs (again, not likely, but certainly entirely legitimate. This could even include a “grand coalition” between the two parties). I just want to stress that the media, political parties and voters needs to stop limiting discussion to minority government only since that is not the only option available.

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