Understanding government formation

There is some confusion in Canada (and elsewhere) as to how government formation occurs following a general election, particularly when an election results in a hung parliament. This post will attempt to provide a basic overview of the process. First, there are a couple of key concepts to understand and keep in mind.

1. In Westminster parliamentary systems, voters do not elect governments

You may frequently read media reports saying that recent polls show that a minority or majority government will be elected. This is false. Canadians, including at the provincial level, do not elect governments, we elect a parliament. The vote you cast is for your local MP or provincial representative only. You are not casting a vote for who you would like to see as Prime Minister or Premier, nor for what party you want to see form the government. The only person you are electing is your local representative. Certainly, if there is a party you would prefer to see form the government, you can vote for that party’s local representative, but whether or not that party ends up in government will depend on the overall configuration of the parliament elected.

2. A parliament is not the same thing as a government

Media reports will frequently use the terms “minority government” and “minority parliament”. This may confuse some people into thinking they mean the same thing. They do not. A parliament is the sum total of all the elected MPs (or MPPs/MLAs) from all parties. A Parliament is summoned following a general election and continues to exist until it is dissolved (ended) by a proclamation of the Governor General/Lieutenant Governor at the request of the Prime Minister/Premier. This is followed by another general election to elect a new parliament. Every member of the government is a Member of Parliament, but not all Members of Parliament are members of the Government.

A minority parliament is one in which no one party has won a majority of the seats. The British use the term hung parliament rather than minority parliament, which is preferable (but still not great) since it is less open to confusion with minority government. This is the term I will use.

A minority government is a type of government where a party (or group of parties) forms the government even though they don’t control a majority of the seats in parliament. Minority government most commonly occurs when there is a hung parliament, but it isn’t the only type of government which can be formed in a hung parliament situation.

3. To form the government, a party or group of parties must demonstrate that it has the confidence of the House.

The Prime Minister/Premier and the Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer for, their actions to the House as a body and must enjoy the support and the confidence of a majority of the Members of that Chamber to remain in office. This is commonly referred to as the confidence convention.

Government formation in a hung parliament

There has been a general election. No single party has won a majority of the seats in the legislative body. This is a hung (or minority) parliament. What happens next?

1. Does the leader of the party with the most seats (but not a majority) automatically become the Prime Minister/Premier?

No. This is a very common misconception, but it is not how our parliamentary system works. It is the party leader who can command the confidence of the House who will form the government. This could be the leader of the party which finishes with the second-most seats, as long as they have the support of other smaller parties.

2. Does the incumbent party have the first shot at forming the government?

Yes. The incumbent party is the party which had formed the government in the previous parliament, i.e. before the election was called. As the incumbent, they have the right to first decide if they believe they can form a government which will command the confidence of the House, even if they do not finish with the most seats.

Depending on the actual distribution of seats, the likelihood of this will vary tremendously. For example, the May 2010 general election in the UK resulted in the Conservative Party winning 307 seats, Labour (the incumbent party) winning 258 seats, and the Liberal Democrats winning 57 seats. Other smaller parties claimed the remaining 28 seats. As the incumbent party, Labour had the right to see if it could form a government with the help of other parties. It began negotiating with the Liberal Democrats, proposing a sort of “rainbow coalition” with the Lib Dems and other smaller parties. Meanwhile, the Conservatives also negotiated with the Liberal Democrats. It took five days before it became clear that Labour wouldn’t be able to form a government which would command the confidence of the House, and only then did Prime Minister Gordon Brown tender his resignation to the Queen. The Conservatives reached an agreement with the Liberal Democrats to form a majority coalition government. So while the UK has a hung parliament, it has a majority government.

In some instances, it will be very clear that the incumbent party cannot in any way command the confidence of the House on its own, or even with the help of other parties. In other instances, the incumbent will be able to form the government, even if it finishes second, if it can get the support of other parties either formally, by forming a coalition, or more informally, through a confidence and supply agreement, for example. If we use the example of the 2010 UK election, if the gap between Labour and the Conservatives had been narrower, or if the Lib Dems had won a greater number of seats, it might have been possible for Labour to form the government with the support of the Lib Dems, even if they were still second in number of seats to the Conservatives.

3. How long does it take to form a government?

It takes as long as necessary.

Canadians are quite accustomed to finding out on election night what sort of government they will have. In the case of a single party winning a majority of seats, the outcome is obvious – that party will form the government. In the event of a hung parliament however, the type of government which will be formed isn’t immediately apparent. We have become use to the media declaring a “Party X minority government” but they really should not do this. It is not up to the media to decide what sort of government will emerge – it is up to the newly elected parliament.

As mentioned above, in the UK in 2010, it took five days for a government to form as both Labour, the incumbent party, and the Conservatives, who had won the most seats, negotiated with the Liberal Democrats to see what sort of government could be formed which would command the confidence of the House. No one in the UK media declared a “Conservative minority government” on election night once the results were known – they simply stated that it was a hung parliament and then waited as the parties negotiated.

If, on election night in Ontario, it is a hung parliament result, even if the PCs end up with the most seats but short of a majority, until the Liberal government officially resigns, they are still the government. The Liberals can take a few days, even weeks, to negotiate with the NDP to see if they can work out some form of government. The PCs can do the same thing. Even if the media immediately declares a “PC minority government”, they really should not do that until the parties themselves decide on what form of government will emerge, as will be discussed below.

The 2011 Ontario election: possible government formation outcomes

Current polls re: the 6 October 2011 election in the province of Ontario show that the two main parties, the Liberals – who are the incumbents – and the Progressive Conservatives, are in a virtual tie, with the third party, the New Democratic Party (NDP) not far behind. Most interpret this as meaning that a hung parliament will be the outcome of the election. However, Liberal support is higher in areas of the province where there are more seats at play, which means that there is a slight chance that the Liberals could eke out a very narrow majority win. Let’s look at various possible scenarios for government formation which could occur following the election on 6 October. Remember, there are 107 seats in the Ontario legislature, therefore a party (or coalition of parties) needs 54 seats to form a majority government. A hung parliament will result if no single party wins a majority of seats (54 seats or more).

1. Single-Party Majority Government

This is the most common, and traditionally expected outcome of an election conducted using First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) in the Westminster-model of parliamentary government. This is when a single party wins an overall majority of the seats in the legislative body. In the case of Ontario, one of the parties would have to win 54 or more seats in order to form a single-party majority government.

While most polls currently have the two main parties in a virtual dead heat, because Liberal support is strongest in parts of the province where there are more seats available to be won, some are projecting a very narrow Liberal majority government. For example, ThreeHundredandEight currently projects 58 seats for the Liberals (that is his final projection). If that is the result of the election, then the Liberals will form a narrow (5 seat) majority government.

2. Hung Parliament, Single-Party Minority Government

This is what Canadians and Ontarians are used to seeing when an election results in a hung parliament, with no single party winning a majority of the seats. Usually, the party which does win the largest number of seats will form a minority government. From 2004 until 2011, there have been minority governments in Ottawa, first Liberal (2004-06) then Conservative (2006-2008, 2008-2011). The last minority government in Ontario occurred in 1985.

Minority governments can be unstable, since the opposition will outnumber them and thus could easily defeat them on a confidence vote. Because of this, the party forming a minority government might seek to strengthen their position somewhat by reaching a confidence and supply agreement with a smaller party. This simply means that the 3rd party will commit to voting in favour of the governing party on all confidence votes and budget measures, sometimes in exchange for the party forming the government incorporating some of the 3rd party’s policies into its program. The governing party might also agree to not call another election for a fixed period of time, for example, two years. The smaller party will not be part of the government, however.

While normally it is the party with the most seats (but not a majority) which will form a minority government, this isn’t always the case. The party with the second highest number of seats could form a single-party minority government, if it reached some sort of agreement with a 3rd party. This is exactly what happened in Ontario in 1985. What matters, remember, is that the party forming the government have the confidence of the House, not whether they finished first or second in the seat count.

3. Hung Parliament, Coalition Majority Government

A hung parliament does not exclude the formation of a majority government. Two (or more) parties can agree to form a coalition government which would have a majority of seats in the legislature. This is what occurred in the United Kingdom in May 2010.

Unfortunately, coalition government, while entirely legitimate – and many would say preferable to single-party majority or minority government – is not likely to occur because there isn’t a tradition of coalition government in Canada or Ontario. Coalition government is far more common in jurisdictions which use some sort of proportional representation rather than FPTP.

Coalition differs from a confidence and supply agreement between two parties in that both parties form the government and both parties would have cabinet positions. The leader of the largest party in the coalition would become the Premier, and the leader of the smaller party would most likely be named Deputy Premier or given some other high profile portfolio.

4. Hung Parliament, Coalition Minority Government

In a hung parliament, it would be possible for two parties to form a coalition government, but the coalition would still be a minority government in that between them, they would not have a majority of seats in the Legislature.

This scenario would be highly unlikely in Ontario because it is extremely unlikely that a 4th party, or any independents, will win any seats. Because there will likely be only three parties elected to the Ontario legislature, Liberals, PCs an NDP, there isn’t any scenario that would allow for a minority coalition. Even if one party fell just shy of a majority of the seats on its own, for example, if the PCs won 53 seats, if the Liberals and NDP formed a coalition, between them they would have 54 seats – a majority. If the seats were more evenly distributed between the three parties, for example, Liberals 40, PCs 37, NDP 30, if the PCs and NDP formed a coalition, they would have a majority of the seats (67). If the Liberals and NDP formed a coalition, that too would be a majority government, 70 seats.

For a minority coalition to occur in Ontario, a fourth party would need to win seats. For example, let’s pretend the Green Party won seats as well, resulting in the following: Liberals 48 seats, PCs 42, NDP 10, Greens 7. The Liberals have more seats, but the PCs and NDP decide to form a coalition. Together they have 52 seats, more than the Liberals, but still not a majority. The Greens don’t want to be a part of the coalition but say they might support it on key votes. They aren’t interested in any sort of deal with the Liberals. So it’s still a minority government, but a PC-NDP coalition government rather than a single party government. However, as stated above, with only three parties expected to actually win seats, the math would not allow for a coalition minority government to occur.

The most important thing to remember is that which party, or parties, form the government will depend on whether they can command the confidence of the House, not where they finished in the seat count.

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