Yukon election 2011 political party platform comparison

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Yukon election (11 October 2011).

This blog cannot engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, as was the case this spring, it can refer you to other sites that can do that. I will update this list as needed.

Yukon Political Party Platform comparisons:

Canadian Voter Yukon Election Issues

Related Posts:

NL Election 2011 Political Party Platform Comparison

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Newfoundland and Labrador election (11 October 2011).

This blog cannot engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, as was the case this spring, it can refer you to other sites that can do that. I will update this list as needed.

NL Political Party Platform comparisons:

Canadian Voter NL Election Issues

Related Posts:

Keyword Post: Answers to Questions on Election Outcomes

Following the recent election in the Canadian province of Ontario, I can see that there are a lot of people searching for very basic information about how our system of government works. While I have detailed posts answering most of these questions on this blog, I will provide shorter, basic answers to some of the most common questions to which people want answers.

1. What happens in a minority government / what does a minority government mean / how does a minority government happen?

A minority government simply means that the party or parties forming the government do not have a majority of the seats in the legislature. In the case of Ontario, there are 107 seats in the provincial assembly, therefore to have a majority government, a party (or parties) needs to have at least 54 seat. If the party, or parties, which forms the government have fewer than 54, we call this a minority government – it could be a single party minority government, or a coalition minority government. The Liberal Party won 53 seats in the 6 October election, more than any one of the other two parties (PC 37, NDP 17), but less than the two other parties combined, who have a majority between them (54 seats), therefore Ontario now has a single party minority government.

As for what happens during a minority government, the party forming the government must work more closely with the other parties in order to ensure that the government survives.  Therefore, it will tailor legislation to appeal to at least one of the other parties, in order to get that party to vote to support the legislation in the House. Minority governments can be very effective if they work closely with the other parties, but if there is little cooperation, then the government can be unstable, constantly at risk of being defeated on a confidence matter or vote. The more cooperation there is between the parties, the better the chances are that the government will last more than a few months and the more productive the legislature will be. For more detailed information about government formation and various forms of government, please read this post and this post.

2. How many votes does a third party need to get?

It isn’t a question of how many votes a party needs, it is a matter of how many seats a party wins. In the Ontario legislature, a party must win at least 8 seats to be recognized as a party. If fewer than 8 MPPs are elected from a certain party, they will be considered “Independent Members”. This has consequences because additional funds are available to political parties represented in the House, but not Independents. Committee chairs are allocated to recognized parties, but not to Independents. Political parties are allocated a certain amount of debate time and questions during Oral Questions, but Independents can only participate in debates and in Oral Questions if the Speaker chooses to recognize them.

Therefore, a party needs to win at least 8 seats to be a recognized party in the legislative assembly. However, party representation in the Legislature is not limited to only three parties. For many many years now, there have been only three parties represented in the Legislative Assembly, but there used to be more than three, and in the future, if the Greens (or some other party) become more popular and get members elected, there will be more than three parties again.

In the Canadian House of Commons, a party must win 12 seats to be recognized as a party. That is why Elizabeth May, leader of and the only member of the Green party in the House of Commons is considered an Independent. The Bloc Quebecois won only 4 seats in the 2011 election, and thus is no longer a recognized party. Its four members are considered Independents. Some jurisdictions don’t have any minimum seat requirements for a  party to be recognized in the House.

3. Could the Progressive Conservatives and NDP form a coalition?

Yes. It’s probably not very likely given that ideologically, they aren’t very close, but there is certainly nothing stopping the two parties from working together, even forming a coalition. However, even if they announced that they had formed a coalition, which would command a majority of the seats in the legislature, they would not automatically become the government. As the incumbent party, the Liberals have the right form the government first. If they Liberal minority government were defeated on a confidence vote, then the Lieutenant Governor could ask a PC-NDP coalition to form a new government. Again, see this post on government formation for more information.

4. How many votes are needed to win a seat in the provincial (or federal) election?

One more than the candidate who finishes second.

Because Ontario (and every other jurisdiction in Canada) uses Single Member Plurality (more commonly known as First-Past-the-Post) to elect members, a candidate only has to receive a simple majority of the votes cast, which could be as few as one single vote more than the person in second place. They don’t need to get 50% of the votes cast, just more than the next person.

For example, in the 6 October 2011 Ontario election, in the riding of St. Paul’s, the final results were:

Hoskins, Liberal – 25,052 votes, or 58.4%
McGirr, PC – 8971 votes, or 20.9%
Hynes, NDP -  7121 votes, or 16.6%

In this case, the Liberal candidate won decisively, receiving a majority of the votes cast (58.4%), well ahead of the candidate in 2nd place. However, in other ridings, the results were much closer, for example, in Kitchener Centre:

Milloy, Liberal – 15,392 votes, or 39.2%
MacDonald, PC – 15,069 votes, or 38.4%
Dearlove, NDP – 7382 votes, or 18.8%

In this case, the winner did not get over 50% of the votes cast, but that doesn’t matter. He did get more votes than the candidate who finished second (323), and that is all that is required. Even if the margin of victory had been only one vote, he still would have won the seat. Please see this post for more information on how FPTP works (or doesn’t work).

5. How many votes does it take for a majority government in Canada/in a province?

Again, it isn’t a question of votes, but how many seats a party wins. That will vary by legislature. In the federal House of Commons, there are currently 308 seats, therefore a party (or coalition of parties) needs 155 seats for a majority (308 / 2 + 1). The numbers will be different for each provincial legislature since they all have different numbers of seats. Simply take the total number of seats in the legislature, divide by two and add one. That is how many seats are required for a majority in that province. (If you don’t know how many seats there are in the legislature in question, simply Google for that legislature – i.e. “legislative assembly of Saskatchewan”. The information will be available on the Assembly’s website.)

6. What happens when less then 50% of the population vote in a Canadian election?

Nothing. In the first place, not everyone is eligible to vote in an election. There are certain conditions which must be met to be eligible to vote (for example, you must be at least 18 years old, you must be a Canadian citizen, etc.), therefore the number of eligible voters will always be lower than the total population of the country or province (in the case of a provincial election). However, voting is not mandatory and there is no minimum turnout required to validate elections in Canada, therefore as long as some people turn out to vote and Members get elected, the election will be valid. Of course, ideally, every one who is eligible to vote should do so.

7. What happens if a party wins but their leader doesn’t win a seat?

If a party wins sufficient seats in an election to allow it to form the government, but the party leader doesn’t win his or her seat, that party still forms the government. The party will name an interim leader from among its elected members, and the actual leader will attempt to get elected to the House as quickly as possible. This will usually happen via a by-election. The party may convince one of its members from a very safe riding to resign their seat. A by-election will be called to fill the vacancy, and the party leader will run in that by-election. Usually they will win, but if they were to lose, then it would be expected that they would probably resign as party leader. The party would then hold a leadership convention to choose a new leader. All of this would have no impact on the party’s right to form the government, however. You might want to read this post on how the Prime Minister is chosen for more information.

8. What happens if a minority government is defeated?

If a government is defeated because it has lost the confidence of the House (and this could happen to a majority government as well, though it isn’t very likely), normally the defeated Prime Minister or Premier will suggest to the Governor General (or Lieutenant Governor in a province) one of two things: to ask the leader of another party if they can form a government that might command the confidence of the House, or to dissolve parliament and call a new election. What the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor will decide to do might depend on when in the life of the parliament the government loses the confidence of the House. If the government’s defeat occurs very early on in the life of the new parliament (i.e. very soon after a general election), the GG or LG might be more inclined to see if another party or group of parties can form a new government. If this is possible, than that party (or group of parties if they have formed a coalition or reached some sort of agreement) will form the government without an election being necessary. However, if no other party or group of parties is able to form a government which will command the confidence of the House, then the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor will dissolve parliament and call for a new election. The greater the distance between the last election and the defeat of the government, however, the more likely it is that the GG or LG will dissolve parliament and call for a new election.

Related Posts:

Majority Government, Minority Support

(Note: You may also be interested in this post comparing various types of government. Also, for people wondering “how many seats do you need to have a majority government”, the answer is simply, one more than all of the other parties put together. Take the total number of seats there are in the legislature in question, divide that by 2 and add one. That is how many seats you need. So, if the legislature in question has a total of 120 seats, divide by 2, which gives you 60, add one, 61 – a party (or coalition of parties) would need at least 61 seats  to form a majority government. In the case of an uneven number of total seats, say 107, divide by 2 and round up, so 107/2=53.5, round up to 54 – a party or coalition of parties would need at least 54 seats to form a majority government. If you don’t know how many seats there are in the legislature, go to the official website – that information is normally available there. You can also look up the assembly on Wikipedia [although remember that Wikipedia is not always 100% accurate - always best to stick with official sources for confirmation].)

A reader contacted me asking how a party can win a majority of seats, and thus form the government, but not have a majority of the popular vote.

This is due to the voting system used in Canada and a few other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, the single member plurality system which is more commonly referred to as First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).

FPTP is a very simple voting system. When an election occurs, in each constituency (riding), the candidate who wins the highest number of votes within that constituency wins that seat. They don’t have to win over 50% of the vote in their riding, they only have to win at least one more vote than the candidate in second place.

For example, in a riding, we have candidates from the three most prominent parties and a couple of fringe party candidates. The result is as follows :

Candidate A (Modern Party): 12,000 votes
Candidate B (Traditional Party): 10,000 votes
Candidate C (Freedom Party): 9,000 votes
Candidate D (Granola Party): 800 votes
Candidate E (Angry Party): 200 votes

In this example, the winner is candidate A with a majority over Candidate B of 2,000. However, you will note that more people (20,000) voted for candidates other than candidate A. Candidate A did not have the support of a majority of voters.

The big problem with FPTP is that it is designed for a two-party system. If there are only two parties competing (or two very strong parties and maybe a couple of very weak fringe parties), then FPTP works reasonably well. If there are only two parties to choose from, Candidate A from the Modern Party and Candidate B from the Traditional Party, then one of them will receive over 50% of the vote.

However, when a country has a multi-party system, meaning that there are more than two strong parties competing for people’s votes (and many smaller parties), then FPTP starts to break down and can produce very distorted results. The greater the number of parties, the more the vote is potentially split between them. This leads to candidates winning seats with smaller and smaller percentages of the vote.

In the May 2011 Canadian general election, for example, 163 of the total 308 seats, that is 53% of the seats in the House of Commons, were won by a candidate who received less than 50% of the vote in his or her riding. In some ridings, the vote was split very closely between three or more different candidates. This means that a majority of MPs were not elected with a majority of the vote in their own constituency. More voters in their ridings voted against them than voted for them. For example, in the Quebec riding of Ahuntsic, the vote split very closely between three parties: Bloc Quebecois – 14,908 or 31.8%, NDP – 14,200 or 30.3%, Liberal – 13,087 or 27.9%. The BQ candidate won the seat backed by only 31.8% of voters in that constituency. The 67% of voters who supported federalist parties (NDP, Liberal, Conservative and Greens), ended up with a pro-Quebec independence MP.

This distortion at the constituency level plays out at the national and provincial levels as well. Because the overall vote is split between three or more parties, it becomes increasingly difficult for a single party to gain over 50% of the total vote cast. But, just as a candidate doesn’t need over 50% of the vote to win a seat, political parties do not need to win over 50% of the total vote to win an overall majority of the seats.

In the May 2011 federal election, the Conservative Party won a majority of the seats (166) but received only 39.6% of the overall vote. That’s 53% of the seat won with only 39% of the vote. The last majority government in Canada to win a majority of the vote occurred in 1984, when the Progressive Conservative Party won 211 seats with 50.03% of the vote. While better than more recent results in terms of winning a majority of the vote, this is still unbalanced. The PCs won 75% of the seats in the House of Commons with only 50% of the vote.

FPTP has also resulted in even greater distortions. For example, there have been instances of a party finishing second in terms of the overall vote, but still winning more seats, sometimes even a majority of the seats, than the party that did receive the most votes overall. In the 1979 federal election, the Progressive Conservatives won 136 seats while the Liberals won 114, even though the Liberals received 40% of the vote compared to the PCs’ 35%. In the 1998 general election in the province of Quebec, the Parti Québécois won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly (77 of the 124 seats) but had actually finished second to the Quebec Liberal Party in terms of votes. The Quebec Liberal Party received 1,771,858 votes (43.55%), and the PQ 1,744,240 (42.87%) votes, yet the PQ won 77 seats and the Liberals only 47. In New Brunswick in 2006, the Liberals won 29 seats to the Progressive Conservatives’ 26, but the PCs had received marginally more votes, 177,744 to the Liberals 176,410. In the 1996 provincial election in British Columbia and in the 1986 election in Saskatchewan, parties won a majority of seats even though they placed second in the overall province-wide total of the votes.

It has even happened under FPTP that one party has won every single seat. In the New Brunswick provincial election of 1987, the Liberal party won all 58 seats in the provincial legislature on 60% of the vote. The Progressive Conservatives received 29% of the vote and the NDP 10%, but neither party won a single seat.

FPTP can also exacerbate regional differences between the parties and allow one party to form a national government even though support for that party is largely concentrated in one part of the country. For example, in the 1997 federal election, the Liberals won 101 of the 103 seats in Ontario. However, a bare majority of voters in Ontario had voted for other candidates. It was this massive win in Ontario that allowed the Liberals to form a majority government – they won a total of 155 seats, 101 of them from Ontario. This was repeated in the 2000 general election, with the Liberals  winning 172 seats, 100 of those from Ontario alone. Only 14 of their seats were from Western Canada. In the 2006 federal election, the Conservatives won every seat in Alberta (28), with 65% of the votes cast in that province. Another form of distortion occurs when two parties can receive virtually identical support, yet one wins a large number of seats, while the other wins none or very few. For example, in the 1993 federal election, the Reform Party received 2.6 million votes, mostly in two provinces (BC and Alberta), and won 52 seats, while the Progressive Conservative Party received 2.2 million votes and won only two seats because their support was spread across the country. This is the same reason why it is very difficult for smaller parties such as the Greens in Canada and UKIP in the United Kingdom, to actually win seats in general elections – their support is spread across the country and doesn’t translate into seats.

Adopting a more proportional voting system would address these issues, and would also make it almost impossible for a single party majority government to occur unless it managed to win a majority of the overall popular vote. Elections would regularly result in hung parliaments, and political parties would have to learn to work together more effectively – most likely by forming coalition governments as is the norm in most Western democracies which don’t use FPTP. But as long as Canada and its provinces continue to use FPTP, and as long as we continue to have more than two parties actively competing for votes, we will continue to see majority governments elected with minority support.

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

On responsible media

In the lead-up to the May 2010 United Kingdom general election, opinion polls showed that in all likelihood, the election would result in a hung, or minority parliament, that is, a parliament in which no single party would have a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. The last hung parliament in the UK had occurred in 1974, and so a hung parliament result in 2010 would be a new experience for many – voters, politicians and the media alike.

Consequently, several think tanks in the UK set out to publicly educate both voters and the media. As the Institute for Government noted in a written brief to the UK House of Commons Select Committe on Political and Constitutional Reform:

In the six months before the election there was wide agreement on the need for better understanding about the constitutional conventions for an unclear election result by politicians, civil servants, and the media and in the City—as well as the general public. Alongside this were questions about how prepared these groups were. The outcome of the election result itself has reinforced the importance of this understanding and the need for more coherent preparation.

The main gain was the public discussion ahead of, and after, the general election about the constitutional conventions surrounding an unclear result. The decision by the Cabinet Office to publish the chapter of a draft Cabinet Manual that dealt with the subject was timely and practically useful. (source – Ev66)

In response to the question “What impact did media pressure have on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators?”, the Institute for Government replied:

The impact of media pressure on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators was clearly considerable. However, this pressure was markedly less than many had feared in the period before the election—considering the expansion and immediacy of media and 24 hour news compared to 1974, let alone concerns about the potential reactions of financial markets. One reason for this may have been the efforts to educate media and markets, including by the Institute for Government, in the period before the election, as well as the behaviour and messages of politicians in the period after the results began to suggest an unclear result. Education and public discussion of the possibility of the process taking longer does appear to have mitigated its effects. Clearly, however, there are still lessons that can be learnt, particularly in terms of how other countries approach the period following an election result and whether the UK process is rushed in a way that is detrimental to the quality of governance.

Indeed, in its final report, Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election, the Committee noted:

7. We have heard that following the May 2010 general election, constitutional processes were broadly clear and worked well. On the whole, the media demonstrated a better level of understanding of constitutional processes than some had feared. There was no evidence of panic by the public or the financial markets. Dr Ruth Fox, Director of Parliament and Government at the Hansard Society, told us  that “the markets didn’t have much of a response to what was happening”, and the Institute for Government wrote that “[media] pressure was markedly less than many had feared”. This is to the credit of those organisations, including the Hansard Society, the Constitution Unit at University College London and the Institute for Government, which worked in the run up to the election to increase public and media understanding of what would happen if there was a hung Parliament.

Canada could use such an approach.

Many recent events in Canadian politics have demonstrated that far too many Canadians do not understand how the parliamentary system works, and this ignorance is too easily exploited by politicians. This was clearly evident during the so-called “coalition crisis” of 2008, when the opposition Liberal and NDP parties announced that they had reached an agreement to form a coalition, with confidence and supply support from the Bloc Québécois, and would seek to defeat the recently re-elected Conservative minority government. The governing Conservatives immediately launched an attack painting the idea of coalition government as something illegitimate, even calling it a “coup d’état”. Bringing down an “elected government” and replacing it with a form of government “no one had voted for” was unacceptable. Far too many Canadians didn’t know any better to disagree.

The media was of little help during these events, nor have they been of much help since. In the years since 2008, there has been on-again, off-again talk of certain parties joining forces, either in a coalition or merging – the media often fail to distinguish between the two options, or use the two terms interchangeably in the same article. Whenever polls show that a hung parliament is likely in a coming election, the media always write that minority government is what will emerge. There is never – or very, very rarely – a discussion of the process of how our system works, the process of government formation or what options are available. The fact that yes, a hung parliament will most likely result in a minority government (because the idea of anything is still somewhat toxic or at least very iffy) is beside the point. Unless the media – aided by political and constitutional experts – start discussing the process of government formation, how our system of government works and what types of government could emerge following a hung parliament election result, this will not change.

I see this desperate need for better political education and media reporting reflected in the keyword search activity statistics for this blog. These are the stats on what keywords people have used when searching for something online, and that has led to a blog post I’ve written here turning up in their search results. Search activity on this blog is significantly right now because there are several provincial and territorial elections taking place in October and November of this year: Prince Edward Island (3 October), Manitoba (4 October), Ontario (6 October),  Newfoundland and Labrador (11 October), Saskatchewan (7 November) as well as the Northwest Territories (3 October) and Yukon (11 October).  People are mostly searching for easy to read comparisons of party platforms, because let’s face it – no one really wants to slog through 3 or 4 party platforms and try to make sense of them.

While the keyword search activity is certainly useful to me because it allows me to target posts to identified needs, it is also very depressing at times. It reveals to me just how ill-informed many people are about our system of government and politics in general.

For example, while I’m averaging about 900 hits a day at the moment mostly from people looking for the aforementioned party platform comparisons, far too many of them seem to not understand that these are provincial – not federal – elections, and/or they don’t realize that more than one province is having an election. They aren’t searching for specific provincial party platform comparisons, but using search terms such as “Canada political party platforms october 2011″, “october 2011 vote platforms”, “2011 political party platform”, “October election 2011 platforms” etc. Such searches usually take them to the platform comparison post I had done for the May 2011 Canadian federal election, and so I edited that post to add a note at the beginning with the links to the various provincial posts. I also added a note to the beginning of each provincial post with the links to the posts for the other two provinces. That seems to be working as most people are then moving from the Canada post to whichever provincial post they were actually hoping to find.

Other search terms used by people are so vague or poorly worded that they frustrate me. I can’t understand what the person was looking for, and because they obviously don’t really know what they’re looking for either, or at least, don’t know how to properly phrase it, they get taken to completely unrelated posts. At least, I assume the post is probably not what they were looking for, but given the search terms used, it’s difficult to know. Or I think I can guess at what they were looking for, but because they couldn’t phrase it properly, they got taken to a post other than the one to which they should have been referred. For example, someone today was looking for “what happens if the majority is under 54 in election in Canada” – which must be someone asking about what happens if the Ontario vote results in a hung parliament  because 54 seats are needed for a majority in Ontario. Because they referred to Canada rather than Ontario, however, they got taken to a completely unrelated post instead of the post I do have about government formation scenarios following a hung parliament result in Ontario’s provincial election.

I’m not trying to say that only Canadians are ill-informed – trust me, there are a significant number of confused search queries coming from people in other countries, in particular, the United Kingdom. But, as I stated at the outset of this post, at least in 2010, the UK media behaved responsibly. They didn’t declare any form of government the night of the election, they simply stated that it was a hung parliament, and then waited, along with everyone else, for a government to be formed. They explained the process. They interviewed experts. It took five days for a government to emerge. If it had been in Canada, the media would have immediately declared a Conservative minority government the night of the vote and then been utterly confused when Gordon Brown didn’t resign as Prime Minister immediately after that.

To date, in the various articles discussing the Ontario election I’ve read, only one which didn’t make coalition government out to be something evil or foreign. I’m not implying there haven’t been others – maybe there have been – I certainly can’t read every single thing written about the election. It wasn’t a great article, but it was a refreshing change from all the others reporting on the latest polls and concluding that these polls show Ontario is heading for a minority government, when all the polls show is that the parties are very close and that the election will likely result in a hung or minority parliament. For example, today’s Toronto Star has this article, which is headlined: “Get ready for a minority provincial government, poll says”. Both the headline and first sentence are, simply put, wrong. The first sentence reads:

Ontarians are poised to elect a minority Liberal or Progressive Conservative government in Thursday’s vote, with New Democrats holding the balance of power, a Toronto Star-Angus Reid poll suggests.

First of all, Ontarians do not elect governments, they elect parliaments. Second, the poll suggests only that the parliament elected next week will be a hung, or minority parliament. The poll does not, nor can it, say what form of government will emerge. It is not the media’s role to dictate that minority government is the only option.

In the next paragraph, the reporter does refer to a “minority parliament”, which is more accurate, but open to confusion. A minority (hung) parliament is NOT the same thing as a minority government – and that is why I prefer the term hung parliament to minority parliament – less chance of confusion. The pollster quoted in the article then again muddies the water with this quote:

“We’re definitely looking at a minority government at this rate,” Jaideep Mukerji, managing director at Angus Reid, said Friday.

Again, this is wrong. We don’t know what sort of government might be formed. The poll shows only that a hung parliament is likely. Nothing more. For pollsters and media to repeatedly reinforce the idea that minority government is the only obvious outcome only further undermines political literacy in this country. The Canadian media need to learn from their British counterparts and start reporting more responsibly, otherwise our democracy will continue to suffer.

Related Posts:

Consensus Government

Between 3 October and 7 November 2011, there will be 5 provincial and 2 territorial elections in Canada. Voters in the provinces of Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan, as well as Yukon and the Northwest Territories will all be headed to the polls.

What some may not know is that voters in the Northwest Territories don’t have political parties to compare and choose between.

Until 1978, Members of the legislatures of the territories were individuals who are not members of a party, but are elected as independents by the people in their constituency or riding. In 1978, the Yukon organised political parties and now elects members the same way provinces do. However, consensus government is still used in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut.

Soon after a general election, the Members elect, from amongst themselves, one Member to fill the position of Speaker and another to be Premier. (The title was formerly Government Leader). They also choose other Members to be Executive Council Members, also called Cabinet Ministers. The absence of party structures allows each Member to vote as he or she wished on any subject matter. Approval of any decision requires agreement by the majority of Members. This is called consensus government.

The consensus system of governing is more in keeping with the way that aboriginal peoples have traditionally made decisions. Unanimous agreement is not necessary for decisions to be made, motions passed, and legislation enacted. A simple majority carries the vote.

Members, who are not in Cabinet are referred to as Regular Members. They become the unofficial opposition in the House. They are responsible, through questioning and through standing committees, for holding the Government accountable and responsive to the people.

As there are significantly more regular members than members of the cabinet, they exert considerable influence on many of the decisions and the direction of the Government, far more so than the Official Opposition does in the party-based system used in the provinces and at the federal level.

While there are no laws prohibiting territorial political parties in either Nunavut or the Northwest Territories, no parties have successfully contested a territorial election in these two jurisdictions.

For Further Reading:

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Keyword post: Short answers to various queries

The following are answers to questions based on recent keyword search activity which has led people to this blog.

1. How many signatures does an e-petition require for it to be debated in the UK Parliament?

First of all, there is no guarantee that any petition will be debated in Parliament. Under the UK Government’s new e-petitions scheme, if an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures that will only guarantee that it will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate in the House of Commons, however, the Committee is free to consider scheduling a debate on any petition, regardless of the number of signatures it receives. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate. For a detailed explanation of this, please see this post. All petitions, however, will receive a response from the Government, once the period for signing them has closed.

2. If something happened to the Prime Minister, who would take over?

In countries such as Canada, the UK, etc., if the Prime Minister were incapacitated, decided to resign as his or her party leader or died suddenly, the party forming the government would simply name an interim leader from among its MPs. The interim leader would be acting Prime Minister while the party would hold a leadership race to choose a new leader, who would then automatically become the Prime Minister. These countries do not have presidential systems; prime ministers are not directly elected by voters to the post in general elections – the leader is chosen by the party. Parties can choose to change their leader at any time and for any reason, and if that party is the party that is forming the government, the new leader would become Prime Minister. Please see this post for information on how the Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister, and this post which addresses some related issues.

3. Who can force the Prime Minister out of office?

Since Prime Ministers in the UK and other countries are not directly elected by voters, they can’t really be forced out of office. The Prime Minister is simply an MP elected in a given constituency and who is also the leader of a political party which ends up forming the government. The surest way a PM can be removed from office by voters is for his or her party to be defeated in a general election. In between elections, however, a government can be removed from office if it loses the confidence of the House of Commons. Certain votes are considered confidence votes (the vote on the Speech from the Throne and the budget vote, for example). If a majority in the House vote against the government on these votes, the government is defeated. That could lead to a new election, or, depending on party standings in the House of Commons, another party might be asked to form the government. The party forming the government can also decide that it would prefer someone else to be its leader and force the current leader (and PM) to resign as party leader. The party would then choose a new leader, who would immediately become the Prime Minister. That party would still remain in power as the government, however.

4. How do I submit an e-petition to the Canadian House of Commons/provincial legislature?

Simply put, you can’t, unless you live in Quebec or in the Northwest Territories, which are the only legislatures in Canada which recognize or accept e-petitions. If you want to petition parliament or any other provincial legislature, you will have to do it the traditional way – print up your petition and collect real signatures on it. See this post for information on how to petitions legislatures in Canada.

5. Where I can find a picture of/more information about Eric Cameron Finance minister?

There is no such person as “Eric Cameron, Finance minister”. Eric Cameron is a fictional character in a novel, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis.

6. Who are the contesting parties for the post of Prime Minister in the UK?

No one contests for the post of prime minister since the prime minister is not elected directly by voters. The leader of whichever party ends up forming the government following a general election will become prime minister. In the case of a coalition government, as is currently the case  in the UK, traditionally the leader of the largest party in the coalition normally becomes prime minister. Currently in the UK, there are only two parties which have a realistic chance at forming the government on their own (i.e., winning a majority of the seats), and thus their leader would become the Prime Minister. These are Labour (currently led by Ed Miliband) and the Conservatives (led by David Cameron, who is currently Prime Minister leading a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats). Even if the next election resulted in another hung parliament, it would be either Miliband or Cameron who would end up as PM, depending on the actual seat results.

7. What happens if we elect a minority government in the Ontario election?

Voters don’t elect governments, they elect a parliament. If the election results in a hung (minority) parliament – in which no party wins a majority of the seats, there are many forms of government which could result. Please see this post for a full discussion of the various options that would be available for the parties to consider, depending on the actual results of the election.

8. In parliamentary systems, how much influence do the opposition parties have/how effective are the opposition parties?

There is no clear answer to this as it will depend on various factors such as the type of government in place and the circumstances the opposition parties find themselves in. For example, if an election results in a single-party majority government, the opposition parties will have very little influence. If an election results in a hung parliament, and a minority government emerges from that, the opposition parties are theoretically in a much stronger position since the minority government will require the support of some opposition members or parties in order to pass its legislation. This will force the government to include policies that it thinks will appeal to the opposition, or the opposition will be able to amend the legislation during committee stage. However, even in a minority government situation, sometimes the opposition parties find themselves in a very weakened position, and thus they are keen to avoid anything that might defeat the government and lead to an election since they themselves are not ready to fight an election. Perhaps they are in the midst of a leadership change, or their party is down in the polls, or they are having trouble raising money and can’t afford to fight an election. Because of this, they will be less likely to oppose the government.

In the case of a coalition government, such as is currently the case in the UK, while it does have a majority of seats, because the government is made up of two parties, this has the potential to make it more unstable than a single-party majority government. Also, UK MPs are much more independent than are their counterparts in countries such as Canada and Australia, where party discipline is very very strong and MPs rarely defy the party whips. Therefore in the UK, even government backbench MPs often oppose their own government.

Related Posts:

PEI 2011 Political Party Platform Comparisons

(Note: If you are looking for party platform comparisons for the 6 October 2011 Ontario provincial election, please see this post. If you are looking for platform comparisons for the 4 October 2011 Manitoba provincial election, click here.)

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Prince Edward Island election (3 October 2011).

This blog cannot engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, as was the case this spring, it can refer you to other sites that can do that. I will update this list as needed.

PEI Political Party Platform comparisons:

The only comparison tool I have found thus far is the “Promise Tracker” on the CBC website. The promises are organized by category and party. To find what each party has promised, click on the category below the leader’s head. A bulleted list of promises will come up.

Update: Better late than never, I guess: PEI Platform Comparison from Canadian Voter

Other Resources

Elections PEI should be your first stop for most election-related queries. That is where you will find information such as the list of nominated candidates in each constituency, a Guide to Provincial Elections and much, much more.

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The Coalition Government’s working majority

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart have prepared a very interesting analysis on the subject of the Coalition Government’s Commons’ majority.

As stated in the blog post, the Coalition enjoys a 76 seat majority: 363 government MPs (306 Conservatives and 57 Liberal Democrats) out of 650, which leaves 287 non-government MPs. Of that 287, however, five seats are held by Sinn Fein, and their MPs never take their seat in the House of Commons because they refuse to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The Speaker doesn’t vote (except in the rare instance of a tie), nor do the three deputy speakers (not even when they aren’t in the Chair). This reduces the number of non-government MPs to 278 and increases the Government’s majority to 85. Also, the eight members of the Democratic Unionist party usually (but not always) vote with the Government, which brings the Government’s majority close to 100.

What Cowley and Stuart have found, looking at the 306 whipped votes that have occurred since the May 2010 election (excluding the 25 occasions when Coalition MPs were given a free vote), is that on average, the Government enjoys a majority of 142. The authors note that this is the mean average and that the median average is 94, which is much more inline with the actual seat distribution (Government vs non-government). The researchers write:

This suggests that there are some very high outlier figures, dragging up the mean average – and indeed that’s what happening.

The key factor is the behaviour of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Most of the time (some 238 votes so far), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the average majority is 91 (with a median of 87).  But when Labour abstain (44 votes), the majority averages 270 (median: 276); and when Labour support the government, the average majority rises to 421 (median: 450).  (The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that these numbers don’t sum to 306 – because there was one vote when the government was whipped, but Labour allowed a free vote).

The most striking example of this occurred on 21 March this year when the Government won a vote endorsing military action in Libya by 557 votes to 13, thanks to the support of the Labour frontbench, producing the largest Coalition majority so far this Parliament of 544.

There has been a lot of talk about how rebellious this current parliament has been. Since May 2010, there have been 110 rebellions by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. Coalition MPs have rebelled on 52% of votes (see this post). However, the above statistics have implications for the likelihood of any backbench rebellions by government MPs actually succeeding in defeating Government legislation:

On paper, it would take 39 Coalition MPs to rebel to defeat the Government – but only if the Labour frontbench was to vote with the rebels.  There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there aren’t as many on which the Labour party would be willing to join them. That is not to say that it won’t happen at some point in the future, merely that it is not likely to happen very often.

The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats. Their backbench MPs number only 35, so even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.

For the Government’s majority to fall much below 50, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats need to rebel in decent numbers, with the support of the Labour frontbench and the minor parties. This has been happening rarely since May 2010.  The Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only six occasions in its first fifteen months in power.

But it can happen.  On 9 December 2010, over university tuition fees, 21 Liberal Democrat rebels combined with six Conservative backbenchers, the Labour frontbench and the minor parties, reducing the Government’s majority to 21, which remains the lowest Coalition majority thus this Parliament.

As the paper concludes, all in all, what this demonstrates is that the Coalition has a strong majority not only on paper, but also in practice.

Related Posts:

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