On pairing

Pairing is a parliamentary practice whereby two members of parliament from opposing political parties may agree to abstain where one member is unable to vote, due to other commitments, illness, travel problems, etc. The rationale behind the practice is to maintain the relative distribution of seats in the House so that a party’s strength is based on who was elected, not which MPs are ill that day, or had their flight delayed.

There are slight variations in how pairing is organized in different jurisdictions.

UK House of Commons

As explained on the UK Parliament website,

Pairing is an arrangement where an MP of one party agrees with an MP of an opposing party not to vote in a particular division. This gives both MPs the opportunity not to attend. Pairing is an informal arrangement and is not recognised by the House of Commons’ rules. Such arrangements have to be registered with the whips who check that the agreement is stuck to. Pairing is not allowed in divisions of great political importance but pairings can last for months or years.

There have been times, however, where one or more of the parties have refused to participate in pairing arrangements. In December 1996, for example, Labour and the Liberal Democrats discovered that the Tories had been cheating by pairing the same three Conservative MPs with three Labour MPs and three Liberal Democrat MPs. Because of that, the two opposition parties decided to withdraw from all pairing arrangements beginning in January 1997.

It is not clear how long this protest lasted – perhaps only until the end of that parliament since in the 1997 general election, Labour were elected with a huge majority. Pairing is currently practiced by all three of the major parties in the UK House of Commons, but only, as stated above, for votes that aren’t of great importance (one or two line whips).

Canada House of Commons

In the Canadian House of Commons, pairing did not have any official recognition up until 1991. It was considered a private arrangement between Members. In 1991, the Standing Orders were modified to provide for the establishment of a Register of Paired Members, which is kept at the Table. The actual pairing arrangements are arrived at by the party Whips, and Members who will not be participating in any recorded divisions on a given day will have their names entered into the Register by their respective party Whips. These pairings Members are published in the Debates (Hansard) and in the Journals immediately following the entry for any recorded division held on that day.

While this process has formalized pairing to a degree, it still remains largely a private arrangement between the parties, and nothing can be done if a paired Member “forgets” that they were paired and votes. Also, unlike in the UK, the practice in the Canadian House of Commons is that pairings are agreed to on an ad hoc basis, that is, vote by vote. There aren’t any long-term pairing agreements which may last months or years, as occurs in the UK House of Commons. As well, since there is no distinction between one-line, two-line and three-line whips in the Canadian House of Commons, the parties can agree to pairing arrangements on any type of vote, including those of “great political importance”.

Pairing most commonly occurs in the Canadian House of Commons during hung parliaments, when there is a minority government in place. In such instances, the numerical balance between the parties matters far more, and it becomes far more important that the relative voting strengths of the parties is maintained. When one party forms a majority government, pairing is much less common.

Australia House of Representatives

As in the UK and Canada, pairing in the Australian House of Representatives is an unofficial arrangement organized by the party Whips. As in the UK, Members have at times been paired not only on particular questions or one sitting, but sometimes for extended periods. This has even included pairing the Prime Minister with the Leader of the Opposition. As in Canada, pairing is more common when the relative strength of the parties is much closer. Also like Canada, pairing is allowed on crucial votes, and arranging pairings on key votes can be a very protracted and disorderly affair. Parties might also pull out of pairing arrangements, for various reasons:

Pairs have been cancelled by the Government because of the need for an absolute majority to pass a bill to alter the Constitution. The Opposition has cancelled the arrangements for the remainder of the session as a consequence of its view on the manner in which the proceedings of the House were being conducted. (House of Representatives Practice, p. 279)

New Zealand Parliament

Pairing was abolished in the New Zealand Parliament in 1996, following the introduction of new Standing Orders to accommodate the change to the MMP voting system. MPs no longer have to be in the chamber at the time of voting. Parties declare their total votes including the ‘proxy’ votes of those away.

Related Posts:

MP confusion over e-petitions

While listening to the debate in the UK House of Commons on a backbench motion calling for a referendum on membership in the EU, I was struck by regularly repeated claims by MPs concerning the role that petitions, particularly e-petitions, played in instigating the debate.

Many MPs stated that the day’s debate came about thanks to the Government’s own e-petitions scheme, triggered by an e-petition gaining over 100,000 signatures. For example:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge that not only is he moving this motion, but more than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition to 10 Downing street calling for him to do just this?

and:

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I understand that I have only five minutes, so I will take only two interventions—if people want to intervene—if colleagues do not mind.

I would like to address first the process and principle of the motion and then present-day Europe, if colleagues will forgive the alliteration. The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue. The Backbench Business Committee then decided that to be the right debate to bring before Parliament and, as Members will know, that Committee is elected by the House. This debate has not been brought about by a small or large number of Conservative Back Benchers, therefore; it is a response to the will and the voice of the British people.

and

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): (…) Let us not forget, as many Members have said, that this issue has reached us today not only because of the 100,000 e-petition signatories, but because of the many organisations that have brought together different types of petition and written to people. It is not just about e-petitions.

and

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate. It is, in fact, a historic debate because it is the first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system. I believe that that system is a wonderful one; it is absolutely right to hold this debate today. I also think it right in principle that this House should debate issues of particular importance to the public, of which this is one.

and finally:

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain why this was the second most popular issue on the e-petitions list?

Kris Hopkins: As I said in response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), if there is such support for the matter, we should campaign to ensure that it is part of our party’s next election manifesto.

You get the idea – these samples are from the online Hansard of the debate, which you can access here.

The problem is, these statements aren’t exactly accurate, and some are simply false.

Despite what many MPs claimed, there was no e-petition calling for a referendum on the EU on the official Government E-Petitions website which garnered over 100,000 signatures. There were many separate petitions, both traditional paper and electronic, which together surpassed 100,000 signatures, but these were collected independently of the official e-petitions scheme. In fact, a campaign to petition for a referendum on the EU began in March of this year, over four months before launch of the Government e-petitions scheme at the end of July of this year.

So if there was no single e-petition calling for an EU referendum on the Government e-petitions site that had over 100,000 signatures,  how did the debate come about?

The Backbench Business Committee, which is responsible for scheduling debates on backbench business, issued a press release explaining how the EU referendum debate came about:

The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business committee following a representation by Mr David Nuttall MP at a public meeting of the committee on 18 October 2011. A large number of backbench Members indicated their support for the debate. This issue has also been raised in public petitions.

This issue has also been raised by various organisations through both paper and online petitions. Between them they have collected more than 100,000 names.

In other words, the Committee decided to schedule the debate primarily because a backbench Member, Mr. Nuttall, requested one, and had the backing of  “a large number of backbench Members”. That there were also petitions in support of such a debate was incidental to, not the driving force behind, the decision to schedule the debate. Mr. Nuttall may well have decided to make the representation to the Committee because of the number of petitions in support of a referendum on EU membership, but the Committee’s decision was based on his representation and support from other MPs for such a debate, not because of various petitions.

Queries to this blog have revealed that there is a fair bit of confusion about the whole e-petitions scheme amongst the general public in the UK. It is somewhat disheartening to see that some MPs also don’t really seem to grasp how it works. For example, in the first quote above, Nadine Dorries refers to “an e-petition to 10 Downing street”. Ms. Dorries is perhaps confused with the e-petitions scheme that had been set up in November 2006 by former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the 10 Downing St. website, which was shut down by the Coalition Government just after it took office last year.

MP Mark Pritchard stated: “The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue.” As mentioned above, this is completely false. The petitions, both paper and electronic, in favour of an EU referendum were in circulation before the launch of the new HM Government e-petition’s website. I am not disputing that these petitions got over 100,000 signatures, but they weren’t related to the “Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions”, nor are they the origins of the debate.

Mr Davies claims that the EU referendum debate was the “first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system”. Again, this is false. A backbench debate was held only a week earlier (17 October 2011) on the issue of the release of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough tragedy – which was the subject of an e-petition on the Government e-petition site which garnered over 100,000 signatures. That was the first debate triggered by the public through the petitions system, as it clearly states on the press release issued by the Backbench Business Committee.

As for Mr. Tomlinson’s comment that the EU petition is supposedly the “second most popular issue on the e-petition list”,  that is simply false. The second most popular issue on the e-petitions list (assuming he is referring to the official Government e-petitions site and not some independent e-petitions site), is the e-petitions calling for full disclosure of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough disaster mentioned above. The first e-petition mentioning a referendum on the EU is seventh on the list.

I can appreciate that debates triggered by e-petitions are a very new development for the UK House of Commons, and so it is not entirely surprising that some MPs seem rather confused about the process. I do hope some effort is made to clarify exactly how the e-petitions scheme works, so that in the future, MPs will not further add to the misinformation and misunderstanding already out there.

Related Posts:

On toeing the party line: three-line whips

(Note: See this post for statistics on how often Canadian MPs vote with their party.)

In an earlier post, I discussed how UK MPs tend to be far more rebellious than their Canadian counterparts, frequently voting against their own party. In that post, I noted that large scale rebellions were, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in Canada; party discipline is much, much stronger in Canada (and from what I understand, in Australia too).

Tomorrow (24 October 2011) there will be a Backbench Business debate on holding a referendum on British membership of the EU. The motion, from Conservative MP David Nuttall reads: “This House calls upon the government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the united Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union, or renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation.”

The debate was originally scheduled for Thursday (27 October) but due to the growing support by Conservative backbenchers for the motion, it was moved to Monday to allow the Prime Minister and other front-bench MPs to attend and participate. The Conservative Party leadership is imposing a three-line whip to defeat the motion, which many Conservative MPs are promising to defy.

The concept of a “three-line whip” was new to me. While whipped votes are the norm in Canada, I’d never heard of one described as a “three-line” whip. The reason for that is because it has never really been implemented here, except for one brief experiment.

Background

A whip is an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. Whips are a party’s “enforcers”, who typically offer inducements and threaten punishments for party members to ensure that they vote according to the official party policy. A whip’s role is also to ensure that the elected representatives of their party are in attendance when important votes are taken. The usage comes from the hunting term whipping in, i.e. preventing hounds from wandering away from the pack. Hence a whipped vote is one where Members of a given party are told how they will vote, and if they choose to not obey the whip’s instructions, will be punished by the party. Punishment can range from being removed from a Committee they sit on, or having to resign any frontbench position they hold, or even being expelled from caucus and forced to sit as an independent.

In the United Kingdom, there are three categories of whip that are issued on particular business. These whips are issued to MPs in the form of a letter outlining the Parliamentary schedule, with a sentence such as “Your attendance is absolutely essential” next to each debate in which there will be a vote, underlined one, two or three times according to the severity of the whip:

  • A single-line whip is a guide to what the party’s policy would indicate, and notification of when the vote is expected to take place; this is non-binding for attendance or voting.
  • A two-line whip, sometimes known as a double-line whip, is an instruction to attend and vote; partially binding for voting, attendance required unless prior permission given by the whip.
  • A three-line whip is a strict instruction to attend and vote, breach of which would normally have serious consequences. Permission not to attend may be given by the whip, but a serious reason is needed. Breach of a three-line whip can lead to expulsion from the parliamentary political group in extreme circumstances and may lead to expulsion from the party. Consequently, three-line whips are generally only issued on key issues, such as votes of confidence and supply. The nature of three-line whips and the potential punishments for revolt vary dramatically among parties and legislatures.

A similar arrangement was experimented with by the Liberal Party of Canada during the Government of Prime Minister Paul Martin as part of its “Action Plan for Democratic Reform“. According to Paul E. J. Thomas, the Action Plan for Democratic Reform included categories of whip:

A three-line whip voting system refers to the extent to which the government sees a bill as a matter of confidence. Under the system, bills with a one-line whip are considered to be “free votes” for all members, meaning that the government takes no position on the issue and the outcome of the vote will not affect the Parliament’s confidence in the government. On two-line votes the cabinet takes a position, but government backbenchers are not obliged to follow it and the outcome again does not affect the government’s survival. Lastly, the three-line whip is saved for key parts of the government’s legislative agenda that are matters of confidence on which the government can fall. As such, all MPs from the governing party are expected to toe the party line.

As you can see, the Liberal Party’s three-line whip system differed somewhat from its UK counterpart. One-line whips introduced by the Liberals were free votes, the Government took no position on the issue, while in the UK, the party’s policy is stated, but Members are free to vote as they wish. Liberal two-line whips applied to cabinet members only – backbench members were still free to vote as they wished, while in the UK it is partially binding for voting. Three-line whips were pretty much the same – Liberal MPs were expected to attend the vote and vote as the party dictated they should, the same as in the UK.

The three-line whip experiment was short-lived and applied only to the 3rd session of the 37th Parliament, and the 38th Parliament, and only to the Liberal Party, which formed the Government during that period. The reality in Canada is that almost all votes in the House, for all parties, would be considered three-line whips. From the report It’s My Party: Political Dysfunction Reconsidered:

The  Canadian  parliamentary  system  has a tradition of strict party discipline, meaning that for the majority of votes in the House of Commons, MPs vote with their political party. Party leaders enforce this discipline so they can be as certain as possible about whether legislation will pass a vote. It also helps the public hold parties to account at election time: if all members of a party vote in a particular way, then the party’s positions are ostensibly clearer to the electorate. Voting records indicate that most MPs vote with their party nearly all of the time, so it was a surprise how many MPs emphasized the times they didn’t agree with their party.

Samara Canada found, through exit interviews conducted with MPs who had decided not to seek re-election in the May 2011 election that:

 One MP recalled how difficult a particular vote was for him, and other members of his party. “There was a pounding in caucus. We had to vote for this. And I did. I shouldn’t have. But I saw people who were much more committed to [the issue] than I, getting up to vote and crying because they had to vote for it,” he said.

Most MPs described not really understanding how a party’s position on most issues was determined. “Virtually all MPs, with the exception of maybe the whips, go into the House of Commons with a bill and 18 to 20 amendments, and don’t have a damned clue of what the amendments say,” said one MP.

Furthermore, many said it was impossible to keep track of the bills on which they were called to vote. “I hate to tell you how many bills I had very little idea what I was voting on. That’s not necessarily my weakness, that’s just the reality,” one MP said.

Even the one item of business in the Canadian House of Commons which is supposed to allow MPs free votes, Private Members’ Bills, is largely whipped:

Private members’ bills are traditionally free votes and are introduced into the House by individual backbench MPs from any party, rather than by the government. However, even in this ostensibly independent area, the MPs reported heavy party intervention.

One Bloc MP said his party still pressured MPs when facing a free vote. “There are no real free votes. The political parties will say that it’s a free vote to seem democratic, but if the leader has an opinion on it, he’s going to put pressure on the membership so that you think like him,” he said.

A New Democrat MP expressed frustration that the governing parties rarely adhered to free votes once in power. “All these guys who said they were for free votes end up voting against private member’s business because their government does not want it to happen,” he said.

What makes the use of the three-line whip with regards to Monday’s vote on the motion calling for a referendum on the EU particularly interesting is that this is an item of backbench business, and second, the outcome isn’t binding on the Government. Therefore, there is no real need to whip the vote, since the Government is under no obligation to act if the outcome is in favour of a referendum. Of course, if the motion passes by a large margin, and the Government chooses to ignore the outcome, the optics won’t look very good. The party leadership is justifying the three-line whip saying that the motion is “contrary to Government policy.” Still, resorting to a three-line whip does seem rather heavy-handed. And it’s not only Prime Minister David Cameron facing dissent from his MPs; Opposition Leader Ed Milliband has instructed his party to vote against the motion, but many Labour MPs have said they will vote in favour. you can see a complete list of MPs who’ve signed the motion, indicating they will vote in favour of it, here.

The motion will most likely be defeated, since the Coalition Government enjoys a significant working majority in the House, as explained in this post. Still, it promises to be an interesting debate and vote. You can watch the debate live online here. Debate could start at about 3:30 GMT (10:30 EST), but if there are any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements, the start time will be pushed back.

Related Posts:

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

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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

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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.

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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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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.

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