The situation of Parliament during a prolonged period of political crisis

I have previously written about the convention of caretaker government here, and here. That convention holds that during an election campaign, the ministry continues to hold office until a new ministry is sworn in. There are, however, limitations on what a minister can do during both the election campaign and the period of government formation following a general election.

For Canadians (as well as people in the UK, Australia and other countries), there normally isn’t much of a delay in forming a new government following a general election. Usually, it is known on election night which party will form the government. This isn’t always the case, however. In 2010, in the UK, it took five days of intense negotiations between the three main parties before a new government emerged, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. During that time, the Labour party under Gordon Brown, which had been the incumbent party, acted as the caretaker government.

In countries which use some form of proportional representation rather than First-Past-the-Post, because of the need to form coalition governments, it isn’t unusual for several weeks to go by before a new government emerges. Generally, however, this caretaker period is still of a fairly short duration. However, following the 2010 parliamentary elections in Belgium, the caretaker period lasted over 500 days.

I came across a very interesting paper by Mr. H. Hondequin, the Secretary General of the Belgian Senate, prepared for a conference of the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments, wherein he discusses the situation of the Belgian parliament during a prolonged period of political crisis. You can download his paper (it’s a docx) here, but I will summarise the main points below.

Belgium, like Canada and the UK and other countries, is a parliamentary democracy. That means that there are no elections separate from the parliamentary elections to elect a president who then appoints the government. As is the case in Canada and the UK and other countries, the prime minister emerges from the parties which end up forming the government.

As Mr. Hondequin explains, there are normally twelve parties represented in the parliament, and it generally requires six parties to agree to work together to obtain a simple majority. If a governing coalition wants to amend the constitution, this requires the cooperation of an even larger number of parties since constitutional change requires a two-thirds majority to pass. As Hondequin explains:

All these elements – the large number of parties, the search for an agreement on the institutional development of the country, and therefore, in practice, the search for a qualified majority – combined with the difficult economic situation and therefore with the importance of the socio-economic choices that had to be made, explain why the formation of the government after the 2010 elections was a real Echternach procession, or for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with that event, a journey of two steps forward followed by one or even several steps back.  However, where the Echternach procession manages to cover its route in one day, the “Belgian” procession took a year and a half.  The government in power since 2007, resigned on 22nd April 2010 and that resignation was accepted 26th April 2010.  Parliament was dissolved on 7th May 2010 .  The elections were held on 13th June 2010.  The new government was finally sworn in on 6th December 2011, and obtained the confidence of Parliament on 7th December 2011, or 540 days after the elections and almost 600 days after the resignation of the previous government.

This does not mean that there was no government during that time. Parliament convened in accordance with the Constitution on 6 July 2010. The departing government continued on as a caretaker government. Hondequin explains that in Belgium, the concept of a caretaker administration was developed by the courts. A caretaker government is limited to covering “urgent matters where decisions cannot reasonably be postponed, acts of day-to-day management and acts which form the continuation or completion of procedures which had been started in a legitimate manner before the regime of caretaking administration took effect.” As well, minus a few very specific exceptions, the caretaker government does not take any legislative initiatives, and nor does Parliament.

A government in Belgium, as in Canada and other parliamentary democracies, stays in power because it has the confidence of the House and is subject to oversight by parliament. However, in the case of a caretaker administration, while parliament’s power to exercise oversight remains, the confidence convention does not. As Hondequin explains: “Withdrawing confidence from a government that has already resigned has no meaning or effect. You cannot kill a dead person!”

It has long been argued in Belgium that a caretaker government does not have sufficient legitimacy to introduce bills, to take position on private members’ bills, to propose amendments to these bills, or even to enact or promulgate  bills that would nevertheless have been adopted by parliament.  It was inferred that one of the branches of the legislature was unable to act and that the legislative process therefore should stop altogether.

It is true that until recently, there was no real in-depth legal reflection about this issue.  However, as the negotiations on the formation of a new government lasted longer and longer, the reflection deepened, first in academic circles, then with some reluctance, in the political world.

The newly elected members of parliament, if they had followed long-established tradition, would have been forced to face a long period of inactivity. However, as the political crisis dragged on, and this in a climate of economic crisis requiring problems to be addressed, they gave the matter serious consideration.  Both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, they consulted their legal services.

These services, basing their opinion on old and recent legal doctrine, pointed out that the figure of a caretaker government limits the scope of government action as executive power, when it cannot be politically sanctioned by parliament and that it therefore protects the prerogatives of parliament in the exercise of political oversight over the executive.

On the contrary, in the exercise of the legislative function, Parliament holds the key role.  It is parliament that votes the laws. Parliament always has the last word, whether the law emanates from a parliamentary or a government initiative.  In legislative matters, the fact that the government is a caretaker administration in no way affects the powers and means of action of the parliament, or the balance of the system of division of powers.

It is ultimately this view that prevailed.  Both during the caretaker regime of 2007 and the very long one in 2010, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a number of laws on the most diverse subjects, resulting from both governmental or parliamentary initiatives.

Hondequin goes on to say that the laws adopted during this period were “technical” – in other words, laws which did not involve fundamental choices or major political debate, and that they were usually adopted without much debate and with more or less the unanimous support of both houses. Also, whenever the caretaker government wanted to bring forward a bill, it took great pains to justify to parliament why the bill was necessary and to consult with parliament beforehand.

He adds that another change which occurred due to the prolonged period of caretaker government was the implementation of various forms of questioning the government via oral and written questions, debates and hearings. In the past, parliament did not question the caretaker government, but as the crisis went on and on, parliament felt it was necessary to change this practice.

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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.

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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.

Related Posts:

Minority assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keyword Post: Types of Government

There have been various queries in my keyword search activity from people looking for explanations of minority vs. coalition vs majority government, and so I decided to write a brief post explaining the different types of government.

In parliamentary systems, such as the UK and Canada and many other countries, the head of state and the head of government are two separate offices. Often, the head of state is a mostly ceremonial position. In parliamentary systems, the people do not elect the head of government directly. He or she is the leader of the party which ends up forming the government following an election.

Different types of government can emerge in a parliamentary system.

Majority government occurs when a single party or a coalition of parties commands a majority of seats in the legislative body. For example, the Canadian House of Commons has 308 seats, and in the 2 May 2011 election, the Conservative Party won 166 seats, a comfortable majority. This is a single-party majority government. Single-party majority governments are most common in countries that use First-past-the-Post (FPTP). They occur more rarely in countries which use some form of proportional representation (PR). However, majority government can also be achieved through coalitions of two or more parties. This form of majority government is more common in countries that use PR. What is important to understand is that whether the majority is formed by one party or a coalition of parties, it holds a majority of seats in the legislative body.

As stated above, in countries that use some form of PR, one party winning a majority of seats does not happen often. In countries that use FPTP, however, single-party majority is the more common outcome. However, even in countries using FPTP, elections will result in no party winning a majority of seats. The British call this a “hung parliament”. Canadians typically refer to it as a “minority parliament”. Countries where this is the usual outcome simply call it an election result or a parliament. Following such an outcome, it is up to the parliament elected to determine which party, or group of parties, can work together to form a government that will command the confidence of the House.

In Canada, hung parliaments have traditionally resulted in single-party minority government. Single-party minority government is when a party governs on its own, even though it does not have a majority in the House. It depends on other parties to support key pieces of legislation, such as the Budget bill. This support is often sought on an issue-by-issue basis. For example, one party might support it on the Budget in exchange for the inclusion of specific tax cuts or other measures, but a different party will offer the needed support on a different piece of legislation. As long as other parties support it on key votes (called Confidence bills), it continues to govern. If, however, the party loses the confidence of the House, the government will fall.

Another option is multi-party minority government, either as coalition (see the Netherlands 2010) or a less-formal arrangement. A party may reach some sort of agreement with another party (or parties) which will allow it to govern for a specific period of time with the guaranteed support of the other party (or parties), but these parties will still not command a majority of the seats in the legislature. In other instances, they may end up commanding a majority of the seats, but it still won’t be a majority government. For example, in 1985, in the Canadian province of Ontario, the Liberal Party and the NDP signed an accord that would see the NDP support the Liberals for two years, in exchange for the Liberals advancing some key NDP policies during that time. Together the two parties did command a majority of seats in the Ontario Legislative Assembly, but it wasn’t officially a majority government. The NDP weren’t part of the government; it was a Liberal minority government, but with a formal agreement of support for two years from the NDP (see this post for more information about the Liberal-NDP Accord).

Contrast this to the May 2010 election in the UK which resulted in a hung parliament. In that case, two parties, the Conservatives (307 seats) and the Liberal Democrats (57 seats), opted to form a formal coalition government. A coalition differs from an accord between two (or more) parties because the parties forming the coalition will be represented in the government. In the case of the UK, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, is the Prime Minister, and Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, is the Deputy Prime Minister. There are five Liberal Democrats serving in cabinet, and many more serving as ministers of state (junior ministers). The combined Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats add up to a majority of the seats in the UK House of Commons (364 of the House of Commons’ 650 seats), and so the Coalition is a majority government, but one made up of two parties.

As previously stated, coalitions are very common in countries that use proportional representation since it is difficult for a single party to win a majority of seats under PR. Often these coalitions include more than two parties.

In some countries, parties join forces after fighting elections separately to form a majority government. This was the case in the UK in 2010. In other countries, notably those where coalition government is the expected outcome, some coalitions are decided before elections, which gives the parties the best chance of immediate government after the election.

There are advantages and disadvantages with each of these forms of government. A majority government, particularly a single-party majority government, is probably one of the most powerful forms of democratically-elected government. The former Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom, Lord Hailsham, in a Richard Dimbleby Lecture at the BBC in 1976, referred to it as an “elected dictatorship”. This is because a majority government determines the legislative agenda of Parliament and government bills will virtually always pass in the House of Commons as it is practically impossible for the Opposition to prevent them from passing or even amending the bills in any meaningful way. While some prefer this form of strong, decisive government, others see this as a major drawback – the unfettered power of a majority government to do as it pleases for the duration of its term in office. Coalition majority government, however, often appeals more to those who dislike single-party majority since a coalition must accommodate the various policies of its member parties, which requires each member party of the coalition to compromise on some issues to find a suitable middle-ground that will be acceptable to all members of the coalition.

A minority government, be it single- or multi-party, must be more flexible since it needs the support of another party (or parties) in order to get bills passed (and stay in power). However, minorities can also be very unstable, and often don’t manage to last for an entire term in office.

Another criticism some level at coalition government is that it can be prone to internal disharmony and fractionalism (of course, this can plague a single-party government as well). Also, in countries which use PR, depending on the form of proportional representation used, very small, fringe parties may end up playing the role of kingmaker and gain far more for their support than their vote would otherwise indicate. The “purer” the form of PR used, the more problematic this can be (if one considers this to be a problem). Israel is a good example of such a system. It has a very low minimum threshold (only 2%) for a party to gain a seat. The low vote-threshold for entry into parliament, as well as the need for parties with small numbers of seats to form coalition governments, results in a highly fragmented political spectrum, with small parties (often extremely religious ones) exercising extensive power (relative to their electoral support) within coalitions.

If you have any further questions regarding any of the above, please comment and I will attempt to answer your questions as best I can.

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The curious matter of cabinet formation

“If we believe in democracy, surely the essence of parliamentary democracy is rule by amateurs, and most governments prove that. We call on the experts to get expert views and opinions and ideas and policy and implementation, but ordinary people are elected by ordinary people to make decisions for all of us. That’s the basis of our system.” Charles Jackson “Bud” Wildman

In Westminster parliamentary systems, the cabinet is a council of ministers chaired by the Prime Minister. In some countries, the Cabinet is the senior echelon of the Ministry. The terms “Cabinet” and “Ministry” are sometimes used interchangeably, a subtle inaccuracy which can spark confusion. In Canada, all members of the Ministry are also currently members of Cabinet, but this is not always the case. In the UK, for example, not all members of the Ministry are members of Cabinet.

In the US, the Constitution states that “no person holding any office under the United States, shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office.” Accordingly, a sitting member of the U.S. Congress must resign from his or her seat in Congress to accept a Cabinet appointment. This clause also bars any member of Congress from holding an executive office that was created by law during his/her current term in Congress. Thus a US President can choose cabinet members from any walk of life, often seeking out experts in given fields from the private sector, academia, etc.

In Westminster parliamentary democracies, the Prime Minister normally chooses members of his or her cabinet from among the elected MPs, usually from his or her own party, and sometimes from the unelected upper House (either the House of Lords in the UK or the Senate in Canada). However, in Canada at least, it is permissible to choose those who are not elected to serve. Hence why ours is a government by fortunate amateurs – plucked from the obscurity of the backbenches. While amateurs, this is not to imply that those who become ministers are not talented, able individuals. Many, perhaps most, are. However, in Canada at least, many may owe their place in cabinet to factors other than skill and abilities.

There is a tradition in Canadian politics that the Cabinet be representative of the country’s regional and linguistic traditions. The Prime Minister will often look to have at least one Cabinet Minister from each province or region in Canada. This convention recognizes the fact that Canada is a federation. It is also tradition for the Prime Minister to attempt to strike an appropriate balance in Cabinet between the interests of French and English Canada; typically one-third of Cabinet Ministers are French-speaking, with the remainder being anglo- or allophones. The precise regional and linguistic makeup of a Cabinet, however, often depends on the pool of MPs elected.

It isn’t unusual for a political party to fail to win any seats in one or some provinces, or to win only a few, leaving the Prime Minister with a rather limited pool of talent from which to choose. In instances where the governing party fails to elect a single MP from a given province, the PM may choose to appoint a senator from that province to represent the province in Cabinet, or name an MP from a neighbouring province to also act as spokesperson for the province in question. In the 2006 general election, which resulted in a Conservative minority government, the Conservatives had not won any seats in or around the City of Montreal, and only 10 MPs from the entire province of Quebec. To address this, the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, appointed Montreal businessperson Michel Fortier to cabinet on February 6, the day the government took office. Fortier at that time was neither an MP nor a Senator, but Harper announced that Fortier would be appointed to the Senate, but would be expected to step down and run for a seat in the House of Commons at the general election. Fortier was appointed to the Senate on February 27. This practice is unusual in modern Canada, but there was precedent for such a practice: in 1979, former Prime Minister Joe Clark appointed Quebec Senator Jacques Flynn Minister of Justice because of his lack of representation in that province. In 1972, when Liberal Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau failed to win a single seat west of Manitoba, he appointed senators to cabinet as well.

The Conservatives had also failed to win any seats in the province of Prince Edward Island, and so Nova Scotia MP and newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs also served as PEI’s representative in Cabinet.

There are other factors to consider when appointing ministers. If a new Prime Minister takes office after a leadership contest, he or she will often appoint, at the very least, his or her chief rival to a key cabinet post. Often the other leadership candidates will also be rewarded with cabinet appointments. An MP who wins a seat in a riding long held by another party, may be rewarded for that feat. In the rare instances where a coalition government takes office, the Prime Minister must find key positions for members from the other party or parties in the coalition, which can often upset members of his or her own caucus who thought they were shoe-ins for a cabinet post (and probably would have been had the party won a majority or opted to govern as a minority government rather than a coalition).

The Canadian tradition of trying to ensure regional and linguistic representation in Cabinet might strike some as ridiculous, unnecessary and unfair, since many very able MPs may be overlooked in favour of less able MPs simply because the party has an oversupply of MPs from some parts of the country and a dearth from others. However, there are others who argue that the focus on linguistic and regional representation isn’t enough, that this does not adequately address the representation of several other important social groups such as aboriginals, women and major visible minority groups. Cabinets tend to be overwhelmingly male and white.

This perceived need to have a Cabinet that reflects, at the very least, the country’s regions and linguistic traditions has yet another consequence: Canada’s cabinet is one of the largest, if the not the largest, in the democratic world. The new cabinet sworn in last week has 39 ministers.  The US Cabinet currently contains 16 members, including the Vice-President. There are, in addition, six “cabinet-level officers”, none of whom has executive responsibility for any department. The British Cabinet consists of 23 ministers (one of whom is unpaid), including the Prime Minister. Five other officials attend cabinet meetings, but are not considered full members of cabinet. Neither is the Attorney General, although he sometimes attends. Germany has 16 ministers, including the Chancellor, Japan 17 ministers, including the Prime Minister, France 16 full ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 7 “ministres auprès d’un ministre” and 8 secretaries of state. Italy, 25 ministers, including the Prime Minister. Thirteen have departmental responsibility; 11 are ministers without portfolio. Australia, 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister and New Zealand has 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 8 ministers outside cabinet, some from supporting parties in the coalition. (Source)


Related Posts:

The 1985 Liberal-NDP Accord

(Note: if you’re looking for information about what types of government might emerge following a hung (minority) parliament election result, you may be interested in this post, this post and this post. Also, there was no Liberal-NDP coalition in 1985 – it was a Liberal minority government with supply-confidence support from the NDP, as will be explained below.)

Canadian Prime Minister, Conservative Stephen Harper, has repeatedly stated that only the party that wins the most seats has the right to form a government (in the event of a hung parliament), and that a coalition government which does not include the party that won the most seats (for example, that might include the 2nd and 3rd place parties), would not be legitimate. He has even stated that if his party were to  finish second in a general election, but the party that does win the most seats is defeated on a confidence vote soon after the election, he would refuse a request by the Governor General to try to form a government because that too would be somehow illegitimate and contrary to the wishes of voters.

This is simply not how our system works. Canadians do not elect governments, they elect a parliament. The government is formed by any party or group of parties which can command the confidence of the House. It doesn’t matter if these parties finished first in terms of number of seats or second and third – what matters is that they can demonstrate that they have the confidence of the House to govern. There has already been one very good example of a second-place party forming the government following an election, in the province of Ontario in 1985.*

The 2 May 1985 general election in Ontario resulted in a hung parliament, with the incumbent Progressive Conservatives winning 52 seats, the Liberals 48 and the NDP 21 (total seats 125, 63 seats needed for a majority in the Legislature at that time). A minority PC government was formed, but the Liberals and NDP were already in discussion to bring down the government. After several weeks of negotiations, the two parties reached an agreement known as “The Accord“. The two party leaders, David Peterson for the Liberals and Bob Rae for the NDP, signed a deal that would see a number of NDP priorities put into law in exchange for an NDP motion of non-confidence in Miller’s government, and the NDP’s support of the Liberals. The NDP agreed to support a Liberal minority government for two years, and the Liberals agreed to not call an election during that same time.

As per this agreement, the NDP introduced a motion of no confidence in the Miller government, which carried (18 June 1985). As a result of the Liberal-NDP accord, Lieutenant-Governor John Black Aird asked Peterson to form a government. Miller formally resigned as Premier on June 26, 1985 and a minority Liberal government supported by the NDP governed the province for two years, as agreed to by the parties. It is very important to understand that this arrangement was not a coalition government. A coalition government requires that all parties forming the coalition be represented in government, i.e., hold various cabinet positions. In this instance, the NDP was not part of the government; they did not have any of their MPPs appointed to cabinet. It was a Liberal minority government with the NDP providing confidence and supply support for a two-year period.

It should also be noted that in many European countries which use some form of proportional representation to elect their legislative bodies, coalition governments are often formed that do not include the party that might have won the most seats over all (but not a majority). The current government of Israel is a coalition government that does not include the party which finished “first” in terms of number of seats.

*I am referring to a party which finishes second in terms of number of seats won. There have been instances of parties finishing second in terms of number of votes, but still winning the most seats – yet another distortion of First-Past-the-Post.

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It’s all in the nomenclature

Fellow bloggers have probably had this happen to them in the past: you read an article, blog on some aspect of it, then notice something else in the article and blog about that, then on rereading either the article or what you wrote about it again, you notice something else that you feel obliged to comment on. That’s what has happened with Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s statement on coalition government, first referred to here, and then again here.

Upon re-reading the my first post which referenced this statement, I fixated on this:

We will not enter a coalition with other federalist parties. In our system, coalitions are a legitimate constitutional option. However, I believe that issue-by-issue collaboration with other parties is the best way for minority Parliaments to function.

What is bothering me about this comment is that the way it is worded reflects the general tendency in Canada to confuse an inconclusive election outcome with minority government. This is another favourite bug of mine, and I have blogged about this issue in the past (see here for a classic example).

In Canada, when an election does not result in a majority for one party, our media always refer to the outcome as a minority government for whichever party did win the most seats, and tend to do so before all the final votes are counted. This is unfortunate, and incorrect. Minority government is a form of government, not an election result. If no party wins a clear majority of seats, that is simply a Parliament, or a hung parliament, or an election outcome, or a balanced parliament (my least favourite term, to be honest). We then wait to see what form of government might emerge following such an election result. It could be a minority government, where the party with the most seats, but not a majority attempts to govern, usually by doing what Mr. Ignatieff proposed above, seeking issue-by-issue collaboration with other parties. It could be an agreement between two or more parties, such as occurred in Ontario in 1985, when the 1985 general election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Progressive Conservatives having the most seats, followed by the Liberals and the NDP. The Conservatives were quickly defeated on a confidence motion, and the Liberals, who’d been in talks with the NDP and reached an agreement with them, were asked to form the government. The Liberals governed as a minority Liberal government, supported by the NDP in exchange for the adoption of some key NDP priorities. It could be a full coalition government, as occurred in the UK following the May 2010 election.

By referring to a hung parliament outcome as a “Party X” minority government, the media legitimizes that as being the only possible outcome. There is a danger in that. What if the 2 May federal election results in a situation very similar to what occurred in Ontario in 1985? Say the Conservatives have the most seats, but only a handful more than the Liberals. I note that in his statement, Mr. Ignatieff rules out coalition with other federalist parties (meaning the NDP) and also coalition and formal arrangements with the Bloc Quebecois specifically. He does not, however, rule out any formal arrangement with other federalist parties, which one could interpret as meaning he would consider an accord with the NDP similar to what occurred in Ontario in 1985. As I wrote in my earlier post:

By announcing an election result as a “such-and-such Party minority government”, the media help close the door on the possibility (and legitimacy) of other options, such as a coalition or formal accord between two (or more) parties to form a government. I know that in reality, this would not prevent the formation of a coalition government, but if such a coalition ended up being between the 2nd and 3rd place parties, for example, after the media had all declared the election result to be a minority government by the party that won the most seats (but not a majority of them), this could create confusion among the general public. Until the party which emerged with the most seats formally announces that it will govern as a minority government, or form a coalition, or step back and let other parties attempt to form a government – all legitimate options – the term “hung parliament” is what our media should use.


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It’s not about who wins the most seats

(Note: Not the information you’re looking for? I do try to help people as much as I can and regularly monitor key word activity on this blog to see what is bringing people here. If this post doesn’t answer your questions, please consider contacting me with details regarding what information you’re looking for, including context (i.e. if it relates to something currently in the news). I might be able to answer your question(s), or at least direct you to a site that might provide more answers. I will reply to you by email, and if it’s a very interesting question, I may even write a proper blog post about it.)

Canadian Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff issued a statement on the weekend addressing the issue of whether he would form a coalition with any other party or parties should the Liberals end up with the most seats, but not a majority, in the 2 May election.

Ignatieff categorically rejected the idea of coalition. This post is not about that.

Ignatieff’s statement contained the following claim:

Whoever leads the party that wins the most seast on election day should be called on to form the government.

If that is the Liberal Party, then I will be required to rapidly seek the confidence of the newly-elected Parliament. If our government cannot win the support of the House, then Mr. Harper will be called on to form a government and face the same challenges. That is our Constitution. It is the law of the land.

Unfortunately for Mr. Ignatieff, this is not how our parliamentary system works. Parliamentary custom and convention dictate that, in the event of a hung Parliament, the incumbent Prime Minister has the right to remain in office and attempt to form a government that will command the confidence of the House of Commons, even if his or her party won fewer seats than another party.

In the event that another party win a clear majority of seats, then the incumbent party very obviously would not be able to command the confidence of the House and usually resigns immediately.

There are other scenarios, however, where the issue is more complex. In the May 2010 UK General election, the incumbent Labour government finished second in seats to the Conservatives, but neither party won a majority. However, it was Labour’s prerogative to attempt to see if it could arrive at any agreement with other parties that would allow it to  command the confidence of the House. When it became clear that no workable agreement was possible, Brown resigned as PM, five days after the election. He did not wait, nor did he need to wait, to see if the coalition talks between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would come to fruition, since it was clear to him that one way or another, the Conservatives would form a government – either a minority Conservative government, or else a coalition with the Lib Dems.

In the event that the Liberal Party wins more seats than the Conservative Party in the 2 May election, but falls short of a majority, it will still be incumbent PM Stephen Harper’s right to attempt to form a government that would command the confidence of the House. If he determines that this is not possible, then he will resign, and only then will the Liberals be asked to form the government. However, if Mr. Harper is able to work out some sort of agreement with another party, or parties, that would allow him to command the confidence of the House, it would be his right to continue to govern, even if the Liberals had more seats.

Such a scenario is highly unlikely, however. Mr. Harper has framed the concept of coalition as something very negative, and has also stated that a coalition is only legitimate if it includes the party that won the most seats.

It is unfortunate that some in the media repeated Ignatieff’s claim that the party that wins the most seats should form the government – see this column by Andrew Coyne. Coyne later admitted that he was wrong on this point.

This situation is similar to when, during the UK general election campaign last year, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was asked under which circumstances his party would support an attempt to form a government. Clegg stated that in his opinion, “whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats, if not an absolute majority, has the first right to govern, either on its own or by reaching out to other parties.”

Clegg’s comment was initially included in the draft version of the 2010 Cabinet Manual as a footnote. The Cabinet Manual is an account of the workings of Cabinet Government that consolidates the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under the existing constitution. It was authorized by Gordon Brown in February 2010, and in December 2010, a full draft was released for consultation. However, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee raised some concern that while the December 2010 Manual “provided greater clarity on the extent to which an incumbent government has a right to stay in office to see whether it can command the confidence of the House of Commons”, the “inclusion of the comments made in May 2010 by the Leader of the Liberal Democrat party may suggest that this view will carry weight in future.” Upon its recommendation, that footnote of Clegg’s comment has been removed.

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