Canadians chose a minority government in our most recent federal election. While I’d like to congratulate us on having done so, in fact, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for voters to co-ordinate the election of minority governments. Instead, given the right circumstances — such as the presence of smaller parties like the Bloc Québécois — it just kind of happens.
Minority governments are another difficult-to-predict outcome of our wacky single-member plurality electoral system, which also happened to give the most seats to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals despite the fact the Conservatives received the most votes.
Canada has a parliamentary form of government, but the nature of such a government can change quite drastically, depending on whether elections produce a minority or majority government. As it turns out, minority Parliaments are relatively rare in Canadian history: only 14 governments since 1867 have been minorities.
So we will be experiencing a rather uncommon occurrence, although there were three minority governments in the 2000s (one led by Liberal Paul Martin, and two led by Conservative Stephen Harper).
Not to be too blunt, but majority governments in Canada basically do whatever they want. Party discipline, in which the governing party whips its MPs into voting for the government, ensures all government legislation easily passes since the government holds the majority of seats in the House.
Party discipline is strong in most parliamentary democracies, and it’s especially so in Canada. MPs may raise concerns in party caucus meetings, but the expectation is they will vote with the government or face dire consequences. It is, in fact, often MPs who impose this discipline on themselves, lest they seem to be a party divided.
In a majority Parliament, opposition parties can do virtually nothing to prevent this. To add insult to injury, governments have the option to cut off debate in the House of Commons through the imposition of time allocation or closure.
On the other hand, since majority governments are almost never defeated in the House of Commons, we can usually count on these governments to survive for roughly four years until the next election. For election-weary Manitobans who endured back-to-back federal and provincial elections this past fall, this advantage of majority governments must be quite appealing.
Minority governments are much, much different. Lacking a majority of MPs necessary to pass legislation, the government must negotiate in order to bring at least a few opposition MPs on board. This means minority Parliaments tend to be more consensus-oriented than majority parliaments; instead of ramming through legislation, governments must consider how best to convince opposition MPs to support their legislative programs.
Including more MPs — who, after all, are all elected — in this process is, in my view, a positive democratic development.
In this new Parliament, the Liberal government will always have a range of options when it comes to who they can turn to to help pass legislation. If Trudeau wishes to build pipelines, he will find Tory MPs who will gladly vote for any effort to do so. If, on the other hand, he decides to obstruct the construction of pipelines, NDP MPs will applaud and line up to give him their votes.
Legislation to provide a helping hand to Alberta’s struggling economy will earn Tory votes; other legislation directing support to Quebec will be viewed favourably by Bloc MPs. This diversity of support means it’s likely Trudeau’s minority government could last for quite some time, until either he or the opposition leaders decide it’s politically advantageous for them to trigger another election.
But while Trudeau is likely to be successful in stitching support together for each item of his government’s legislation program, he will nevertheless need to reach out and find consensus on a piece-by-piece basis. Opposition MPs might even get some say in the government’s legislative program — that is a far cry from what happens in majority governments, which simply introduce legislation and then tell opposition politicians to take a hike.
Periods of minority government remind us what a shame it is Canada has, for most of its history, been governed by majority governments that have little reason to pay any attention whatsoever to opposition parties while in office. And this has become even more of a democratic problem as the percentage of the vote needed to form a majority government has slowly but surely dropped over the past century.
In the 1930 federal election, for example, Conservative R.B. Bennett scored a majority of seats by winning 48 per cent of the vote. In recent elections, parties have almost always received less than 40 per cent of the vote but nevertheless formed majority governments.
Should parties supported by less than 40 per cent of Canadians hold 100 per cent of government power in Canada? If you think not, you’ll love minority governments. And maybe electoral reform, too.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.