As our political parties vie for a majority government in next week’s election, UBC political science professor Max Cameron argues that minority and coalition governments can actually better represent the interests of Canadians. In a white paper entitled Trust & Cooperation: Post-Election Cooperation in Parliament, he outlines some of the biggest misconceptions about Canada’s government, and makes the case that a majority isn’t always in the country’s best interest.
What is the biggest misconception about how our government works?
There are many people in Canada who think that we directly elect the prime minister, and in fact that’s not the case. We elect our local member of parliament (MP), who joins the House of Commons in Ottawa. A party leader becomes a prime minister by commanding the trust and confidence of the parliament. What that means concretely is that the prime minister must always have the support of at least half the MPs in the House of Commons, which will have 338 seats.
Does the party with the most seats always “win”?
Not always. If no party gets 170 seats, the convention is that the governor general asks the leader of the largest party whether he or she is in a position to form a government. That will depend on whether that leader is able to command the confidence of the House—that is to say, to secure votes from members of other political parties.
That can happen as a result of some sort of formal coalition or it can simply be a minority government where the other parties agree that they will vote in favour of the government on money matters, which are always votes of confidence, and on votes of confidence. This is often referred to as a supply-and-confidence arrangement.
The first opportunity for a government to face a vote of non-confidence is on the adoption of the Speech from the Throne, in which the government outlines its policies and priorities. And at any time the political parties can ask for a vote of non-confidence. If the government loses a vote of confidence, two things can happen: a new election is called, or another party or coalition is given a chance to form the government.
Are minority governments inherently unstable?
In some circles there’s concern that minority governments are not effective, that they bring instability, and that they might not get things done. I disagree.
Since 1921, we have had 29 elections, and 13 have resulted in minority governments. Minority governments are generally brief, lasting less than two years, but they can be very productive. The back-to-back Liberal minority governments under Lester B. Pearson brought us Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, bilingualism and the new flag. That’s no mean set of accomplishments. In a minority parliament, cooperation is necessary for stability and good government.
One of the things I love about our parliamentary system is that it actually requires parties to work together, and most of the time that happens. A minority parliament requires political parties to cooperate with one another. I think Canadians can appreciate that.
In your white paper, you say that a minority or coalition government may well better represent Canadians. Why?
Under our first-past-the-post electoral system we can have “false majorities”: governments can have more than half the seats with less than half the votes. A coalition or some form of cooperation could mean that more Canadian voters will feel well represented by their parliament. It could be good for our democracy.
The current Conservative majority government only won 39 per cent of popular vote, and there’s been very little effort to work with other political parties on a common agenda. We’ve seen the introduction of a lot of omnibus bills and not a lot of consultation with the other political parties around legislation.
Alternatively you could have a couple of parties working together that, between them, actually command the confidence of the House and represent a real majority of the electorate. That actually could be a more representative government that is more responsive to a larger number of Canadians.