OTTAWA — As we enter the final days of the 2019 election campaign, polls show a minority government is by far the most likely scenario. But if that does prove true, it still tells us little about what form the next government takes. It all depends on how the seat counts come in.
Will it be the Liberals or Conservatives who emerge with the most seats? Will either the NDP or Bloc Québécois have enough seats on their own to be kingmaker? Will the Greens have enough seats to be a factor? If Maxime Bernier, Jody Wilson-Raybould or Jane Philpott win their races, could they be the deciding vote? This could get a little messy.
Fortunately, the Westminster parliamentary system has a long track record of successfully sorting out messy election situations. Here, then, is your guide to three likely scenarios that may come after election day — with assistance from one of Canada’s foremost experts on government formation, Carleton University professor Philippe Lagasse.
Minority scenario one: Liberals lead in seats by comfortable margin, Trudeau stays on as PM
There are two main rules to keep in mind about our parliamentary system and government formation. First, the ultimate test of whether a party forms government is whether it can hold the confidence of the House of Commons — in other words, whether certain major initiatives (such as the throne speech or the budget) can pass a vote in parliament.
Second, a sitting prime minister stays prime minister unless he or she resigns or loses a confidence vote. So whatever happens on election day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will stay in office (and the Liberals will stay as government) unless and until he decides to step down or attempts to stay on but is defeated by a confidence vote.
With 338 seats, the current threshold for a Commons majority is 170 seats. If the Liberals fall short of that but still have the most seats by a comfortable margin, they’ll have a very strong chance to stay on as government — but it will still depend on the seat counts of the NDP, Bloc and Greens. The more parties needed to get something passed in the Commons, the harder it is to hold on to government.
Similarly, if the Liberals’ margin of victory is small, it becomes harder for them to stay in power. Floor-crossing, resignations, by-elections and other unpredictable events could all change the balance of power quickly.
This scenario would change dramatically if the smaller parties decided to defeat the Liberals on a confidence matter and negotiate a governing deal with the Conservatives. At the moment, however, this is unlikely given the public positions of the parties. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has already ruled out supporting a Conservative government. The Bloc and the Green Party are potentially more open-minded, but they are both offside with the Conservatives on big issues such as the carbon tax. Furthermore, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said earlier this week that he would not negotiate with the Bloc.
The upshot is that if the Liberals hold the most seats, it is hard to see how the Conservatives would gather enough support to defeat them and take over as government. But it is possible, of course. Political parties do have a habit of making compromises when it comes to gaining power.
Minority scenario two: Conservatives lead in seats by comfortable margin, Trudeau decides to step down
Trudeau is not obligated to resign if the Conservatives emerge from the election with the most seats. As the sitting prime minister, he has the right to stay on and try to govern with the support of the Commons.
However, if the Conservatives have the most seats by a large margin, Trudeau will have a political decision to make: Should he step down as prime minister, given the message from voters? (Resigning as Liberal leader would be a separate decision.)
Scheer has already been arguing Trudeau should indeed step down in this situation. “What I’m saying is that the party that wins the most seats should be able to form the government, and the other convention in modern Canadian politics is that a prime minister who enters into an election and comes out of that election with fewer seats than another party resigns,” he said at a recent campaign stop. This is a common line from an opposition leader during an election; Trudeau said roughly the same thing in a CBC television interview in the 2015 campaign.
It is true that federally, the party with the most seats has almost always formed the government in a minority parliament situation (also called a “hung” parliament). In 2006, as a recent example, Paul Martin resigned as prime minister after his Liberals won fewer seats (103) than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (124) — despite the fact Martin could have tried to govern with the support of the NDP (29) or the Bloc Québécois (51).
But there are also provincial examples where a party with fewer seats has formed government with the support of a third party. This happened in B.C. in 2017, when the NDP’s John Horgan became premier with the support of the Green Party despite winning slightly fewer seats than Christy Clark’s Liberals.
It all depends on political calculations. Lagasse calls it a custom of Canadian politics that the party with the most seats governs — in other words, it’s become common practice but it’s not a binding rule.
It reflects a certain sense of fair-playing democratic propriety
“It’s a custom with a lot of weight because it reflects a certain sense of fair-playing democratic propriety,” he said. “But the weight of the custom will begin to lessen the closer the margin is between the two leading parties. So if we’re only talking a five-seat difference, or if there’s a major ideological reason why the current party wants to stay on, then that custom falls away.”
If Trudeau decides to resign because the Conservatives have a large plurality of seats, the situation becomes relatively simple. Payette, as governor general, would invite Scheer to form the government, given Scheer’s Conservatives would be by far the largest party and have the best chance to pass confidence votes.
If the seat margin is very close, or if the smaller parties decide to support the Liberals to block the Conservatives from forming government, that’s when things get complicated.
Minority scenario three: Conservatives lead in seats, but Trudeau tests confidence of Commons
Picture a scenario where the Conservatives win 140 seats, the Liberals win 130, and the NDP win 45. Trudeau and the Liberals would only need the support of the NDP to get above the 170 votes needed for a majority in the Commons. As the incumbent prime minister, Trudeau could simply carry on in power if the NDP agreed to support him — and he wouldn’t need Payette’s sign-off.
“If the prime minister does not win the most seats and still chooses to remain prime minister and test confidence of the House, he may inform the governor general what he is doing, and he probably should — it’s constitutional good form — but he does not need her permission to test confidence because he remains her prime minister,” Lagasse said. “And she has no grounds to dismiss him in this scenario. He hasn’t formerly lost confidence and he’s telling you that he’s seeking to secure it.”
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
That (or something similar) is the cleanest scenario where Trudeau stays on as prime minister despite the Conservatives winning more seats. But there are many other scenarios where things get trickier.
If Trudeau needs the support of multiple parties (or independent MPs such as Wilson-Raybould or Bernier) to keep the confidence of the Commons, it becomes much harder to stay in power. It would rely on political negotiations.
Now picture a scenario where Trudeau tries to govern with the support of multiple parties, but it doesn’t work and he quickly loses a confidence vote in the Commons. This is where Payette’s discretion comes in. Even if Trudeau requests that Payette dissolve parliament and hold a new election, she does not have to follow that advice. She may instead see if there’s a different party leader who could hold the confidence of the Commons.
“Her discretion is a bit narrow because it depends,” Lagasse said. “Is there a viable, alternative government out there? What evidence is there that there’s a viable alternative? Is there an opposition leader who has concluded an agreement with somebody to make a government work? Do the numbers add up in the House of Commons that another party could govern and maintain confidence? So her discretion there may be fairly circumscribed depending on the composition.”
It also depends how quickly this all happens after the election. Lagasse said the expectation is that you don’t go immediately back to the voters unless absolutely necessary. The rough guideline is you try to give parliament at least six months to make it work.
“It’s a custom that you should try to make parliament work,” he said. “Number one, there’s just been an election. Number two, the parties are financially depleted. Number three, the population shouldn’t be asked to vote again, they might be fatigued and there might not be a change in circumstances…There has to be a fairly strong alignment of factors that will lead to another dissolution very early.”