How Canadian Governments Rise and Fall

Peace Tower

Update 21:32: Please refer to the bottom of this post for some updates and corrections to this article.

Let us assume that, after the next election, no one party holds the majority of the seats in the House of Commons. Let us further assume that neither the NDP nor the Bloc Quebecois, who either hold or share the balance of power, are particularly interested in playing nice with the Conservatives and the Liberals.

If we assume that the Liberals come in with the most seats, the Governor General would turn to Paul Martin to try and form a government out of the pieces of the house. In the case of a tie in seat totals, Martin would still be asked first because the Liberals were the governing party going into the election, and the government isn’t deemed to have fallen until it loses (or is clearly going to lose) a vote of confidence in the house.

Let us assume that the Liberals try to form a government and are defeated in a vote of confidence (which can come either in the form of the passage of a motion of non-confidence, or the defeat of a motion to pass the budget, or the defeat of a motion to thank the Governor General for reading the government’s throne speech). If the Liberals fall, does the Governor General turn to the leader of the second largest party in the house (likely Stephen Harper) and have him try to form a governing coalition, or is parliament dissolved and a new election called?

That depends.

I’ve heard a few people state that we could be looking at a new election three months after this coming one, assuming that we end up with a schnozz of a parliament. These people point to the controversy around Prime Minister MacKenzie King and the British-appointed Governor General Lord Byng. In 1925, an election produced a minority parliament with the following seat totals:

Conservatives - 116
Liberals - 101
Progressives - 25
Source: Government of Canada

You’d think that Governor General Lord Byng would hand parliament over to Conservative leader Arthur Meighen, but the previous house, elected in 1921, was also a minority (the first ever in the history of federal elections). The Progressive party, the new kid on the block, actually won the right to be the official opposition, but this party eschewed traditional politics, deferred official opposition status to the Conservatives and ruled themselves as a coalition of independent members of parliament. For four years (an unheard-of length for minority governments since), Liberal prime minister MacKenzie King was able to count on the confidence of the majority of the House and pass his agenda. In Lord Byng’s view, since the 1925 election was the first time in Canada the governing party in a minority house had only the second-highest number of seats, MacKenzie King had yet to be defeated. So he offered MacKenzie King the first crack at trying to form a government.

It didn’t last long. A number of Progressives were unhappy with the Liberals and, after a few months, King lost a vote of confidence. King then asked Lord Byng to dissolve parliament and call a new election. Byng refused, believing that a coalition could still be forged within the house with Conservative Leader Arthur Meighen as prime minister. This lasted all of a few days, since King was able to out-maneouver Meighen, and count on the instability of the Progressives to bring down the new government. With a majority coalition clearly impossible, Byng dissolved parliament, and King ran the next election making Lord Byng’s decision a campaign issue. The election of 1926 also produced a minority parliament, but with the Liberals in the lead, and able to count on the support of enough Progressives to hold power until July 1930.

Using this example (which, admittedly, provides the precident around which all subsequent minority federal governments have been built in Canada), it would appear that Canadians take a dim view of the largely ceremonial Governor General having such a hand in deciding who gets to be prime minister of this country. However, a lot of Lord Byng’s actions make sense, in theory. Without the connection to England (Lord Byng was one of the last Governor Generals to be appointed by the British Parliament rather than the Canadian prime minister), Adrienne Clarkson might have more room to maneouver, and I think that if she thinks through a couple of basic questions, her path may be clear in the next minority parliament.

Flash forward from 1925 to 1979 when Conservative leader Joe Clark defeated Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the closest of close elections. The results are as follows:

Progressive Conservatives - 136
Liberals - 114
New Democrats - 26
Social Credit - 6
Number Required For Majority - 142
Source: Government of Canada

Joe Clark was almost immediately named prime minister, primarily because Pierre Trudeau looked at the numbers, saw that he could not catch Clark with NDP support, and conceded the election that night, thus saving himself the ignomy of being defeated at the reading of his next throne speech. Clark governed for six months before being defeated on a budget vote.

The election called soon thereafter would seem to favour dissolving a fallen minority parliament rather than allowing the groups to try and forge a new coalition, but the numbers show that Governor General Schryer had no choice. Clark’s Tories were six seats shy of a majority, and the balance of power was held not by the NDP but by the dying Social Credit party. Clark’s Tories fell because they were defeated on a budget vote — a budget vote that Creditiste leader Fabien Roy decided to abstain on. Even though the Liberals pulled members of parliament out of hospital beds to vote, had Roy supported Clark’s government it might not have fallen.

And while Clark’s Tories may have been defeated, the Liberals and the NDP (seen as traditional coalition partners) didn’t have the majority of the house between them either. The hard-right Quebec nationalist Creditistes would be unlikely to support Trudeau for long. Besides, Trudeau saw that Clark’s unpopular budget was sending votes his way. It was not in his interest to accept a minority government. The rest, as they say, is history.

I think, if the next parliament is a minority, what we’ll see will be more like the results of the 1985 Ontario election. At the time, the seat totals were as follows:

Progressive Conservatives - 51
Liberals - 49
New Democrats - 25

As the Conservatives were the ruling party in the previous Ontario parliament, they got the first crack at governing. However, the NDP struck a deal with the Liberals to support a Liberal government for two years. The very day parliament resumed, the Liberals and the NDP united to defeat the government on its throne speech. The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario could see that there was a majority coalition in the house behind Liberal leader David Peterson, so he asked Petersen to form a government.

From this, I think the following scenario is likely:

  1. Unless Paul Martin concedes at election day, he will be given first crack at forming a government out of a minority house.
  2. If he is defeated, even six months later, Adrienne Clarkson will look at the state of the house to see if a majority coalition can be formed out of the opposition parties (or even out of the opposition parties and individual members of the government).
  3. If such a coalition can be formed, we will have a change in prime minister without an election.
  4. If no such coalition can be formed, we will be back at the polls before the year is out.

Frankly, if an unstable minority situation appears to be happening, it might be in Paul Martin’s interest (or, moreso, the Liberals) to concede the election and let Stephen Harper have a crack at governing. Such a result would satiate the Canadian public’s desire to punish the Liberals, and it would give the Liberals time to dump Martin and rebuild while Stephen Harper either makes or breaks the country. If Harper turns out to be as controversial as his critics claim him to be, then it’s only a matter of a rejuivenated Liberal party defeating the Conservatives on a vote of confidence, and going to a far more forgiving public for a new mandate. In other words, Stephen Harper could be the next Joe Clark.

Either way, it will be interesting times.

Pet Peeves

Here at the University, the Food Services people have invested heavily in a new type of serviette which marries the properties of a napkin with the all-in-one-roll properties of toilet paper. Those of us used to just yanking a single napkin out of a dispenser typically learn to detest the new technology before we learn to carefully pull out a short length and tear it off.

I hate those things.

Prayers for Warren Kinsella

I have been holding back on commenting on Warren Kinsella’s father’s medical condition because on this matter, Warren has clearly wanted to maintain privacy. However, as Warren is now requesting prayers for his father, and other bloggers are publicly offering them, I would like to offer mine too. Best wishes and prayers for Dr. T. Douglas Kinsella.

Writing Updates

Or lack thereof, actually. The in-laws are still here and we’re still active in doing fun things (see yesterday). A side-effect of this has been that my writing has not progressed forward. I’m still two chapters away from completing the rewrite of Rosemary and Time and there has been no progress on the :Trenchcoat Farewell Project:. We love our in-laws, but I don’t think it’s shameful to mention that Erin and I are pining a little for some alone time with each other.

Which means little writing progress is likely for a couple of days after the in-laws depart, as well. :-)

Update: Correction Courtesy of a Reader

I am indebted to reader Tony Friedt for bringing to my attention a number of mistakes made in my assessment of Clark’s government. In his words:

Before Parliament convened one Socred jumped to the Tories and John Diefenbaker died, his seat subsequently being won by the NDP. The standings when the House opened were:

PC 136
L 114
NDP 27
SC 5

The Liberals provided the Speaker (who can’t vote except in a tie) as a matter of courtesy so a thereoretical PC-SC alliance would have had a 141-140 majority. But the vote on the motion of non-confidence was 139-133. One Liberal and three Tories were unable to make it back for the vote for whatever reason. Even had the Socreds supported Clark, instead of abstaining, his government still would have fallen.

By the way, the reason Real Caouette abstained from the vote was because he had been dead for three years. Fabien Roy was party leader at the time.

I certainly appreciate the correction. It also emphasizes how unworkable the Clark house was after it had been defeated. Trudeau would have been unlikely to cobble together a Lib-Dem-Cred coalition for long and, as the polls showed, he had no interest in doing so.

Many thanks to Tony for bringing this to my attention.

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