Minority Government

In less than two weeks we will know who will form the next Canadian government, maybe. If we are to believe the polls in the national media, we could very well be headed for a minority government. The jury’s still out on whether it will be a Liberal or Conservative minority. The national leaders debate could be a turning point for the campaign. The jury is also out on whether a minority government is a good thing. The last time we had a minority government in this country, Joe Clark was a young man and he was the leader of the Progressive Conservatives. Clark’s government subsequently flamed out in spectacular style, leading to the final four years of Pierre Trudeau’s 16-year legacy.

But that was back when there were only three real national parties, back before the Bloc Quebecois. In 1978, minority governments were a simple thing. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives had enough seats to form power. The NDP held the balance of power and whomever they sided with, formed government. Simple.

It’s not that simple anymore. With four parties on the slate, the permutations can be complicated, but very interesting.

Depending on how the seats are distributed it might be something as simple as the NDP backing the Liberals to form a majority. However, don’t hold your breath. There are plenty of possibilities.

There are 308 seats in the House of Commons. That means a party needs 155 seats to form a majority. Suppose, for argument’s sake, the Liberals garner 120 seats, the Conservatives 110, the Bloc, 40, and the NDP 38. To form a government, the Liberals would have to cozy up to the either the NDP or the Bloc. For those who were repulsed by the thought of the Bloc being the Official Opposition a couple of elections back, feel your spine shiver at the thought of the Bloc holding the balance of power.

We could also face the possibility of the Conservatives making alliances (pun intended) with the Bloc and the NDP to, even though they have fewer seats than the Liberals, form the government. A Conservative/Bloc alliance (remember the Bloc, as with the new Conservatives, has its roots in the Brian Mulroney Progressive Conservatives), would not have enough seats (150) to form government. They would require some help.

If politics is about deal making, minority governments are epitome.

So let’s have some more fun and throw into the mix the possibility that a Green Party candidate gets elected.

Let’s suppose, just for a minute, that the Liberals win 125 seats, the Conservatives 124, the NDP 28, the Bloc 30, and the Green Party one. Remember, 155 seats are required to form a government, so, any combination wins. In this scenario a Liberal/Bloc alliance (155 seats), would form a government. However, we could end up with a real quagmire. A Conservative/Bloc alliance would give them 154 seats, while a Liberal/NDP/Green alliance would also have 154 seats. The one Green Party candidate would hold the balance of power for the entire government. The candidate could choose to side with the Conservative/Bloc crew and form a government or not, which would likely result in another election.

Are minority governments good or bad? Political parties, which strive for power more than anything else, abhor minority governments. Our country is used to majority governments where the party in power has no fear of losing that power short of its mandate. Politicians and party hacks will say a minority will hamstring the government. However, minority governments force those given power into ruling with the fear that their power could vanish in an instant. The result is that governments are more careful about the legislation that is passed. We all complain about government ramming things down our throats – gun registry, GST, etc. These types of legislation usually don’t see the light of day in a minority government.

Are minority governments bad? No, they just make governing more difficult because political parties have to enact legislation that will appease more than the backbench minions of a majority government.

* Reprinted with permission