CBC News Federal Election

Analysis & Commentary

Canada's Electoral College

By David E. Smith
Department of Political Studies
University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon

June 25, 2004

It is possible that the results of the June 28 election may not produce a party that holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons. A coalition government, formed by more than one party and in which each participating party holds some cabinet positions, is unlikely to occur. No party leader in this campaign has proposed it, and tradition in Canada is against it. Thus, the possibility of a minority government is real.

In such a situation, the party forming the government depends upon the support of members of Parliament who are not members of the governing party's caucus to secure passage of its bills through the Commons. Minority governments have followed eight elections: 1921, 1925, 1957, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1972 and 1979.

Under the Canadian constitution, governments are not elected – if they were there would be no uncertainty – but appointed by the Governor General. Governments arise out of the House of Commons because it is the body which is being elected when Canadians cast their ballot in one of the 308 separate constituency contests and which, as a result, becomes the representative institution of national opinion. Whoever controls the Commons becomes the Governor General's first minister. That is the heart of representative, responsible government. The difficulty is to know, following an election in which no party secures a majority of seats, who that first minister is to be.

In this situation it is a mistake to become a slave to numbers. In 1925, the Liberals under Mackenzie King secured 99 seats with 40 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives won 116 seats with 47 per cent of the vote (the Progressives took 24 seats and nine per cent of the vote). More than that, compared to the 1921 returns, the Liberals had lost 17 seats and one per cent of the popular vote, while the Conservatives had won 66 more seats and 17 per cent more of the total vote.

Yet the Liberals, with fewer seats and fewer votes than the Conservatives but with the support of the Progressives, continued in power as a minority government until the 1926 election, when they secured a majority of the seats. The constitutional crisis of that year, involving Gov. Gen. Lord Byng and dissolution of the Parliament elected in 1925, is not germane to the subject being discussed here – the formation of the minority government.

In 1957, the Liberals led by Louis St. Laurent once again lost seats and popular vote, while the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker won in both categories, although the Tories actually received fewer votes than the Liberals. This time the prime minister submitted his resignation following the announcement of the results. In 1972, the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau saw both seats and proportion of votes decline, while both increased for the Tories, led by Robert Stanfield. The Liberals stayed in power. In 1979, the direction of the results for each of the two parties was the same as in 1972 (although as in 1957, the Liberals won more votes than the PCs), but the outcome was different – Mr. Trudeau submitted his resignation.

The point of this summary history is that numbers are not determinative of outcome. If they were there would (again) be no uncertainty. Other considerations on the part of the politicians enter the calculus. The principal consideration is, which of the larger parties will the smaller parties support? In the language of today's politics, if no party this month secures a majority will the Bloc support the Conservatives or the Liberals? Similarly, whom will the NDP support? Of course, other considerations are also possible.

It is important to emphasize that it is the actions of politicians, and not of the Governor General, that determine the outcome. The primary duty of the Governor General is to see that there is always a government in place. But the partisan complexion of that government is for the politicians to decide.

If after the votes are counted on June 28 no party has secured a majority, then the first question is whether Mr. Martin can assure the Governor General that his government can carry on because it has the support of the Commons. Intense inter-party negotiations would be required before such assurances could be given. If Mr. Martin cannot assure the Governor General that he controls the Commons, he must advise her that he will step down once she finds another first minister. Convention requires that the Governor General then turn to the leader of the opposition, in this case Mr. Harper. Can he, in turn, assure her that he can control the House?

What if he says that he cannot provide this assurance? What is the Governor General to do? Some commentators have said that she would have no alternative but to dissolve the newly elected House of Commons. This prospect is highly unlikely. First, it would be irresponsible for the politicians to force an election because they cannot agree to co-operate. The election on June 28 creates a new Commons and the politicians have to work with the material the voters provide.

Second, if there is any doubt who controls the Commons then Parliament must be summoned as promptly as is reasonably possible to demonstrate who governs. Here Canada's members of Parliament become, more overtly than is normally the case, the electoral college of the Constitution. If the promise leaders have made of less stringent party discipline is honoured in the next and in future Parliaments, it is a role Canadians must be prepared to accept.

Parliamentary government in Canada is both a subtle and adaptable creation. In its history, and with no formal alteration, it has accommodated one-man gubernatorial rule, colonial oligarchies and, for most of the past century, control by mass parties. The legitimacy of the system lies in the harmony of its parts, whose relationship usually goes unacknowledged but in a time of minority government will once again be tested.

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