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
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
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.