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Governing By Minority

A minority government is one that emerges from an election with fewer seats in the House of Commons than the combined total of all other parties.

Brian Stewart reports on minority governments in Canada
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Brian Stewart reports on minority governments in Canada
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This minority position means it is possible (in many cases inevitable) that major government bills will be put to a non-confidence vote in the House, forcing a general election.

For this reason, minority governments are usually short-lived unless they gain the support of another party through the establishment of a coalition that guarantees support on non-confidence motions.

Here are the minority governments that Canada has had since Confederation:

William Lyon Mackenzie King (Liberal)

 Mackenzie King
  Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King

1921 election: Liberal (116); Progressive (50); Conservative (63); Labour (3); and Other (3)

Result: Mackenzie King leaned heavily on support from the Progressives to complete his term. High on his agenda was reducing tariffs and freight rates – an issue close to the hearts of Prairie farmers (who comprised much of the membership of the Progressive party).

1925 election: Conservative (114); Liberal (102); Progressive (24); Labour (2); and Other (3)

Result: Despite winning the most seats in the election, Arthur Meighen's Conservatives did not form the government. Both they and King's Liberals sought the support of the small Progressive party, and King lured over enough MPs that he was able to run a government for eight months. When he lost a confidence motion over the Customs Scandal, he went to Gov. Gen. Lord Byng asking him to dissolve Parliament so that the country could go to an election. Byng refused, and Byng called on Meighen's Conservatives to form the new government, which they did.

Within days, the new government lost a vote of confidence and Byng was forced to dissolve Parliament and allow an election after all. King campaigned on the constitutional issue of the Governor General refusing to accept his earlier request for dissolution, and won the election. This has become known as the King-Byng affair.

1926 election: Liberal (117); Conservative (91); UFA (11); Progressive (11); Liberal Progressive (9); and Other (6)

Result: With support in the House from the Progressives, the Liberals worked on paying down the war debt and introduced the old age pension.

John Diefenbaker (Progressive Conservative)

 John Diefenbaker
  Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on Feb. 19, 1963.

1957 election: PC (113); Liberal (103); CCF (25); Social Credit (19); Independent (2) and Other (3)

Result: Having won a slim election victory, Diefenbaker and his ministers campaigned to increase their popularity before calling a general election in 1958. The tactic worked brilliantly and the party won 208 of 265 seats.

1962 election: PC (116); Liberal (99); Social Credit (30); NDP (18); Other (2)

Result: Once again Diefenbaker and his party were in a minority situation. The government had become embroiled in the debate over whether or not Canada should have nuclear weapons as part of a continental defence shield (he was against the idea). The controversy led to a vote of non-confidence in February 1963, forcing Diefenbaker to call a general election. He and the PC party were defeated by a narrow margin by the Liberals. Diefenbaker's second mandate lasted less than one year.

Lester Pearson (Liberal)

 Lester Pearson
  Lester Pearson in 1963. (CP PHOTO)

1963 election: Liberal (128); PC (95); Social Credit (24); NDP (17) and Other (1)

Result: Only four seats short of a majority, Pearson called an election in 1965. Once again he and his party came up short – this time with 131 seats.

1965 election: Liberal (131); PC (98); NDP (21); Ralliement des Créditistes (9); Social Credit (4) and Other (2)

Result: The Liberals relied on the support of the New Democratic and Social Credit parties to govern effectively. Pearson was the first prime minister in Canadian history to never head a majority government.

Pierre Trudeau (Liberal)

 Pierre Trudeau
  Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at a press conference in 1972. (CP PHOTO/ Peter Bregg)

1972 election: Liberal (109); PC (107); NDP (31); Social Credit (15) and Other (2)

Elected by an extremely small plurality (41 per cent of seats versus the PCs' 40.5 per cent), Trudeau called an election within two years and won it by a more comfortable margin (53.4 per cent of seats).


Joe Clark (Progressive Conservative)

 Joe Clark
  Prime Minister Joe Clark on Dec. 1, 1979. (CP PHOTO/Jacques Nadeau)

1979 election: PC (136); Liberal (114); NDP (26) and Social Credit (6)

Clark's government tried to introduce fiscal policy that proved unpopular. Only seven months into office his attempt to pass legislation was defeated in the House, forcing an election call. Trudeau and the Liberals won back a slim majority.

Joe Clark was the second prime minister in Canadian history to never have a majority government.

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