Election 2015: What happens if none of the parties wins a majority?

It's often assumed the party who wins the most seats automatically becomes the minority government but a political conventions expert says that's not always the case.

Assumption that party who wins the most seats automatically becomes minority government isn't true

What happens if no one party wins a majority of seats? (Reuters/Canadian Press)

With the election less than two weeks away, most election polls show the Conservatives and Liberals in a tight race with neither winning the majority of seats. If that were to happen, what would it mean for us: a minority government? A hung Parliament?  A coalition? Another election?

Andrew Heard, a professor at SFU, is one of a few Canadian scholars who specializes in constitutional conventions. He explained how things could pan out after October 19 if none of the parties win a majority.

What is a minority or "hung" parliament?

No one single party wins the majority of seats. In our system, the authority for governing comes from winning a majority of seats or having the support of the majority of members of the House of Commons. If no one party has a clear majority, then things are "hung up" in the air until the situation gets clarified.

Does the party that wins the most seats, even if it's not a majority, automatically get to form a minority government?

It's often been presented as the rule that should apply and it's occurred more often than not. But, the problem is the suggested rule really lacks a solid reason behind it.

Let's say a party that was in second place had an agreement with a party in third or fourth place. Together they had the majority of seats — that to me, fulfills the main criteria for our system of government: if you have a majority, then you have the authority to govern. A leader who finishes first, who clearly does not have the support of the majority … to me, doesn't have an automatic right.

What do those second and third place parties have to agree to? Does it have to be a formal coalition?

If the opposition parties make [their partnership] very clear, very soon, in the days after the election, they have the right to form government. It would have to be some kind of formal statement, it doesn't have to be a coalition government where both parties are in cabinet — just some kind of public statement, preferably written where the leaders agree to work together for a particular period of time. The smaller party agrees to support the larger party on confidence votes. 

Who has final say on all of this?

The Governor General. But initially, the ball is in the incumbent prime minister's court. The wrinkle in our system is traditionally the incumbent prime minister has a right to meet with Parliament and try to win its confidence unless another party wins the majority of seats.

So even if the second and third place parties have a majority, the incumbent prime minister can say, "let's give it two months. We'll wait until Parliament meets and maybe the agreement between the opposition parties will break down or I can make policy concessions so that I can get the support of one of those parties."

Does that mean Stephen Harper has an advantage in maintaining his role as Prime Minister being the incumbent in this election?

Part of that will depend on the agreement between the NDP and the Liberals. If it is written down — that becomes a formal agreement whether it's a minority or a coalition. In that case, I don't think the Prime Minister has much option but to resign.

Could another election immediately follow the one on October 19? How would that come about?

Say, the NDP and the Liberals dragged their feet on reaching an agreement on an alternative government. The Prime Minister could wait to meet with Parliament. In theory he has 12 months, but in practice four to five months would be the tolerable period. That gives him a lot of wiggle room and time. Even when Parliament has met, he has quite a bit of flexibility in when he holds a confidence vote. If he is then defeated, he can say, "it's been six to seven months and things are still up in the air, I think it's time we went back to the people and sort it out with a new election." Then it's up to the Governor General to approve that.

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled What happens if no party wins the majority of seats? with CBC's Gregor Craigie with On The Island.


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