Depending on who you are, a majority government is either a promise of stability and tranquility or a threat of imminent disaster. And, again depending on whom you are, much the same kind of judgment can be made for minority government.

Stephen Harper rightly boasts that the minority government he has led for more than 2½ years has been productive for longer than any minority Parliament in Canadian history.

Ebb and flow of elections

Date

Winner Vote % Status
1957 Conservative  39 Minority
1958 Conservative  53 Majority
1962 Conservative  37.3 Minority
1963 Liberal  41.7 Minority
1965    Liberal  39.8 Minority
1968 Liberal  45.5 Majority
1972 Liberal    38.5 Minority
1974 Liberal  43.2 Majority
1979 Conservative  35.9 Minority
1980 Liberal  44.3 Majority
1984 Conservative  50 Majority
1988  Conservative  43 Majority
1993     Liberal  41.3 Majority
1997  Liberal  38.5 Majority
2000  Liberal  40.8 Majority
2004  Liberal  36.7 Minority
2006     Conservative  36.3 Minority

Yet he complains that his government was constantly frustrated by the opposition parties.

So frustrated has Harper been that he threatened recently that if he is returned to power in a minority government he will not tolerate opposition parties trying to block anti-crime legislation. The implication was that if he could not get his way he would call another election.

The level of Harper's frustration is obvious. He could not legislate as he wanted to legislate. For a prime minister, that is indeed frustrating.

It's the fault of voters

But if there is another minority Parliament that gets in the way of Harper legislation, that's not the fault of the opposition parties. Instead, it's the fault of Canadian voters who quite frequently decide they will not give any political leader a majority.

In the 2006 election Harper's Conservatives received 36 per cent of the popular vote and 40 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. If he managed to parlay that weakness into the longest minority Parliament in Canadian history, he should be thankful.

It's a quirk of the first-past-the-post voting system that, in Canada at least, majority Parliaments are more customary than minority Parliaments, even though majority Houses are almost always the product of minority popular votes.

In the past half century the winning party managed to get 50 per cent of the vote in just two elections — in 1958 when John Diefenbaker's Conservatives won 53.7 per cent of the vote, and in 1984 when the Conservatives of Brian Mulroney won exactly 50 per cent. Even Trudeaumania in 1968 gave Pierre Trudeau's Liberals just 45.5 per cent of the votes.

There is no surprise in the numbers beyond the burden that "majority" and "minority" carry in the minds of  voters and politicians alike.

It was that freight that Boc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe brought out a few days ago when he tried to scare Quebec voters into staying with the Bloc so that Harper would not win a majority on Oct. 14.

"His objective is to enact his hidden agenda in its entirety, in a majority government," he said. "Thet's what he wants, a majority government, and let's not fool ourselves, a majority is within his reach."

Harper has not asked

Harper himself has not asked for a majority government. He has restricted his appeal for a stronger mandate, with the warning that too large an opposition would harm the government's capacity to handle economic issues.

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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper answers questions about food safety in Vancouver. ((CBC))

The politician who has been most outspoken on the matter of majority and minority prospects in the currrent election is not even a candidate. But Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams has been campaigning against Harper and the Conservatives.

Williams, a Progressive Conservative, describes Harper as a fraud at the head of a "right-wing Conservative-Reform party" who has cut funding and services for groups across the country.

"This all happened under a minority government. What in heaven's name will happen it he gets a majority?" he said. "A majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history."

The surprising element in the majority-minority debate is that the history books suggest that minority Parliaments have been remarkably successful in the legislation they negotiate.

Most successful by any measure were Lester Pearson's two minority governments between 1963 and 1968. Among the Pearson reforms were the Canada Pension Plan, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, student loans, increased transfers to the provinces, and, above all, medicare.

Although they have not yet won the sanction of history, Harper's Conservatives managed to win approval for measures as diverse as his Accountabilty Act, the war in Afghanistan, changes to the Election Act and approval of the softwood lumber agreement with the U.S.

Support for minority governments comes from the voting reform lobbying group, Fair Vote Canada, which points to a recent poll showing that most Canadians prefer a minority government than a majority of either Liberals or Conservatives.

Larry Gordon, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, says the recent experience of minority governments has had an effect on voters' thinking: "While Canadians have been used to one party wielding majority power, it appears the benefits of forcing parties to negotiate and compromise are now more apparent."