Minority government

CBCNews.ca | Updated Sept. 20, 2007

A minority government is one that has fewer seats than the combined total of all other parties.

Ontario boosted the number of seats to 107 for the Oct. 10 election. Under that tally, a governing party that has 53 seats or fewer would be considered a minority.

Since a majority of votes is required to pass legislation, a minority government can't survive unless it can secure enough support from the other parties.

Sometimes the minority government will make a deal with an opposition party for temporary support. Sometimes the government will try to operate on a vote-by-vote basis, seeking support of individual members rather than of entire caucuses. Certain bills, especially budgets and other money bills, are considered no-confidence votes. If the government loses a no-confidence vote, it will fall.

It's then up to the lieutenant-governor either to ask the leader of the party with the second-largest number of seats to try to form a government, or dissolve the house again and clear the way for another election. Because of this possibility, most minority governments are short-lived, lasting an average of 18 months.

Ontario's last minority government was led by then Liberal David Peterson, who became premier after the Liberals and the NDP combined to defeat Frank Miller's Progressive Conservatives immediately following the 1985 election. At the time, the Conservatives held 52 seats, the Liberals 48 and the NDP 25 in the 125-seat legislature.

Then NDP leader, Bob Rae, devised an innovative two-year accord between the NDP and the Liberals, based on their common election commitments, that allowed Peterson to govern from 1985 to 1987 before calling an election. At that point, Peterson won a landslide majority.

Still, the precedent-setting formal accord has often been held up since as a way of ensuring stability in a minority situation and its popularity likely played a role when Rae's NDP unexpectedly surged to power in 1990 as the Peterson government faltered.

Currently, the federal, Quebec and Nova Scotia governments are all minorities.

Fixed election date

In 2004, Ontario's Liberal government introduced a bill that fixed the provincial election date to the first Thursday in October every four years, with provisions to move the date up to a week later if it falls on a religious holiday.

The bill continues to allow for the lieutenant-governor to call an unscheduled election if a no-confidence vote takes place against a minority government. If that happened, the next election would take place on the first Thursday in October during the fourth calendar year after the unscheduled election.

The effect of MMP

Minority governments are relatively uncommon under Ontario's current first-past-the-post electoral system, but things could change after the referendum that takes place alongside the 2007 general election.

The referendum asks Ontario voters whether they support a new electoral system endorsed by the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, a government-appointed panel that studied different electoral systems.

The system proposed by the assembly is mixed member proportional (MMP), in which the number of seats that a party has in the legislature is effectively proportional to the popular vote.

Often, even majority governments often do not win a majority of the popular vote. In 2003, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals won a large majority of seats — 72 of 103 or about 70 per cent of the seats — with 47 per cent of the popular vote.

That means under MMP, there would be a greater chance of electing a minority government.

In practice, Germany, which has used MMP for over 50 years, is typically governed by a majority coalition government made up of more than one party.


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