How might it work in Canada

How do coalition governments work?

Opposition Ottawa is rife with talk about a possible coalition government of some sort involving the Liberals and the NDP to replace the Stephen Harper Tories at the earliest opportunity, ostensibly because the minority Conservatives are not moving quickly enough to help Canada's failing economy.

But how might such a coalition work? Who would lead it? The Liberals are in the process of replacing failed leader Stéphane Dion at the moment. The NDP controls only 37 seats and won just 18 per cent of the vote in the most recent election six weeks ago.

And what role would the Bloc Québécois play? Its legislative support, at least, would be necessary for any Liberal-NDP coalition to succeed as those two parties control just over a third of the seats in the House.

Carleton political science professor Jonathan Malloy (Courtesy Jonathan Malloy)

To explore these issues and others, CBC News contacted Carleton University political scientist Jonathan Malloy. He spoke with online writer Muriel Draaisma about the possibility of a coalition government in Canada and some of the precedents.

How would a coalition of Liberals and the NDP and possibly the Bloc work as a viable government?

It's very hard to envision how it might work because there is really no precedent for it, particularly at the federal level. There have been some coalition governments in Canada, but they are extremely rare. There are so many different unknowns.

First, who would lead it? If the Liberals had a permanent leader, then that would be clear. There is talk of an interim leader. But it's quite unclear who would actually lead it.

Second, how much of a coalition would it be? A true coalition is one where all the political parties have members of cabinet and they work very much at that level. We have never seen that federally.

What are the precedents?

What we have seen in Ontario in the 1980s is an accord where the smaller party, the NDP, agreed to support the larger party, the Liberals. But the NDP didn't actually get cabinet posts. 

An accord is probably more of a possibility than an actual coalition government where there is splitting up of ministerial posts. That would be incredibly complicated and unprecedented in Canada.

The accord was signed in 1985 between the Ontario Liberals led by David Peterson and Ontario NDP led by Bob Rae. In that accord, the NDP asked for a number of policy positions from the Liberals and in return promised to support the Liberals and not bring them down for two years, which they did.

Saskatchewan had coalition a couple of years ago, when the NDP brought in a couple of Liberals from what was a very small party. It was a coalition in the true sense but it was fairly minor and inconsequential in the end. It only lasted a couple of years and is probably forgotten by many people.

The key here is: who is going to lead the thing and what would it be about? Would they agree over key policy issues? There's the entire issue of the Bloc Québécois.

How would a coalition actually be formed here?

It's hard to outline the steps because this is all uncharted waters. Certainly, the government would have to be formally defeated in the House of Commons first. Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have to tell the Governor General that he has lost the confidence of the House. Then it gets really fuzzy.

In a different situation, what would happen is the prime minister could maybe recommend another election or another party. The Governor General would then logically turn to the leader of the next largest party in House of Commons, the Liberal party. That would, of course, be Stephane Dion and she could ask him to form a government.

But Dion has [announced he will resign] as leader, so that's certainly shaky to say the least. The Liberals don't have a permanent leader at the moment, so it's really unclear exactly what the steps would be. It's really uncharted waters.

What are the Governor General's options?

It is possible that the Governor General may be called upon to use some discretion. If the prime minister asks for an election, then the Governor General would have to very carefully consider that.

But the Governor General would be on very solid grounds to say, no election, let's see if we can get another government going.

It's certainly within her power and, if the prime minister asks for an election, I think the Governor General would turn him down. I think the fact that we just had an election would be sufficient to let a second person try to form a government.

If the opposition parties came up with a deal, and the key aspect is who the leader would be, then she should probably call on that individual to form a government.

In terms of exact steps, it can get complicated quite quickly, although the broad parameters are quite obvious. 

Hasn't this been mapped out? Don't we have rules governing these matters?

No, we have a largely unwritten constitution on these matters. That's the whole point of our parliamentary system. This stuff is not precisely written down. It does evolve and is flexible with the times.

Does Canada have any history of coalition governments?

There's the one in 1917 when a lot of Liberals left the Liberal Party to join the Conservative Party to form a new Union Government. That wasn't really a coalition. That was more people leaving their party. That wouldn't technically qualify as a coalition.

When you see coalition governments in other countries, it is where different members of cabinet are from different political parties and it's all parcelled out. Right at the cabinet table, you have different political parties.

It involves a lot of complex negotiations. We have never seen anything like that in Canada, except for that little Saskatchewan example.

There may be other examples in distant history but certainly nothing in recent history.

How would you define a coalition government?

A formal definition would be a government in which the different cabinet portfolios are divided up among members of the different parties. You may have a Liberal running the ministry of finance but a New Democrat running the Ministry of Health. That's what a coalition government really means.

The actual governing is done by members of different political parties, as opposed to a parliamentary deal. That's what the accord was in Ontario.

What would a coalition government formed by the Liberals and New Democrats look like?

I don't have the slightest idea. It's so unprecedented. I wouldn't care to even speculate.