Politics·CBC EXPLAINS

What happens when no one wins a majority?

With the Liberals expected to take a minority government back to the House of Commons, we look at the potential implications and outcomes.

A minority government situation brings with it a few options

As experts and polls expected, Monday's election was tight race between Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer, leading to a projected minority Liberal government. (Patrick Doyle, Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

With the Liberals expected to take a minority government into the House of Commons, it is worth examining how minority governments work — and what options they have to stay in power. 

Let's start with a simple one. What is a minority government?

The House of Commons currently has 338 seats. Early results suggest nobody won 170 seats or more in Monday's election, which means a minority government. 

Typically, the party that wins the most seats forms the government. 

But that isn't the only possible outcome: If no party won a majority and the Liberals came in second to the Conservatives, Justin Trudeau could still have continued as prime minister. 

"It's not the way we usually do things. That doesn't mean it can't be done," Philippe Lagassé, associate professor at Carleton University, said before the Oct. 21 election. "It doesn't mean it's unconstitutional…. It doesn't mean that it's anti-democratic. It's just a different way of doing democracy."

So how can a party that comes in 2nd get the chance to govern?

Under the parliamentary system, the sitting prime minister remains prime minister until he or she formally resigns or is dismissed by the Governor General. 

So, if the Liberals came in a close second to the Conservatives in terms of seats, Justin Trudeau, as prime minister, would have the first chance to form government. 

Governor General Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Senate chamber during her installation ceremony Oct. 2, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

If he decided to do so, Trudeau would have until mid-January to recall the House of Commons. He wouldn't even have to go to the Governor General before then, though it would be "good constitutional form" Lagassé said, to let her know what he was doing.

And that might include talking to the other parties and seeing what kind of agreement he could reach to maintain the confidence of the House.  

What are the options?

The term "coalition" was talked about a lot in the final days of the campaign — that's one option, but not the only one. 

An important point is that a coalition is not just a loose agreement by parties to support each other on votes in Parliament. 

A coalition can be worked out between two or more parties to govern together. And Lagassé said that can involve having a shared cabinet or simply a shared ministry, as New Zealand currently has, where there is a core cabinet formed by members of the governing  party and then ministers from the other coalition partner party or parties who do not sit in cabinet. 

"They only take part in cabinet meetings when something pertains to their portfolio, and they sit on cabinet committees, but not the inner cabinet."

A formal agreement would be drawn up and could detail exactly what issues the parties would vote on together — in some cases, even what kinds of votes would be confidence votes. 

What if they don't want to form a coalition? 

Minority governments have some options when it comes to getting support from other parties. (Sergei Chirikov/Reuters)

It is not necessary for a party to have a formal coalition agreement with another party to stay in power. There are other options:

Confidence-and-supply agreement: Under this less formal arrangement, a party with fewer seats would agree to support the minority government in exchange for an agreed list of priorities or policies. This is what the NDP and Green Party currently have in British Columbia. 

Case-by-case: This is the route both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper took in the most recent examples of federal minority governments. They simply worked with other parties to get the support they needed as they went — case-by- case, vote-by-vote. In some cases, Lagassé said, that's the better way to go, because they can play off the parties and aren't "tied down to one partner."

It basically works until it doesn't and the governing party loses a vote of confidence. 

How much power does the Governor General have? 

There is no hard and fast rule, but Lagassé said generally, if a minority government falls within about six to nine months of the election, the Governor General would have the option of declining a request for another election and turn to another party.

But, he added, she would want to be sure that party had some kind of firm support in the House of Commons so that it would not simply fall itself within a few months, forcing the same election she had just recently denied. 

How many minority governments has Canada had?

Prior to this election, Canada has had 13 minority federal governments, led by nine prime ministers. 

Most recently, the aforementioned Paul Martin led a Liberal minority government from 2004 to 2006, and he was followed by Stephen Harper, who led two consecutive Conservative minorities, first from 2006 to 2008 and then from 2008 to 2011. 

And both got significant business through the House during their minority tenures. 

Former prime ministers Paul Martin, left, and Stephen Harper. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press, Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Martin's government managed to pass the landmark same-sex marriage legislation while in a minority.

Harper's minority government passed motions to extend Canada's mission in Afghanistan and passed the Federal Accountability Act, which, among other things, changed election financing rules and created new, independent watchdogs, including the parliamentary budget officer and ethics commissioner. 

How long do Canadian minority governments usually last?

With some exceptions, they have typically lasted less than two years. Joe Clark's 1979 Conservative minority government lasted only six months. 

Prime Minister Joe Clark, on Parliament Hill, Oct. 17, 1979. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

How are they defeated?

The governing party loses a vote on a motion or matter of confidence in the House of Commons. Confidence votes are generally, but not always, tied to money issues, such as a vote on a government's budget.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

...

Thank you for subscribing to CBC Newsletters. Discover more CBC Newsletters.

Happy reading!

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.