Politics·Analysis

Minority governments another sign that Canada is in the midst of a political upheaval

With more minority governments in provincial capitals than ever before, Canada is showing signs that it is taking part in a global wave of political disruption.

There have never been more minority governments in Canada than there are now — the fall vote could add another

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves after participating in an armchair discussion at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Polls now point to the election of a minority federal government in the fall. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canadians can't seem to make up their minds lately, with more minority governments in power across the country than ever before — and another one potentially on its way in October's federal election.

It's partly the result of people moving away from their traditional voting patterns and being increasingly open to new options. It's a trend more than a few candidates are counting on this fall.

Establishment parties are struggling around the globe. In recent elections to the European Parliament — the largest democratic exercise in the world after India's elections — the two groupings of parties that always have held sway lost their combined majority for the first time.

That anti-establishment vote splintered in different directions. Far-right populists, Greens and pro-EU liberals all made gains at the expense of the centre-right European People's Party and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats.

In the United Kingdom, one recent poll gave no party even a quarter of the vote. Labour and the Conservatives, the only two parties that have governed the country since the end of the First World War, were tied for third behind the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage's upstart Brexit Party, which just finished first in the U.K. in those European elections.

More minority governments than ever before

Provincial legislatures in Canada are also looking more kaleidoscopic. Breakthroughs by the Greens led to minority governments in British Columbia in 2017 and in Prince Edward Island earlier this year. In New Brunswick, the Greens were joined by the populist People's Alliance in contributing to a hung legislature in 2018.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, wins by two Independents and three candidates for the NDP — a party that has never formed government in the province — helped reduce the incumbent Liberals to just 20 seats in the 40-seat House of Assembly.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage arrives at the party's HQ, prior to an event to mark the gains his party made in the European Elections, in London, Monday, May 27, 2019. (Vudi Xhymshiti/The Associated Press)

That makes four minority governments across the country, more than have ever existed in Canada's provinces at the same time. It surpasses the record of three minority provincial governments that was met just three times in the past: in 1920-22, 1943-45 and 1971-72.

Judging by national polls, Canadians appear prepared to prevent any party from securing a majority government in October's federal election as well.

Votes for non-traditional parties hit a new high

According to the CBC's Canada Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, nearly 14 per cent of Canadians are prepared to vote for parties or candidates that have never formed either a government or an Official Opposition. If that trend holds in the October vote, it would result in the lowest combined score for the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois (and their predecessor parties) since 1945.

Most of that vote is currently going to the Greens, who stand at just under 10 per cent in the polls. The rest is split between the People's Party, other small parties and Independent candidates.

Two Independent candidates in particular have contributed to the fall in support for one of the establishment parties. It was after the SNC-Lavalin affair, and the subsequent caucus departures of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, that the Liberals saw their support plummet.

The two former cabinet ministers announced this week they'd run as Independents, calling for a movement of more "independent partisans" across the country.

That isn't a new idea, by the way. It echoes the movement that caused Canada's first period of minority rule.

Voting for something different

After the cataclysm of the First World War, the state of politics around the world was in flux. That phenomenon extended to Canada, where new parties began to win seats and form governments across the country.

Most successful were the Progressives and Farmers' parties. The United Farmers of Ontario stormed to power in 1919 with a minority government, propped up by Labour members who themselves made their first breakthrough. The next year, Farmer and Labour candidates made inroads in provincial elections in Manitoba and New Brunswick, resulting in minority governments in those two provinces as well. The United Farmers secured a majority government in Alberta in 1921.

The federal expression of this movement, the Progressive Party, finished second in the 1921 election, resulting in the country's first minority government. But the Progressives didn't see themselves as a traditional party and declined the opportunity to form the Official Opposition. The party believed in freeing their MPs from the overbearing control of a centralized leadership — a view that was shared by the Farmers' parties at the provincial levels.

The problem with this approach soon became clear, as a lack of unity made it difficult to hold the parties together. The United Farmers of Ontario went down to defeat in 1923 and the federal Progressive Party was splintered and significantly reduced by 1925, descending into irrelevance by the 1930s.

An early photo of the leaders of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, with its first leader, J.S. Woodsworth standing in the middle. From left to right, future NDP leader Tommy Douglas, Angus MacInnis, A.A. Heaps, M.J. Coldwell (who led the party into the 1945 election), Grace MacInnis and Grant MacNeill. (Yousuf Karsh fonds/National Archives of Canada)

The next series of minority governments also coincided with a time when voters were coming unglued from their old voting habits.

In the midst of the Second World War (armed conflicts have a tendency to shake up domestic politics) the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF, forerunner of the NDP) surged in the polls. In 1943, a Gallup survey had the CCF narrowly ahead in a three-way national race, following on provincial breakthroughs in B.C. and Manitoba in 1941 that prevented any party from winning a majority.

The Ontario CCF made a significant breakthrough in the 1943 provincial election and came within four seats of forming government. In 1944, the party formed its first provincial government — a majority — in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas.

These breakthroughs had an impact on the federal scene. Liberal Leader W.L. Mackenzie King fell just short of a majority in 1945 as the CCF and Social Credit made inroads in the West and Quebecers voted for Independent Liberals and Bloc populaire candidates who opposed conscription.

A global moment of disruption?

While minority governments coincided in Ottawa and a number of provincial capitals in the 1920s, and at the time of the federal elections of 1945 and 1972, there were also moments when national splits didn't filter down to the provinces. There were no provincial minority governments when John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson presided over federal minorities in the 1960s.

The Paul Martin and Stephen Harper minority government periods from 2004 to 2011 saw only a single minority provincial government at any one time.

But the number of incumbent governments that have gone down to defeat over the last four years is higher than it's been since the Great Depression. At the same time, Canada has set a new record for the number of minority governments.

It might suggest the country is experiencing a moment of political disruption — one that could bode well for non-traditional parties and independent candidates this fall. In that, Canada isn't alone.


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About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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