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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper after winning the federal election, Jan.23, 2006, in Calgary. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

In Depth

The 39th Parliament

Harper at the helm

Last Updated Aug. 26, 2008

Parliament resumed in late January 2007, with the party standings only slightly different from those after the election, but in a minority government, even small changes in numbers of seats can have profound political consequences.

The Liberals had an overall loss of two seats, the result of two members — David Emerson and Wajid Khan — crossing the floor to the Conservatives. The Conservatives had a net gain of only one, though, after Garth Turner was suspended from the Tory caucus, and sat as an Independent.

As a result, the Conservatives and NDP had enough seats together to pass legislation though the House.

They never got a chance to do so.

After sitting as an Independent for a few months, Garth Turner joined the Liberals in February 2007.

Governing by minority

After Joe Clark's short-lived minority government fell in December 1979, it took 25 years for Canadians to elect another minority. And 17 months after electing Paul Martin's minority, voters decided to go that route again – this time with Stephen Harper at the helm.

In his first news conference after winning the Jan. 23, 2006, election, Harper conceded that governing by minority would be challenging.

"There will be difficult situations," he said. "Minority governments are never easy."

Harper's words proved prophetic – even before the opening of the first parliamentary session of the first Conservative government since 1993. There were no leaks from the inner circle as Harper cobbled together his cabinet. But when the list was unveiled, there were several surprises. A Liberal – David Emerson – was lured to the government benches and a cabinet post, while a Quebec adviser, Michael Fortier, was included too, with a temporary appointment to the Senate.

The opposition parties immediately pounced, accusing Harper of violating his own self-declared principles. He had criticized politicians who switched sides in the aftermath of Belinda Stronach crossing the floor to join the Liberal government in May 2005. And he had also campaigned on a promise of an elected Senate and spoke against the idea of unelected ministers.

Party seats

With the swearing-in of the government, Harper indicated that his government would get to work on the Conservative agenda immediately.

He announced that billions of dollars in child-care deals negotiated with the provinces by Paul Martin's Liberal government would be phased out and replaced with Harper's pledge to provide parents with $100 per month for every child under age six.

On Feb. 16, 2006, Opposition Leader Bill Graham threatened to vote against the Conservative budget and announced that it would be up to the NDP and the Bloc Québécois to prop up Harper's government.

In the end, though, the Conservative budget was passed by unanimous consent in June in an apparent scheduling mix-up. No one stood to speak when the budget came up for third and final reading, so it was passed with no recorded vote. (The Bloc was expected to support the government in the budget vote, so it likely would have passed anyway.)

Shifts in numbers

Harper's minority government became even slimmer when the Conservative caucus voted unanimously in October 2006 to suspend Ontario MP Garth Turner. Caucus chair Rahim Jaffer said Turner's suspension came, in part, because of critical comments Turner made about the party on his blog. Turner would later join the Liberals.

The party numbers shifted again when Wajid Khan left the Liberals to join the Conservative party in January 2007, which gave the NDP the balance of power. Khan later left the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent, only to return to the Conservatives in February 2008.

Members of three parties — the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois — have left their respective caucuses to sit as independents. The Liberals also lost two seats in byelections, one to the NDP and one to the Tories. Three Liberals and one Bloc member have resigned, leaving their seats vacant until a byelection Sept. 8, 2008.

Harper's minority government has managed to get its business done, including three federal budgets, the Accountability Act, an omnibus crime bill and a bill to fix future election dates. The opposition parties also forced through an act to make the government implement its climate change obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The government failed, though, to pass motions to reopen the parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage and to extend certain provisions in the Anti-terrorism Act.

The current election speculation began in July when Dion told reporters he thought Canadians would be more ready for an election this fall than they would have been last fall.

"We have seen over the winter and the spring more and more interest for federal politics," Dion said. "And more and more appetite for an election."

If the Conservatives can't find consensus

The government is the government unless it is defeated on a motion of no confidence or it resigns. The Conservatives will keep governing unless they are defeated on a money bill, or in a no-confidence motion. Then, one of two things could happen.

The governor general could order a new election, or ask another party to try to govern. Michaëlle Jean has the right to ask the Liberals, as the holders of the second-largest number of seats in the House, to try to form a government, either on their own, or through a coalition with another party. Joining with the NDP would put them ahead of the Conservatives in the seat count, but still well short of a majority.

It is very unusual for the governor general to offer the government to another party, if the governing party has asked for an election (especially since the King-Byng affair). However, one of the reasons this power is given to the governor general is to protect Canadians from excessive visits to the polls and an unstable Parliament. It remains to be seen how many elections is too many.

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