A number of positive advances, including the development of the welfare state and investments in health care, have occurred in Canada under minority governments, notes political scientist Shauna Wilton. (Photo: Adam Scotti, PMO)
By Shauna Wilton
Canadian minority governments have often been precarious, contentious, short-lived and unnecessarily suspect. However, in many parts of the world, minority governments are the norm, leading to the development of consensus-based democracies.
Scandinavian countries, for example, generally elect minority or coalition governments, due in part to their proportional electoral systems (where the percentage of the vote matches the percentage of seats that a party gets) and the existence of multiple political parties. While these governments are not without their challenges, Scandinavia is known for its stability, high standard of living and generous welfare states—all produced under minority governments.
Trudeau’s refusal to support proportional representation was partially based on the perception that minority governments are bad for Canada. Yet, the reputable Canadian journal, Policy Options, notes that many positive advances occurred in Canada under minority governments, including the development of the welfare state and investments in health care, two elements central to our Canadian identity.
Part of the fear of minority governments stems from misunderstandings about how they work. For example, in the last week of the election campaign, Andrew Scheer argued that if the Conservatives win the most seats they should have first stab at forming the government. Scheer is wrong.
Central to our democratic model is the idea of responsible government: the idea that the government is responsible to the legislature. What this means in practice is that the government needs the support of the lower house to govern. They need to have 50% plus one of the members of the House of Commons supporting the creation of the government. Should no party elect a majority, the ruling minority party has the right to make the first attempt at forming a government that can gain the support of Parliament. Should the minority government fail, the Governor General may ask another party to try forming a government.
The minority government has the right to govern until they lose the confidence of the legislature, in a vote of non-confidence. These are explicit votes testing the confidence in the government. This rule allows governments to be defeated on a minor issue without forcing their defeat and, potentially, a new election. In most cases, a vote of non-confidence creates the opportunity for one of the other elected parties to try to form a government that has the support of the House, rather than leading to an election call. These rules create stability within systems that have frequent minority governments. They also reduce the ability of the governing minority to force the opposition to do their bidding or risk being blamed for an early election.
Under ideal circumstances, minority governments can lead to more negotiation, cooperation and consensus-building between parties. The reality in Canada is that even majority governments do not have the support of the majority of the population. With a minority government, parties should work together to find compromises that best reflect what the majority of Canadians want. These types of governments have the potential to be more responsive to the desires of voters and create policy that is less ideological and broader in scope.
Another option is a coalition government: a formal partnership between two or more parties willing to make policy compromises in order to share the governing of the country. A stable coalition can lead to a very stable government that represents more than half of the population. Although the Liberals have enough seats to run government with only limited support from other parties, a coalition would formalize that relationship and make it more predictable.
The challenge is for parties and their leaders to be willing to share power and compromise. Parties in Canada are often afraid that compromise makes them appear weak or less committed to their platform. But, isn’t that sharing of power and compromise is what democracy should look like? Isn’t it better to have our political leaders working together to find the solution that is most appealing to most people rather than forcing their policies through majority rule and the lack of effective opposition?
Our new minority government offers our leaders an opportunity to show us that they can lead and govern better, with more integrity and responsiveness, by sharing power.
Shauna Wilton, Political Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This article will appear in the Camrose Booster, Oct. 29, 2019.