The ballots have been counted and Canadians have elected their new House of Commons – but no one party has a majority of seats.
The Liberals have won a strong minority with 157 seats, with the Conservatives increasing their opposition caucus to 121 MPs. This leaves the Bloc Quebecois, with 32 seats, or the NDP with 24, holding the balance of power.
We asked two members of Counsel’s team with firsthand experience of minority governments to explain what happens next: Sheamus Murphy and Brad Lavigne.
Sheamus Murphy is Counsel’s VP Federal Advocacy and worked on Parliament Hill during the minority parliament from 2009-2011 and in Ontario’s minority Liberal government from 2011-2014.
Brad Lavigne is a Principal and VP Western Canada. He worked on Parliament Hill for Jack Layton and the NDP during the minority parliaments from 2004-2011.
Why did Justin Trudeau rule out a coalition government?
Brad: During the final days of the campaign, the potential for a coalition government got a lot of attention after it was advanced by Jagmeet Singh and quickly attacked by Andrew Scheer. The term “coalition” has become shorthand for more than one party working together in a minority parliament, when in fact a “coalition government” is a very specific form of government – a formal arrangement where MPs from a junior partner are included in cabinet.
While common in Europe, this is exceptionally rare in Canada – occurring only once since confederation at the federal level (under the Borden government in 1917). In fact, coalitions are only one of a variety of ways in which minority parliaments can function.
Sheamus: There are a few reasons why we aren’t going to see a coalition. First, the Liberal minority is strong enough that they don’t need a formal arrangement to bring another party into government and cabinet to provide the stability to govern.
Second, for the NDP, there is a downside to being in a coalition – they would wear the blame for every decision made by the Liberals. This led to the near-destruction of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the UK when they formed a coalition with the Conservatives under David Cameron.
Finally, coalitions are not always popular. Under very different circumstances, when the Liberals, Bloc and NDP threatened to form a coalition in 2008, public opinion was not on their side.
How will a minority emerge then?
Brad: Typically, a minority parliament in Canada governs on a “vote by vote” basis, which can require the government to offer concessions to find common ground. Under this style of governing, no formal agreement is required but the governing party relies on enough votes from one or more opposition parties to pass confidence or supply votes required to remain in power.
For instance, in 2005, Jack Layton’s NDP supported Paul Martin’s Liberal budget in exchange for $4.6 billion in social spending, including concessions on affordable housing. This also happened under Stephen Harper’s first minority government when he relied on votes from the Bloc Quebecois to pass its budgets in 2006 and 2007, winning concessions including increased equalization payments for Quebec.
And while the NDP is likely to be the main dance partner for the current Liberal government, there may well be votes (whether of confidence or just on specific legislation) where the Liberals will proceed despite NDP opposition, based on support from one of the other parties. That has certainly happened in other minorities.
Does vote-by-vote always produce concessions?
Sheamus: Governing vote-by-vote requires a keen sense of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the other parties. In 2008, the Liberals under Stephane Dion supported Stephen Harper’s budget largely to avoid a spring election. While the 2009 budget was very much a product of pressure applied by the opposition in the wake of the US financial crisis, the pattern re-emerged under Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, who backed the Harper government’s budgets in 2010, again largely out of the fear of triggering an election.
As Brad will recall from his time working for Jack Layton, this both weakened the Liberals and benefitted the NDP, whose principled opposition to the Harper government strengthened Layton’s hand going into the 2011 election.
It’s worth noting that the NDP or Bloc don’t need to actually vote for (or support) all confidence votes, as with the current seat count they can vote against them as long as they take care to arrange for enough of their members to be absent from the vote for it to pass anyway – a likely scenario until either politics or principle demand that they fully oppose the government and force an election.
What other forms of minority government can occur?
Brad: Other less likely arrangements within minority parliaments include “confidence and supply agreements” like the current situation in British Columbia, where John Horgan’s NDP government has an agreement with the Green Party outlining policies where the senior party will take action and consult with the junior party, in exchange for support. It also allows the junior party to freely oppose the government on all other issues.
Sheamus: A somewhat similar arrangement is a formal “accord” like we saw in Ontario in 1985, where Bob Rae’s NDP supported David Peterson’s Liberals with a written agreement that outlined issues of common interest that the government would work on, in exchange for a commitment to support the government for two years.
How stable will this minority parliament be?
Sheamus: As long as meaningful progress is being made on the issues that unite the progressive parties in the House of Commons, and at least one of the opposition parties wants to avoid going to the polls, then this minority parliament could be extremely stable. But it means the Liberals will need to be careful to avoid any major landmines that could trigger an election.
Brad: The NDP in particular will view this minority parliament as an opportunity to advance key policy goals and exercise a relevance beyond their seat count. New Democrats point to progress made in previous minority parliaments where they have made gains such as medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, a national housing program and funding for unemployed workers. New Democrats, particularly under Jack Layton’s leadership, positioned themselves as having made parliament work. It will take a commitment from both the Liberals and the NDP to keep this parliament humming over the coming months and years.
On what policy areas could the Liberals and NDP find common ground?
Brad: In the final days of the campaign, Jagmeet Singh outlined six policy areas that he and the NDP would work on in this upcoming parliament: pharmacare, climate action, affordable housing, student debt, cell phone bills, and taxing the wealthy.
Sheamus: Given a significant amount of common ground between these issues and the Liberal platform, I see no reason why there wouldn’t be sufficient progress in these areas to win the support of the NDP and other progressive MPs on matters of confidence.
It’s important to remember that not all decisions will be matters of confidence or require multi-party support.For example, Prime Minister Trudeau was definitive that the Liberals will move forward on the Trans Mountain pipeline in his first post-election press conference yesterday. Even though the Bloc and NDP don’t support the pipeline, the government doesn’t need new legislation to move it forward. This gives every party a helpful “out” – the NDP can continue to voice their opposition without toppling the government, and no Conservatives will need to vote with the Liberals to get the pipeline built.
What’s the bottom line with this minority Parliament at this early stage?
Brad: The Liberals will be consulting with the other parties as they develop the Throne Speech and budget in the coming weeks and months. NDP support on these confidence votes will be critical. For the opposition parties, critic roles and committee assignments will be made in the coming days. Andrew Scheer will oppose the Liberals at every turn, and the Bloc will be an unpredictable partner especially given the regional divisions we see in the country. In these circumstances, engagement with the fourth party is now more important than ever.
Sheamus: I see three new challenges facing the new Liberal government, which will announce their cabinet on November 20. The first is the need to forge consensus among progressive parties on confidence matters, as we have discussed here. Second is healing the regional rifts that have emerged in this election, especially with Alberta and Saskatchewan. And finally, the Liberals will need to be prepared to defend against new avenues of attack from opposition MPs – particularly the Conservatives – who will have new muscle via the considerable powers of Parliamentary committees. The Liberals will have their work cut out for them, but this is the fourth minority government since the Conservatives united the right in 2003 – so in many ways it’s the new normal of Canadian politics.
Brad, Sheamus, and the Counsel team are available to discuss your organization’s needs as Canada’s 43rd Parliament begins. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with our experienced consultants.