Trudeau's Liberals have won a minority government: What now?

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau wave as they go on stage at Liberal election headquarters in Montreal, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

After a long, 40-day campaign period, the Liberal party were declared the winners of the 2019 federal election.

They managed to hold onto power by forming a minority government, but how they will lead the country as a minority party will change. What does that mean for Canadians and what challenges are ahead?

The party that holds power in the House of Commons not only has to gain a plurality of seats, they also need the full confidence of the legislature. And in a minority government scenario, that can be hard to maintain.

It’s been eight years since Canada last saw a minority government, with Stephen Harper’s second minority government lasting from 2008-2011. The issues Canadians saw last decade with multiple minority governments could rear its head again.

Here’s what you need to know about how minority governments have functioned in the past, and what Canadians can expect.

What is a minority government?

A minority government is formed when no party has the majority of the seats in the legislature. One party may have more seats than the others, but they don’t have more than all the other parties combined. Canada has a Westminster system of government that was adopted from the U.K., like many other commonwealth countries.

Starting in 2015, the number of seats in the legislature rose form 308 to 338 under a new law from Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. This means in order to gain a majority government, a party must have 170 seats or more.

If you have less than 170 seats, all the opposition parties combined have more seats than the governing party.

Liberal supports react as poll numbers come in at Liberal election headquarters in Montreal on Monday Oct. 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

How do minority governments operate?

History shows that it can be difficult to govern or gain support for new bills without a majority of seats.

Minority governments must rely on the support of other parties in order to stay in power, otherwise a vote of no-confidence will occur. A no-confidence vote indicates to Canada’s head of state (the governor general, who represents the Queen), that the legislature believes the current government is unfit to be in power.

Only one minority government has ever lasted more than four years in Canada (the 14th, under William Lyon Mackenzie King from 1921-1925), showing the unstable nature of that kind of scenario. Maintaining confidence in a minority government is a constant balancing act and involves efforts to sway other parties towards the ruling party’s mandate.

For instance, the 2006 Federal Election saw Stephen Harper form a minority Conservative government, as his party had won 124 of 308 seats in the legislature, 30 seats short of having a majority. That government was the smallest minority in Canadian history, creating a situation where all parties were in play and power was spread across the House.

In September 2008, government was dissolved and an election was called in October 2008 where the Conservatives won a minority government again, the first time in more than 40 years where a minority government was re-elected. Minority governments typically do not last as long as Harper’s initial one did.

Are there any rules surrounding how minority governments operate?

There are no formal written rules on how a minority government can behave, and that’s a problem, says Duff Conacher, co-founder of advocacy group Democracy Watch.

Stephen Harper’s minority governments from 2006 to 2011 are an indication that without rules, the governing party may be able to manipulate the opposition, he says. “Harper governed like he had a majority,” says Conacher.

Without written rules, a governing party can label any vote in the legislature as a “no confidence vote”, which may spook opposition parties into supporting the ruling party’s Bills, as they may not be ready for an election to be called. Outlining what a “no-confidence vote” is exactly could prevent this, says Conacher.

“The one party that has the most seats can govern like they have a majority, because the opposition parties don't dare vote against it,” he says, adding that Harper labeled several votes in the legislature as “no confidence votes”.

Opposition parties being in debt, especially the official opposition, may deter them from wanting an election to be called right away. That’s especially true if they have a party leader step down at any point, says Conacher.

“The NDP is likely to be in debt after this election,” says Conacher, which may put them in a position where they wouldn’t want an election to be called soon after a new party comes to power. Campaign periods before federal election often cause a spending strain on parties as they try to get the word out about their candidate and policies.

Democracy Watch issued a news release this week stating parties should agree to eight rules if a minority government is governing. Those rules could also help prevent manipulation of the Governor General’s role, which can become more pronounced during periods of minority governments, he says.

The “vagueness” of current unwritten conventions on minority governments leads a ruling party to “abuse their powers and violate the rules”, states the press release, adding that many constitutional scholars have agreed on this point. Historically, Governor Generals are not able to truly implement cheques and balances on a Prime Minister and the typically allow any requests.

Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General in 2008, infamously allowed Stephen Harper to prorogue parliament. It was a move she was heavily criticized for as it allowed Harper to skirt a no-confidence vote that would have likely led to his government being toppled.

Set rules could prevent that scenario from happening again, says Conacher.

Do opposing parties create coalitions in the event of a minority government?

A minority government can be avoided if two or more parties are willing to join together to create a coalition. In that situation, cabinet positions would be shared by members of all the parties participating in the coalition. However, coalition governments in Canada have been extremely rare, with the last federal one occurring in 1917 to 1921. A coalition was planned between the Liberals and the NDP in 2008, but it was thwarted before it became official due to Harper’s prorogation of Parliament.

But even without a formal coalition, minority governments often lead to opposition parties creating informal alliances between each other. They also often create formal legislative agreements indicating they will vote together on an issue, which has to be shown to the Governor General.

Are the current major parties willing to form coalitions?

In the week leading up to the election, Jagmeet Singh initially said he’d be “absolutely” open to forming a coalition with the Liberal party in the scenario of a Conservative minority government. But his opinion cooled in the days after Thanksgiving, stating "My focus is not on a coalition. My focus is on this: If you vote New Democrat, you're going to get someone on your side.”

Justin Trudeau also sidestepped questions about a coalition in the run-up to the election, stating "Our focus is on electing a progressive government, not a progressive opposition, and ensuring that we stop Conservative cuts.”

Now that the Liberals have won the election, it’s unclear whether other parties would even consider a coalition. Agreements between parties are common though, so with a Liberal minority we may see some unlikely alliances moving forward.

Should Canadians be concerned when it comes to minority governments?

Without guidelines, there should be some concern surrounding the election of a minority government, says Conacher.

“Canadians should be wary if the rules are not written down because then you have a government like the Harper government, having 37 per cent support, but being able to pass whatever they want,” he says.

But there are also positives when it comes to minority governments, says Jonathan Rose, an associate professor in the political science department at Queen’s University.

“Minority governments can be seen as perhaps less partisan and antagonistic, as prior to legislation being introduced, they need the support of another party,” Rose says. “Minority governments are also an opportunity for Parliament to be less dysfunctional because they mean that parliamentary agreements have to be created with each piece of legislation.”

There can also be greater accountability when a minority government is in power, as they have to work together more frequently with other parties that represent more of the Canadian electorate. “It gives more flexibility to the government,” says Rose.

Do you believe we should have more rules for minority governments? Let us know in the comments!