As I sit to write this blogpost the CBC Poll Tracker, that aggregates polls, shows that there is a seventy-five percent chance that there will be a minority Parliament following the Canadian federal election on October 21. Such a possibility necessitates that we once again remind ourselves what this means for the formation of government—before the election night “calls” erroneously state the outcome, and the spin-doctors muddy the waters.
In inevitably one or more of the news media will declare that the party with the most seats, even if not a majority, has won the election and that that party will form a government—even a minority one. This is not necessarily true, and may make the formation of a government with the required political and democratic legitimacy more difficult than necessary or appropriate.
When we go to the polls, contrary to popular belief and media commentary, we are not electing a government or a Prime Minister. We are electing a Parliament (more precisely, members to form the House of Commons in the next Parliament). From those members elected, a government will be formed, and the head of that government will be the Prime Minister. This takes place by the Governor-General inviting the person who she believes can command the confidence (i.e., support) of the House of Commons to form a government. She does this normally on the advice of the person who was Prime Minister at the time of the election.
When one party obtains a majority of seats at the election the answer as to who will enjoy the confidence of the House is clear. The leader of the party with the most seats will be called on to form the government. However, when no party wins a majority of seats, the answer is less obvious.
In the case where no party has won a majority of the seats, the person who will be called upon to form a government should be able to demonstrate that they have, or are likely to have, the confidence of the House of Commons to govern. This may be the leader of the party with the most (but not a majority) of seats. Or it may not be. It could be that the party with the second-most number of seats is more likely to have the support within the House, whereby the combined vote of these “allied” parties is greater than the vote of the leading party and its possible allies. In such a case the leader of the second party has the legitimate right, by convention, to be asked to form a government.
Following the election of a minority Parliament, it is usually the person who was Prime Minister at the election who is required to do the political math by assessing the results of the election and having discussions with the various leaders of the parties with seats in the House of Commons, in order to assess who has the most likely chance to enjoy the confidence of the House. He will then advise the Governor-General of his assessment and she will invariably accept his assessment. If there is uncertainty, it is up to the Prime Minister to decide whether he wishes to continue, that is, to test whether he and his government has the confidence of the House, or to suggest that someone else form a government and try to seek confidence.
In this way it is effectively the House of Commons that chooses the government. It may be the party with the second-most seats, with the support formally or informally of other parties or members to secure confidence. It is this support that gives the government democratic legitimacy , each member giving support having been duly elected. The second-place party will not have stolen the election result from the party with the most seats. They will not be acting undemocratically nor will they be thwarting the will of the electorate. They will be fulfilling it. It will have been the representatives, each of whom is elected separately and legitimately, that will have chosen who to support as government; bearing in mind that they can always withdraw their support, thereby requiring the government to resign and face the electorate in a new election.
Let us hope that on election night, and the days following the election that we all remember this. If there is a minority Parliament, so be it. Let the result speak for itself and let our democratic system work as it is intended. It is for the members of the House of Commons to come to terms with the result and work to put together a government that the House will support. It is not up to the “election callers”, political pundits nor the spin doctors to decide who will govern. Such pushing of opinion can only lead to doubts concerning legitimacy. Allow the House of Commons and its Members to do their job. They will have been elected legitimately and the decision that they will be required to make is both constitutional and legitimate—don’t let the media or the politicians tell you anything different.