With public opinion poll results bouncing all over the place, we have been asked what would happen if a single political party fails to win a parliamentary majority on June 12th. While it is impossible at time of writing to predict what the election result will be, what we do know is that, as the incumbent Premier of Ontario, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne will enjoy the right to face the Legislature and seek its confidence. Her right takes precedence over that of any other party leader, including if the Liberals have not won a majority – or even a plurality – of the seats. On the chance that one of the three major political parties does not attain a majority of the Legislature’s seats, we thought now would serve as a good opportunity to review how minority parliaments function in the Westminster model, starting with two principles that underpin our system:
- Voters elect a parliament (or legislature) – they do not elect a government; and
- A government is one that can obtain and maintain the confidence (support) of a majority of the legislature’s members
When a party wins a majority of the Legislature’s seats, all of this is very straightforward. When no single party wins a majority of seats, however, parliamentary parties have the right to work together, explicitly or implicitly, in order to form a government. Minority governments can take the form of: a coalition government, where members from two (or more) parliamentary parties form a government together; an accord, a formal agreement between two (or more) parties stating that one party will support the other party as government as long as certain conditions are met and often for a specified period of time; or a situation whereby one parliamentary party will serve as government and be supported on an ad hoc basis by another parliamentary party (or parties).
Role of the Lieutenant Governor
As the official representative of The Queen and the province’s de facto head of state, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (LG) can play an important role in ensuring the formation of government. In preparation for such a possibility, the LG surrounds himself with an informal collection of constitutional advisers who are prepared to provide him with confidential advice rapidly should it be necessary. The sitting Premier, however, always serves as his primary constitutional adviser. Traditionally, the LG exercises the right “to advise, encourage, or warn” the Head of Government (the sitting Premier), but there have been exceptionally rare instances in Canadian and Commonwealth history when the viceroy has not accepted the Head of Government’s advice (e.g., the King–Byng affair). Should no party obtain a majority parliament on June 12th, four cases could provide useful context for what might subsequently occur:
- 2011 Ontario Election
In Ontario’s 2011 general election, the Liberals fell one seat short of a majority parliament. As the sitting Premier, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty was afforded the first opportunity to try to form a government, which he managed to do without forming a coalition government or negotiating a formal agreement with another party. The Liberals were subsequently supported on an ad hoc basis by the New Democrats on confidence measures in the Legislature until NDP Leader Andrea Horwath announced her intention to oppose the 2014 Budget (an automatic confidence measure). As a result, McGuinty’s successor as Premier, Kathleen Wynne, asked the Lieutenant Governor in early May 2014 to dissolve Parliament and issue a writ of election.
- 2010 UK Election
In the United Kingdom’s 2010 general election, the Conservative Party fell 20 seats short of a parliamentary majority, but obtained a plurality of the seats. The incumbent Labour Party came in second, and the Liberal Democrats a distant third. The result was a “hung parliament.” After five days of negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and both the Conservatives and Labour, an agreement resulting in a coalition government was reached between the party with the most seats, the Conservatives, and the party with the third-most seats, the Liberal Democrats. The coalition government included both Conservative and Liberal Democrat members as Ministers of the Crown. Only when it was clear that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was about to be formed did Labour Leader Gordon Brown resign as Prime Minister.
- Aftermath of the 2008 Federal Election
Following the 2008 federal election in Canada, interim Liberal Party Leader Stéphane Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton reached a deal to topple the incumbent Conservative government – which had recently obtained a plurality of the seats in Parliament but not a majority – and form a minority coalition government, with support from the Bloc Québécois. The accord between the Liberals and New Democrats would have resulted in a 24-person cabinet featuring a Liberal Prime Minister, a Liberal Finance Minister, 16 other Liberal Ministers, and 6 NDP Ministers. The Bloc would not have served in the new government, but agreed to support it on confidence measures until at least June 2010. The Conservatives responded forcefully to the opposition parties’ plan, accusing them of an “undemocratic seizure of power,” and quickly launched a broadcast ad campaign in defence of their minority government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the Governor General, and asked her to prorogue Parliament. After consulting with the Prime Minister and her other constitutional advisors, the Governor General granted Harper’s request to prorogue parliament and delay a vote of no confidence until the new year. (The Governor General’s other options might have included dissolving parliament and issuing a writ of election, or commissioning Dion to form a government.) Subsequently, the Liberals selected a new Leader who distanced his party from the coalition.
- 1985 Ontario Election
As a result of Ontario’s general election on May 2, 1985, the incumbent PCs under Premier Frank Miller won 52 of the Legislature’s 125 seats with 37% of the popular vote, David Peterson’s Liberals won 48 seats with 37.9% of the popular vote, and Bob Rae’s New Democrats won 25 seats with 23.8% of the popular vote. The Liberals subsequently negotiated an accord with the NDP. (A copy of the original accord may be found here.) Miller, who had succeeded Bill Davis as Premier on February 8, 1985, was given the first opportunity to form a government, and held on as Premier until eight days after the PCs lost a motion of no confidence on June 18, 1985. Under the two-year accord, the Liberals agreed to pass a number of NDP priorities, and not to call an election during that period. In exchange, the New Democrats agreed to introduce a motion in the House expressing non-confidence in the Miller Government, and to support the incoming Liberal government on confidence measures for two years.