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Ontario Election: What happens if no party wins a majority of seats?

So what happens if neither Doug Ford nor Andrea Horwath win a majority government but simply a plurality of seats?

We know that the Ontario Liberals and Premier Kathleen Wynne have already signaled that they have no hope of winning government on June 7.  However, it is feasible that should she win enough seats, she could hold the balance of power in a minority government.

Let’s take a look at how one governs if the PCs or the NDP do not win a majority on election night, 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.  The current Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, will no doubt have prepared for such a possibility.  In such a case, the LG surrounds herself with an informal collection of constitutional advisers who are prepared to provide her with confidential advice rapidly should it be necessary, and may have already sought advice from around the Commonwealth.

The sitting Premier, however, always serves as her primary constitutional adviser (and even after election night, Kathleen Wynne will remain Premier until a new government is sworn-in). 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 neither the PCs nor the NDP obtain a majority parliament on June 7th, five cases could provide useful context for what might subsequently occur:

2017 British Columbia Election

On May 9 of last year, Premier Christy Clark’s BC Liberals won a narrow plurality of 43 seats, while John Horgan and the NDP won 41 seats, and the Green Party under Andrew Weaver won 3 seats.  As the sitting Premier, Clark had the right to test the confidence of the legislature, even after the NDP and Greens entered into a confidence and supply agreement.

After recalling the legislature with a Speech from the Throne on June 22, Clark and the Liberals were defeated on a confidence vote in the legislature on June 29.  Later that day, Clark asked the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the legislature and call a new election with the advice that because the results were so narrow, only an election could bring a clear result to BC.  The Lieutenant Governor declined Clark’s request and asked the NDP’s John Horgan to form a minority government, which continues to sit today.

2017 UK Election

In April 2017 Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election after having become Prime Minister in June of 2016, when David Cameron resigned having lost the Brexit referendum.  (It should be noted that Cameron won a majority government just a year before that in May of 2015 and under UK fixed-term election law, a general election was not due until May of 2020).  While May entered on a strong footing, a disastrous campaign ending on June 8 resulted in a loss of 13 seats for the Conservatives and a gain of 30 for Labour, resulting in a “hung parliament”.

With Liberal Democrats unwilling to prop up the May Conservatives, and very few other options remaining for her to continue as Prime Minister, she had to negotiate a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, signed on June 26.  This cobbled together 327 seats in a 650 seat Parliament, allowing Prime Minister May the chance to govern in a minority Parliament.

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.

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.

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