What if No One Wins?

By Donovan Makus

With a little under a month left in the Federal Election, we’re still facing a competitive race. While many of the 338 seats in Parliament are safe seats, electing the same party repeatedly, enough seats hang in the balance that no single party has a clear path to the 170 seats required for a majority government. With the probability of the Liberals winning a majority fluctuating between 60-30%, the odds of a minority government, likely Liberal, but potentially Conservative, is looking to be probable. Canada once again faces the probability of returning to what is sometimes called a “Hung Parliament,” one where no single party holds the balance of party, or 170 seats. What does this mean for us, and where would a minority government be headed?   

The largest party traditionally has the first opportunity to form government, and will become the official Government of Canada, filling cabinet and political appointee roles with their Members. From the surface, everything will appear largely the same as if the winning party had a majority. However, despite occupying the executive branch of government, with the same titles as a majority government, minority governments have a large impact on how government runs. It’s useful to contrast them to majority governments. Majority governments have few administrative checks on their power. They can change legislation and regulations, unconcerned with needing to write legislation their opponents will support. The only check on their power is widespread public outrage, which may or may not be effective. While the opposition can stall or engage in procedural maneuvers, forcing overnight legislative sessions and aggravating the government, a majority government has few checks on its power. Only the courts can serve as a check on the power wielded by a strong majority government, and only in cases where the government acts in a manner where it oversteps the boundaries of the law. It’s no surprise that all major political parties aspire to win majorities, free to legislate and govern according to their platform and agenda for the next 4 years relatively unhindered by opposition. 

This brings us to the minority government. After the joy of winning on election night fades, the party leadership is faced with a difficult scenario of trying to govern effectively after a heated campaign, with less than a plurality of seats. There are several approaches they can take: they could reach out to other parties to try and reach the required number of seats to govern effectively, forming either an actual or pseudo coalition. Coalition governments, while rare in Canada, are more common worldwide. In many countries with proportional representation such as Germany, Israel, and Switzerland, it’s nearly impossible to not have coalition governments. Another option, if they are very close to having a plurality, is to target opposition or independent legislators with a recruitment pitch and try to have them “cross the floor” to join the governing party. A final option is to try to govern without a permanent coalition, and instead work carefully on individual pieces of legislation with the opposition parties. This model requires significant work and may leave the ruling party vulnerable to being outvoted, creating a difficult environment. It’s no surprise, given how uncertain these scenarios seem to be, that Canadian minority governments tend not to last for the full 4 years a traditional majority government spans. 

As with any aspect of politics, minority governments bring advantages and disadvantages. Minority governments are theoretically more responsive to constituent concerns, as the government is more vulnerable to non-confidence votes. This has a downside, however; governments may be risk averse, and when governments need to take decisive action, they may be paralyzed. A typical coalition often also sees smaller parties hold the balance of parties, even if the larger party holds more seats. If you need 50 seats to have a majority, your party has 45 seats, and your partners 10, their seats matter more than your seats since you can rely on your own members, but not theirs. This victory for smaller parties is excellent if you support the minor partner’s vision and platform but raises questions on the democracy of having a party that is often at the back of the election results, holding the balance of power. 

While the impact of our votes in Alberta is unlikely to have a large impact on a federal election that is usually decided before hitting the Ontario-Manitoba border, with the notable exception of a few downtown Edmonton ridings, it’s worth understanding the significance of minority governments. It’s easy, particularly in federal politics, to see politics as a distant enterprise, the purview of lawyers in distant capitals. This is even easier in minority governments, with all the constant politicking needed to keep the government afloat. Yet, as tired a message it may be, repeated each election, this attitude misses the importance of participating in elections and other forms of democracy. We have a freedom here to participate in politics that is rare both in history and worldwide, and we should use it to our full potential.

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