Who really leads in a minority government?

Currently, the Conservatives have a majority government with 170 seats.

SFU’s Centre for Dialogue and The Vancouver Sun co-hosted a panel to delve into what it is, exactly, that minority governments do in Canada.

The event, titled “It’s a Minority! Who Gets to Govern?” was held at Harbour Centre on Oct. 7. Prominent speakers discussed the issue of what will happen if the upcoming election results in a minority government.

Geoff Plant, a partner in a Vancouver law firm, acted as mediator between three panelists: Andrew Heard, a professor in political science at Simon Fraser University; Barbara Messamore, an associate professor in history at the University of the Fraser Valley; and Herman Bakvis, a professor at the School for Public Administration at the University of Victoria.

Plant opened the discussion by asking SFU’s Heard to speak on what a minority government is. Heard began by describing how most voters don’t quite understand how parliament works: “The idea that the largest party has won the election and therefore has a right to rule, is one that I think has been quite widely accepted by those who [study] the issues, but this is a misrepresentation.”

Heard continued, “We don’t elect a Prime Minister. We don’t even elect governments. We elect members of parliament. [. . .] And it’s those people — those 338 who go to Ottawa, it’s on their shoulders to decide who will govern.”

The rules that determine which party gets to govern are not exactly clear, and Heard explained that the issue is often solved by convention.

Said Heard, “It is often suggested that the blanket rule is the leader of the largest party has the right to form the government. This has the benefit of simplicity and the benefit of past practice.”

After Heard spoke, Messamore explained a bit about the history of minority governments in Canada. “We’ve had a number of federal minority governments in our history,” she remarked. “In fact, we had a long run [of minority governments] in 1958 between the Conservative party and the Liberal party.”

Messamore went on to cite an example of when the party that had the most votes didn’t form government. In 1925, the Liberals, under incumbent PM Mackenzie King, took second place (99 seats) to the Conservatives (116 seats), while other parties took 30 seats in a 245 seat House of Commons. Said Messamore, “Most assumed the Conservatives would form a government, but King was supported and successfully carried on governing.”

Plant then invited Bakvis to take the floor. Said Bakvis, “First, in the Canadian context, there is a lack of settled constitutional doctrine on minority government formation. There appears to be a competition between different conventions, norms, and practices.

“Second, public opinion plays a role in the behavior of political parties and decisions made by the governor general.” His remarks made clear that while a minority government is a likely result of the upcoming election, how it unfolds is a question that remains up in the air.