A Primer on Minority Governments

Minority governments such as the one Canadians elected on Monday are different. How they work is different and how you work with them should be different, too. Here’s a primer on what to expect.

Glossary

Coalition: Prime Minister Trudeau confirmed today that the Liberals would not form a coalition during this Parliament, but coalitions are an arrangement in which two or more parties share power, usually involving Cabinet positions for each party involved. These are commonplace in many European countries and New Zealand with proportional voting systems. Canada’s most recent coalition government was during World War One.

Formal arrangement: These can take different forms, but they generally mean a larger party is supported by one or more smaller parties for a set period of time. The current British Columbia government is a good example. The Greens have agreed to support the governing NDP for four years on any vote, like a budget, that would trigger an election if lost by the government. But they are not obliged to support everything the government does. Ontario was governed by something similar between 1985-87 with Premier David Peterson.

Ad hoc or vote-by-vote: In some cases, minority governments have no agreement among any parties. The government operates on a vote-by-vote basis. Stephen Harper’s two minority governments, 2006-08 and 2008-11, worked this way. It’s the most unpredictable form of minority government and usually leads to the most frequent elections. This will be the scenario for the new Parliament.

Balance of power: If a smaller party is able to help a larger party control a majority of MPs, the smaller party has what’s known as a balance of power. In some cases, such as this Parliament, more than one party can hold a balance of power as both the Bloc Québécois and New Democrats do now.

Key Points

In Canada, minority governments are almost always more left-leaning than majority Conservative or Liberal governments would be. This is because the smaller parties likely hold a balance of power—most commonly the NDP, but in some circumstances the Bloc Québécois or the Greens—all to the left of the two larger parties. In this Parliament, all of the parties likely to support the Liberals on major pieces of legislation—the Bloc, NDP, and Greens—are found to the Liberals’ left.

1. Minority governments think in shorter timeframes

Almost all minority governments throw four-year election cycles out the window. Especially in ad hoc situations, these are replaced by shortterm thinking often driven by public opinion. Market research (polling), media profile, and digital presence become more important in minority situations than they are in majority situations. Sometimes, legislation can proceed much faster. Given the Liberals’ large seat count and the internal needs of both the Bloc—which won official party status for the first time in three elections and the NDP—which is heavily in debt—this minority Parliament may last for longer than usual.

2. More voices matter

In minority situations, less is taken for granted. Votes aren’t always guaranteed to pass and so the votes of government backbench MPs and opposition MPs often taken for granted during majorities become much more important. Even independent MPs can be vital. The more involved in a governing arrangement opposition or independent MPs are, the more their voices count. In addition, the Senate often plays a larger role during minorities than at other times.

3. Traditional power structures get weaker

If some voices matter more, the corollary is that other voices matter less. This is most true for a highly centralized Prime Minister’s Office. But it also affects other traditionally powerful voices, such as the public service which can become paralyzed and confused as more cooks enter the kitchen. As a consequence, government relations become broader with more points of entry.

4. Process rules

Things often given short shrift during majority situations matter more when there’s a minority, such as committees. No longer dancing to the PMO’s tune, their outcomes become more unpredictable, and therefore more open to change. First drafts of legislation are more likely not to be the last; in 2005, a minority Parliament changed the budget after it had passed. And scandals become more likely to erupt as majority governments lose their ability to keep investigations in-check.

5. Allegiances change

It’s said politics make for strange bedfellows. If that’s true, minorities often become a swingers’ club. Parties can vote with the government one day only to vote against the next. And sometimes, the two parties that get things passed are the two largest parties—this was the case in British Columbia recently on a natural gas development vote. In Ottawa, the Conservatives and Liberals voted together to pass corporate tax cuts during Paul Martin’s minority government of 2004-06, and on issues such as USMCA or pipelines, it’s quite conceivable they could again.

Take Away

Minority governments, including the one the 2019 election produced, change government relations. They make speaking to more parties crucial and they make influencing policy in public more important—in the media, in the digital world, and with stakeholders. They also make being nimble essential as dynamics and circumstances change, especially where the government is living vote-by-vote and could fall almost any day. But while they complicate how things are often done, they have also led to some of Canada’s most enduring policy changes.