So what happens after the votes are counted, the winners and losers declared, the seats assigned in the House of Commons?
Depending on the outcome of today’s federal election, Canadians could be in for weeks or months of political intrigue on Parliament Hill, during which the principles and provisions of the country’s constitutional monarchy -which ultimately determine how governments form and fall -take centre stage.
There are notable precedents for some of the scenarios laid below.
What if one party wins a clear majority?
This is a relatively straightforward scenario (consider Jean Chrétien, 1993; John Diefenbaker, 1958; Brian Mulroney, 1984). Any party that takes 155 or more of the 308 seats in the current Parliament -in other words, at least 50 per cent plus one -is assured the ongoing “confidence of the House.”
The head of a majority government would, in all likelihood, recall Parliament promptly to deliver a throne speech and budget that would be sure to win approval because the opposition is, quite simply, outnumbered.
Are all majorities the same?
Yes and no. Constitutional scholar Peter Russell, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Toronto, distinguishes between “true majority” governments -which control a majority of seats in Parliament after winning a majority of the popular vote in an election (Mulroney, 1984; Diefenbaker, 1958; Mackenzie King, 1940) -and “false majority” governments. The “false” majority, common to Canada and other countries with a multiparty political system, is defined as a government that controls a majority of seats in Parliament after winning less than 50 per cent of the popular vote (Chretien, 1997; Mulroney, 1988; Trudeau, 1980).
What if no single party holds a majority of seats?
This is where things get more complicated, more controversial and less predictable.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Conservative leader Stephen Harper will remain Canada’s prime minister.
But the leader of the party that wins the most seats -whether Harper or someone else -will “meet the House” to determine who can command support from a majority of MPs (which, in a minority Parliament, automatically means attracting votes from at least one other party).
The first-place party could try to secure “ad hoc” or “case-by-case” support from one of the smaller parties -typically in exchange for policy initiatives championed by or at least acceptable to the supporting party -to reach the 155-seat threshold needed to control government and pass legislation. (Paul Martin, 2004; Stephen Harper, 2006).
The first-place party could also seek a more formal arrangement, such as a coalition (Liberal-backed Saskatchewan NDP government of Roy Romanow, 1999), or a legislative accord -a “commitment to support” understanding -to create a sturdier arrangement guaranteeing the confidence of the House for a period of time (NDP-backed Liberal governments of Pierre Trudeau, 1972 and Lester Pearson, 1963.)
In a typical coalition, the leader of the larger party becomes prime minister and members of all parties participating in the coalition -which would still maintain their separate identities -hold positions in cabinet. In looser arrangements, only members of the first-place party form cabinet.
Finally, if the first-place party has close to 155 seats (or whatever makes a majority in a given legislature), it could try to persuade individual MPs from other parties to support its programs, attain the majority threshold needed and thus avoid losing a confidence vote (Paul Martin, 2005, in a budget backed by the NDP, ex-Conservative MP Belinda Stronach and Independent MP Chuck Cadman.)
What could trigger the fall of a minority government?
Typically, the leader of the firstplace party in a minority government will get the first chance to win the confidence of the House and try to implement a policy program. A throne speech or budget would be put to a vote. If the leading party can muster 155 or more votes from its own caucus plus at least one other caucus, it will continue governing and implementing its proposed measures. But if it loses a vote of confidence -typically one involving major public expenditures -the government is defeated (Joe Clark, 1979).
What happens if the first-place party can’t win or sustain the confidence of the House?
The party’s leader meets with the Governor General to formally report the government’s defeat in Parliament. That leader could request a new federal election, often with hopes that Canadians will disapprove of the government’s defeat and give the first-place party a stronger mandate -perhaps a majority -in a new nationwide vote (Clark, 1979; Harper, 2011).
What if the Governor General doesn’t immediately grant a new election?
Then hold onto your hat. This is where various minority-government scenarios -potentially controversial but constitutionally legitimate, according to scholars -come into play.
The Governor General could meet with the leader of the party with the second-highest number of seats to determine if that leader can -with support from one or more other parties -present a governing platform that would attract the confidence of the House and avert a new federal election.
What option is available to a second-place party to secure the confidence of the House?
A second-place leader could try to work with another leader to construct a formal coalition or “coalition-plus” arrangement to take the reins of government (which was unsuccessfully attempted by Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and the NDP’s Jack Layton in 2008, with support from Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe).
In this scenario -hotly debated during the current election campaign -two or more parties could combine their seat power in Parliament to achieve the 155-vote threshold needed to govern. The Governor General could make approval of a coalition contingent upon the parties involved agreeing publicly to a detailed policy platform and to a specified time period during which the “junior partner” and other participating parties agree not to defeat the government.