Well, the parties are off and running and an election is on its way. As part of this, there has been a lot of talk about “coalitions”. A lot of that talk seems to imply that a coalition is a bad thing, or an unusual thing, or a scary thing. In truth, none of these things are true in and of themselves. A coalition is a normal part of our parliamentary system. Sometimes, it can even be a good thing. Let’s discuss.
The question of who forms the Canadian “government” at any given time is a question of how our members of parliament organize themselves: it can be a majority government, a minority government, or a coalition. When Canadians vote in a general election, they do not vote for a Prime Minister, nor do they vote for a government. Instead, Canadians vote for a member of parliament (“MP”) to represent their riding. This is integral to the system. In fact, the Constitution Act 1867 does not mention the prime minister or political parties – the focus in on MPs. Each MP gets a “seat” in the House of Commons. Currently, in all, 308 MPs are chosen. How MPs organize themselves is entirely up to them. This is why MPs are able to sit as independents. In fact, it is possible for there to be 308 independents. It just so happens, however, that most MPs have organized themselves into groupings known as parties. This simplifies the process of forming government, but it does not change the constitutional emphasis on individual MPs.
Once all of the MPs are elected, the Prime Minister (“PM”) is actually appointed by the Governor General (“GG”). The GG is the representative of the Queen, who, technically, is Canada’s head of state (in other words, the PM is not the head of state). The Prime Minister then chooses from among the MPs to appoint the members of the Cabinet. Once this is all organized, there is just one basic requirement: the government must at all times enjoy the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons. In other words, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet can only remain as the “government” of Canada for as long as they have the support of a majority of the MPs.
If the majority of MPs are from one political party, the government is said to be a “majority” government. In such a case, it is generally expected that government will at all times enjoy the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons. To help this process, the GG generally appoints as PM the leader of the political party that controls more than half of the seats in the House. However, when there is a “free vote” (a vote where MPs do not have to toe any party lines), it is still possible – even in a majority – for the government to lose the confidence of the majority. That would normally trigger an election.
If no party has the majority of seats there is, instead, more than one potential government. In such a case, the GG has to choose as the Prime Minister the Minister that is most likely to be able to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. In such a case, it is usually the leader of the political party who has the largest number of seats in the House (even though that number is not a majority). This is called a minority government. This is what occurred, among many other times, in 1921 (King), 1962 (Diefenbaker), 1965 (Pearson), 1972 (Trudeau), 1979 (Clark), 2004 (Martin) and most recently, in 2006 and 2008 when Stephen Harper was chosen as the leader. However, creating a minority government is not the only option. It is also possible for more than one party to formally partner together to create a larger number of MPs. This is known as coalition. In other words, a coalition government is a government with cabinet ministers from more than one party. This has occurred in Canada on the federal level (1864-1867 and 1917-1920), at the provincial level (for example in Manitoba in1940, in Ontario in 1985, and in Saskatchewan in 1985). It happens in other countries, too (for example: Germany, Ireland and Switzerland).
In all of this, there is one thing that remains constant: both a minority government and a coalition government need the support (be it formal or informal) of at least more than one party to do any work, because in both cases no one party has a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The only difference, really, is that in a “coalition”, the support is in the form of a formal agreement. In a minority government, on the other hand, the support occurs on a vote by vote basis (sometimes one party votes with the minority, sometimes a different one, sometimes all of them). In other words, anytime and every time there is a minority government, there are coalitions of sorts, because, by definition, a minority government cannot win any vote unless it has the support of MPs from other parties. And, on any confidence vote, if there is not a majority, the government falls. That is just how the math works. And that is what Canada’s current minority government has been doing since 2006: every piece of legislation that was passed in the House of Commons since 2006 (over 135 of them!) also had the votes of non-conservative MPs.
What can we take from this?
- “Coalitions” (be they formal or informal) happen.
- They have happened on numerous occasions (and to some of the biggest names in Canadian political history).
- They have been successful on numerous occasions.
- They are neither good nor bad per se.
- They can serve a very real purpose of essentially forcing generally opposing parties to work together.
- The current government has engaged in them (seeking and getting the support of all of the other parties, depending on the issue).
- The current government has used the concept to do its work (example: over 135 bills were passed).
Result: coalitions are not to be feared. They are just part of our parliamentary system, like a lot of other things.
So, instead of worrying about coalitions in and of themselves, go look into the issues that matter to you. And be sure to vote. Voting is also part of our system – and nothing works without that! Citizens of other countries are literally fighting to the death for democracy. We already have one. Let’s make the most of it!
For more information, see the following articles.