The Globe and Mail has published a piece by John Ibbitson on what a hung parliament in Canada might look like given the recent polls showing a three-way race in the federal election this fall. Mr. Ibbitson presented a group of academics with five scenarios to discuss. My own responses are presented at length at the end.
Five ways a hung Parliament could swing in October
Imagine this: A cold grey dawn greets the country on the morning of Oct. 20. After counts that go late into the night, it is clear that the general election of the day before has produced a hung Parliament, with no party able to command a majority of seats in the House of Commons. It turns out that the three-way race among the Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals that emerged in late May, five months before the election, continued right up to voting day.
So what happens next?
Canadians have plenty of experience with minority governments, including two led by Stephen Harper and one by his predecessor, Paul Martin. But in 2008, the opposition parties tried unsuccessfully to create a coalition in order to unseat the Conservatives. After 10 years of Conservative government, voters opposed to Stephen Harper will be pushing the other parties to do whatever it takes to ensure he is no longer prime minister. And a genuine three-way race? We’ve never had anything like that before.
But who would replace Mr. Harper: Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair? Would there be a conventional minority, or a coalition in which both parties are represented in cabinet? And would the two leaders agree to co-operate, even if the Conservatives win the most seats? The possibilities are endless.
We crafted five election-day scenarios, and consulted political scientists from across Canada on what they felt would be the most likely outcome.
Seats in House of Commons: 338
Number needed for majority: 170
What if the Conservatives have the most seats?
1. STRONG TORY PLURALITY, LIBERALS IN SECOND
In the past, such an outcome would produce a Conservative minority government, which would govern on a bill-by-bill basis with the support of at least one other major party. Since the Second World War, John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and Mr. Harper have all led minority governments.
But as Cristine de Clercy of Western University points out, “the government of the day forms on the floor of the Commons, rather than being ‘selected’ by voters.” Given the deep animosity that many non-Conservative voters feel toward Mr. Harper, Associate Professor de Clercy predicts, “absolutely the Liberals would try to govern with the minority support of the NDP.”
She does not believe the two parties would unite in a coalition government as the U.K.’s Conservatives and Liberals Democrats did in 2010. (The result was a majority Conservative government in the May election, with the Lib Dems virtually eliminated from the House.)
Richard Johnston, of the University of British Columbia, believes that to make a Liberal minority government “look like anything other than a naked power grab they would have to have an agreement” with the NDP on a set of policies and priorities. Bob Rae, then leader of the Ontario NDP, reached such an accord with David Peterson’s second-place Liberals in 1985. The accord provided two years of stable Liberal minority government.
While there might be no formal coalition, Prof. Johnston believes Mr. Mulcair would only grant confidence to a Liberal government led by Mr. Trudeau in exchange for a series of commitments, such as enacting the NDP’s proposed national $15-a-day daycare plan.
Allen Mills of the University of Winnipeg says that, if the Conservatives won the most seats, Mr. Harper would tell Governor-General David Johnston that he intended to form a government and that he would meet the House. If the Liberals and NDP combined to defeat the government on its Speech from the Throne, then “the Governor-General would have an obligation to see if the Liberals and NDP would form a formal or informal coalition,” he says.
The University of Alberta’s Julián Castro-Rea, however, observes that Mr. Harper has a proven record of asserting iron control over his caucus, and of co-opting opposition parties on a vote-by-vote basis. “The Conservatives will never let the Liberals or the NDP form an alternative government, and for that matter these parties would not even try,” Associate Professor Castro-Rea says. Both opposition parties would instead conclude that bringing down a Conservative minority government before it has chance to govern would render them deeply unpopular.
2. STRONG TORY PLURALITY, NDP IN SECOND
Maxwell Cameron at UBC believes that a second-place finish for the NDP could be good news for the Conservatives. “The Liberals would face a dilemma,” he says. “It would be one thing to bring down the government in a motion of non-confidence in order to form a minority government, and another to do it so the NDP could form government or to govern in coalition with the Liberals.”
The words “Prime Minister Thomas Mulcair” could be fatal to Mr. Trudeau’s leadership of the Liberals, and to the party itself. Under the circumstances, Prof. Cameron believes that the Liberals might prefer to prop up the Conservatives for 18 to 24 months, before bringing down the government and forcing an election at a time of the Liberals’ choosing.
For Associate Professor DeClercy, however, “I fully expect the NDP would aim to govern with minority Liberal support.” The imperative among progressives to end Mr. Harper’s reign as prime minister would, she believes, trump all other considerations.
3. WEAK TORY PLURALITY
For Daniel Weinstock of McGill University, three variables determine the outcome of a hung Parliament: How far ahead the leading party is; how close the second and third parties are to each other in terms of seats; and how close the second and third parties are to each other ideologically.
Prof. Weinstock believes that constitutional convention requires the Governor-General to ask any party with a large plurality of seats to form a government. However, “I don’t think that the G-G would be bound in the same way if the three parties are very close to one another, both in numbers of seats and in share of the popular vote,” he maintains.
This is crucial. When Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton tried to oust the Conservatives with the support of the Bloc Québécois in 2008, the proposed coalition was deeply unpopular with voters, who couldn’t believe that Mr. Dion was about to become prime minister even though he’d been thumped in the election. The 1985 Liberal/NDP accord in Ontario, by contrast, was popular in part because the Liberals had come very close to winning more seats than the Conservatives. It appears that, in the minds of voters at least, the closer the second-place party is to the first-place party, the more legitimate it becomes as an alternative government.
If the result is close on Oct. 19, and the opposition parties combined to defeat the Conservative government on its Throne Speech, then “there would be even more of an obligation on the Governor-General to entertain a coalition government” under the leadership of whichever party had the second-highest number of seats, Prof. Mills believes.
Not everyone agrees. “Stephen Harper’s vicious attacks in the fall of 2008 targeting the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition, supported by the Bloc Québécois, gave coalitions a bad press, and a whiff of illegitimacy and violation of democratic standards,” maintains Associate Professor Castro-Rea. “The parties, and arguably the public, are not used to shared governments; they prefer the winner-takes-all approach. So whatever the results of the next federal election are, I would exclude the possibility of a formal coalition of any kind.”
In any case, he believes that the Conservatives would form a government no matter how narrow their plurality, by dividing and conquering the opposition.
What if the Liberals have the most seats?
4. WEAK LIBERAL PLURALITY
“Liberal minority government,” predicts Jennifer Smith, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax. If the Liberals win more seats than the Conservatives, they are certain to form a government, if only because, as Prof. Weinstock puts it, “it seems unlikely that the Conservatives and the NDP would be able to collaborate to either unseat the government or to participate in a coalition.”
This is why, for Prof. Weinstock, the ideologically compatability of the opposition parties, or the lack of it, is so important.
Would the Liberals seek to form a coalition with the NDP, in order to ensure four years of stable government? Mr. Trudeau has ruled that out, and in any case, most of those polled agreed that the NDP would be reluctant to enter such a coalition. “Coalitions are stinko in Canada,” says Prof. Smith. There hasn’t been one since the Unionist government of Conservatives and breakaway Liberals under Robert Borden in 1917, she points out, and “the recent coalition attempt in 2008 wound up being subject to ridicule.” Not only did the British Liberal Democrats suffer badly after their coalition with the Conservatives, but Bob Rae’s NDP suffered after its two-year accord with the Liberals, returning as a weakened opposition facing Mr. Peterson’s majority Liberal government.
But, as mentioned in the first scenario, the NDP might require a Liberal government to enact certain NDP priorities in exchange for any vote of confidence.
What if the NDP have the most seats?
5. WEAK NDP PLURALITY
This is a scenario few had considered until very recently. But with Rachel Notley’s win in Alberta, with the NDP trending upward in the polls, and with voters in those polls identifying Mr. Mulcair as a leader they like and trust, an NDP plurality is now increasingly possible.
In which case, what would Justin Trudeau do? He would be under great pressure to support an NDP minority government, or perhaps even to discuss the possibility of coalition, in order to keep the Conservatives from power. But as we have previously observed, if the federal NDP forms a government, the Liberals’ very existence could be at stake.
Prof. Cameron believes that “the most natural outcome would be an NDP minority government. The Liberals would avoid entering into a coalition because minor coalition partners tend not to fare well in subsequent elections. They can position themselves to ensure the NDP governs ‘responsibly’ and wait for the right moment to go back to the voters.”
Prof. Smith agrees. “The Liberal versus NDP rivalry is too intense at this point to make for promising coalition talks. Plus, the NDP would have the wind at its back. Why squander momentum to form a coalition government, itself not a Canadian tradition?
Associate Professor Castro-Rea speculates that “perhaps the NDP leader would be forced to include one or two Liberals in the Cabinet. If the deal fails, the NDP will try to govern as a minority, but the experiment will not last long.” Voters could be back at the polls within a year.
Prof. Weinstock believes that in such a situation Mr. Harper would certainly step down, and then “the joker is whether he is replaced by a leader more – rather than less – ideologically attuned to the Liberals.” A moderate Conservative leader could co-operate with the Liberals in bringing down an NDP government. But facing a Stephen Harper 2.0, the Liberals would have little choice but to prop up the NDP.
Prof. Mills wonders whether the Liberals might back the Conservatives in any case, rather than see the NDP take power. “Justin might be so pissed off with Tom that he will support Steve!”
As we said, the possibilities are endless.
Graphics by Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail
See my complete response to Mr. Ibbitson:
The first point to make about the legitimacy of a Liberal government is an obvious one, but not well understood by many voters. In a parliamentary system, governments are formed by the party that commands the confidence of the House; elections are not necessarily won by the party with the most votes. The Conservatives would be likely to insist that the Liberals and the NDP are stealing the election and it is undemocratic to form a government without the largest party. Such claims are specious, but likely to prove persuasive to some voters. If the Liberals decide to form a minority government, it will be critical to avoid the mistakes that led to prorogation in 2009: they must call a vote of non-confidence at the first opportunity.
Trudeau has indicated that he will not enter a coalition with the NDP (“I’m unequivocally opposed to any sort of coalition”), so the likely outcome would be a minority government. The Liberals with NDP support would have to persuade voters that they are capable of representing a broader and more stable majority in government than the Conservatives could offer. The NDP would certainly prefer a Liberal minority over a Conservative one, and so would likely play along.
The difference between SCENARIO ONE and TWO is that there is especially strong “anyone but Harper” sentiment within the NDP, so there is little doubt that the NDP would seek Liberal support (either supply and confidence or a coalition) to bring down the Conservatives. Mulcair has expressed willingness to entertain a coalition. The Liberals, however, face a dilemma. It would be one thing to bring down the government in a motion of non-confidence in order to form a minority government, and another to do it so the NDP could form government or to govern in coalition with the NDP. The experience of the LibDems in the UK is a cautionary tale for minor coalition players. The advantage of coalition over minority is mainly sharing in the perks of power; the risk is sharing responsibility for political mistakes.
The Liberals could decide they are neither ready to form government under these circumstances nor prepared to accept the blame for creating the first NDP federal government. Suppose Harper steps down and a new interim leader is chosen. Under these circumstances, the Liberals might decide to give stability to a Conservative government for 12 to 18 months and then go back to the electorate at a time of their choosing.
Militating against Liberal support for a continuation of Conservative government, however, is both the unhappy experience of 2006-2011 that Richard Johnston mentions, and the fact that the Conservatives are unattractive dance partners. To a degree unseen previously in Canada, the Conservatives have governed with an exclusive concern for their base. As a result, parliament has become an increasingly dysfunctional institution. Between omnibus bills, repeated use of closure, stifling of committees, the refusal to accept amendments to bills, and constant attacks on the other parties, the Conservatives have made themselves toxic beyond their base.
SCENARIO THREE. A narrower lead takes the sting out of the argument that it is undemocratic for the “losers” to bring down the “winner.” It also makes it more plausible that Harper would resign (though the experience of 2009 could persuade him to wait and see if a Liberal-NDP agreement sticks).
SCENARIO FOUR. There would be an expectation that the Liberals would be invited to form government, without the (specious) legitimacy issues arising in the above scenarios. Again, Trudeau has said he would not form a coalition and I think he would hold to that in this scenario. Ironically, the “anyone but Harper” sentiment in the NDP would make them likely to support the Liberals, which weakens their leverage in terms of demanding perks and policies in return for support. That said, they might seek agreement on some core policy issues (e.g. electoral reform).
SCENARIO FIVE. Here, again, I think the most natural outcome would be an NDP minority government. The Liberals would avoid entering into a coalition because minor coalition partners tend not to fare well in subsequent elections. They can position themselves to ensure the NDP governs responsibly and wait for the right moment to go back to the voters.
— Max Cameron