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Government Formation in Canada: An Introduction

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

By Max Christie

If you watch the news coverage for any given Canadian election, you will hear the anchors announce the winners as the party obtaining the highest number of seats in the House of Commons. However, Canada functions as a parliamentary democracy, meaning that there are several quirks that make the process of determining who “wins” an election a little less straightforward.

In order to understand how a government is formed in a parliamentary democracy, you must first understand the concept of confidence. For a government to govern, it must retain what is referred to as “the confidence of the House,” meaning a majority of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons must approve of the government in power (1). This comes in the form of “motions of confidence,” which are specific bills and motions that, if defeated, also result in the defeat of the government itself (1). If a government cannot retain the confidence of the House, it cannot remain as a government (1). This is the main reason why elections may happen sooner than every four years, as re-election is needed when a government is defeated.

If a government does have the support of a majority of the house, it is referred to as a “majority government,” and is usually the most favourable situation for the party in power. This means that all members of the cabinet come from the same party and that the party in power can often make decisions without consultation. This system will work unless the party in power’s own members defect, a situation which has never happened in Canadian History (2, 3).

But what if no party wins a majority? Of the 43 Canadian parliaments since 1867, 19 have not had a party form a majority government (4). In a situation like this, there are two possible outcomes. First, there could be what is referred to as a “minority government,” where all cabinet ministers still come from the same party, but that party must find support from other groups on a vote-by-vote basis in order to stay in power (5). This is the situation of the current parliament as well as most of the 2000s; however, this structure tends to be unstable due to the threat of a vote of no confidence, whereby the government would dissolve, and a new election would be called. Almost all minority governments in Canada last around two years before being defeated, with some only lasting a matter of days (5).

However, there is a second alternative, called a coalition government. A coalition is, as the name suggests, a combination of two or more parties that agree to govern jointly. This means that cabinet posts are split between the different parties and the parties cooperate legislatively (6). While this has not happened on the federal level (with the exception of the First World War), it is the norm in many European countries (7). With a minority government currently in power, it is important to consider how this will impact political action and the possibility of a coalition or re-election.

While the intricacies of government formation in parliamentary democracies may seem irrelevant when issues such as climate change are directly affecting millions, it is exactly these political intricacies that decide the future of Canadian society. Understanding how the MPs we vote for decide the government which represents us is not just a fun fact, it is perhaps the most important aspect of Canadian politics.


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