In sorting out how a government is actually formed in our system, I mentioned a few historical situations to consider: the United Kingdom in 2010, Ontario in 1985 and the United Kingdom in 1974.
Upon further review, there’s more from history for the government-forming file, including an instructive, but possibly forgotten, example from Saskatchewan.
Ontario in 1985
As I wrote, a Progressive Conservative government in Ontario in 1985 was defeated in the legislature and replaced by a Liberal government that had signed a governing accord with the NDP caucus. Interestingly, it is recounted in this piece for Canadian Parliamentary Review that when the defeated premier, Frank Miller, tendered his resignation with Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, he advised that an alternative was prepared to govern: “It would appear that the Honourable Leader of the Opposition is able to gain the confidence of the House at this time.”
The lieutenant-governor of the day, John Black Aird, then issued a statement to explain the change:
In my capacity as Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and as the representative of Her Majesty the Queen in Ontario, I have this day asked Mr. David Peterson to form a government, he having assured me that he can form a government which will have the confidence of the Legislative Assembly for a reasonable length of time.
On the advice of counsel with whose opinions I agree, I have advised Mr. Peterson that the agreement between the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, a copy of which had been delivered to me, has no legal force or effect and that it should be considered solely as a joint political statement of intent and that the agreement cannot affect or impair the powers or privileges of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario nor of the members of the Legislative Assembly.
The 1957 federal election
In 1957, the incumbent Liberals were reduced to 105 seats, but the Progressive Conservatives won just 112 seats, less than a majority of the House. According to that same piece in Canadian Parliamentary Review, Louis St. Laurent seems to have been encouraged to test the House, but he ultimately decided to resign.
The defeat of Joe Clark’s government in 1979
When the short-lived Progressive Conservative government of the day lost a vote on its budget in 1980, governor-general Ed Schreyer consented to Joe Clark’s request to dissolve Parliament and call an election. In 2008, though, Schreyer said he would have entertained an alternative government. Here is how he explained his thinking in an interview with Canada AM:
. . . when he offered me the suggestion that Parliament be dissolved and writs issued for an election, I said to him that he could understand why I would want a measured pause, that it not be considered to be done automatically, because I wanted at least pro forma the opportunity to be there that, in the event—and I can say, parenthetically, unlikely event—but in the event that an alternative group was prepared to come forward to govern, to form a government, I would have felt obliged to grant a commission to form such a government.
A note on timing: The election that allowed Joe Clark to form government was on May 22, 1979, and Parliament was dissolved on Dec. 14, 1979, but Parliament had only been sitting by then since Oct. 9.
What might have been in 2004
After the 2004 election, the incumbent Liberals continued to govern, despite winning only 135 seats, 20 seats short of a majority. Adrienne Clarkson, the governor-general at the time, later claimed in her memoirs that if prime minister Paul Martin had requested a dissolution within six months of the previous election, she would have turned him down.
(It was in September 2004, two months after the election, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper co-signed a letter to the governor-general with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, suggesting she “consult” with the opposition leaders and consider “all” her “options,” should she be asked by the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament. Seven years later, Harper claimed this was nothing to do with replacing Martin’s government, only about being able to reassure the governor-general if it was being erroneously claimed that the opposition was seeking to defeat the government—an interpretation of convention that was challenged by one expert.)
The Saskatchewan election in 1929
In Saskatchewan’s 1929 election, the incumbent Liberals were reduced to 28 seats, four short of a majority. As it is explained here and here, the second-place Conservatives didn’t run candidates where a Progressive or Independent candidate had a better chance of beating a Liberal and, as a result of that election, the legislature included 24 Conservatives, six Independents and five progressives.
The Conservatives, Progressives and Independents signed an agreement to support a new government, but incumbent premier James Gardiner refused to resign (and the lieutenant-governor refused to intervene). The legislature was thus reconvened with the Liberals still in government and a speech from the throne seems to have been read. At that point, a vote of non-confidence was passed. And with the Liberal government thus defeated, the Conservative-Progressive-Independent coalition was able to form government—the cabinet made up of eight Conservatives, two Progressives and two Independents.
So an incumbent government met the legislature and was defeated and the party with the most seats was replaced as the government by a coalition of the second-place and third-place parties, along with several Independents.
In the basic sequence of events, this seems like a precedent that should be prominent in any discussion of what’s possible under the parliamentary system. The pre-election arrangement adds a certain complexity to the situation, but the post-election events look like a guide to basic civics: The incumbent government had the right to meet the legislature, and an alternative government, led by the party with the second-most seats, was given a chance to govern when the incumbent was defeated in the legislature. And that government carried on until 1934.
So if you’re looking to prove a point at a cocktail party, Ontario in 1985 and Saskatchewan in 1929 are probably your best examples of how the system actually works.