Paul Wells: What if Harper wins a minority?

If one party skates close to a majority without actually winning one, then what?

Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks to the media during a campaign stop Montreal Que., on Saturday, October 3, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks to the media during a campaign stop Montreal Que., on Saturday, October 3, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The longest modern federal election campaign is almost over. Maybe it’s not too early to wonder who will govern, if the result is not clear.

Stephen Harper has given his answer, or part of it. “Obviously, our view is we’re going to win and we’re going to win strong,” the Conservative leader told Peter Mansbridge on Sept. 3. “But my position has always been, if we win the most seats, I will expect to form the government. And if we don’t, I won’t.” The third sentence, the shortest, was the most important.

Mansbridge pressed him. “So, even as the current government, if you’re just a couple of seats behind, you wouldn’t try to figure out a way to—”

Harper cut in. “No. No.”

Mansbridge: “You would resign.”

Harper: “Yeah. Well, I would not serve as Prime Minister.” There followed some approximations about how parliamentary government works, and Harper concluded with: “We ask people to make a choice of a government, and so I think that the party that wins the most seats should form the government.”

This was significant. As Mansbridge understood, any government remains Canada’s federal government through a campaign and afterward. No matter what the election result, any government may choose to “meet the House,” to test whether it can still command a majority of members’ support in a confidence vote. If it lost that confidence vote, the Governor General would be free to call on some other combination of MPs to form a government that could enjoy the confidence of the House.

These conventions are unfamiliar to us, because election results are usually so clear nobody bothers. In 1993, it was obvious Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives no longer enjoyed the confidence of the House. There were only two PC MPs left. And neither of them was named Kim Campbell. After the 2006 election, Paul Martin still had the right to test the House with a confidence vote, but since the Conservatives won 21 more seats than his Liberals did, his government resigned on election night. This is almost always so obvious that steps in the process get skipped.

But this time it’s reasonable to assume the outcome after Oct. 19 will be less clear. Now if the Liberals or NDP win the largest number of seats, it’s reasonable to assume Harper will keep his word, resign as PM on election night, and let the other party form a government, even without a majority of seats. The Harper era would be over.

But what if it’s the Conservatives who have the largest number of seats?

Again, if Harper’s party wins a majority—at least 170 of 338 seats—the answer is obvious. There could be no effective challenge to continued Conservative government. And if they don’t? In the 2011 campaign, Harper was categorical: There could be no Conservative minority government because the Liberals and NDP would team up to deny it confidence in Parliament. Sure, there had been minority governments before. But after 2008, when Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton had tried and failed to form a coalition to replace him, their parties would certainly try again. Only a “strong, stable, national Conservative majority” would be proof against their depredations.

This year, Harper has said nothing of the sort. In 2011, after seven years of minority governments and their uncertainty, voters were tired. For many, the prospect of a Conservative majority was reassuring. Now it’s largely reversed: A lot of voters are tired of the Harper majority and are willing to put up with uncertainty if it represents change. That’s why both Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair have insisted they would not help a Conservative minority govern.

But I can easily imagine a stable Conservative minority.

Related: This or that? Find out where you stand this election with the Maclean’s Policy Face-Off Machine

Look, if the result is close—if the Conservatives win 114, the Liberals 112 and the NDP 110—I think Harper would resign soon after an election. The Conservatives would have lost 45 seats and a chunk of the popular vote. Another party’s claim to power would be persuasive. Something like this happened in Ontario in 1985, when the incumbent Progressive Conservatives won only four seats more than the Liberals. A confidence pact between Liberals and New Democrats put an end to PC government.

But what if it’s less close? Remember that 170 is a majority. What if Harper won 169 seats, the others, fewer than 90 each? A lot of voters would say, “Let the Conservatives govern.” And if that’s true at 169 Conservatives, it would be nearly as true at 159, or 149. As long as the gap between first- and second-place party caucuses is significant, some large component of public opinion would say the party with the most seats should govern.

When I talk like this, I always hear from someone who says public opinion doesn’t matter, and only the arithmetic in the Commons determines who gets to govern. To introduce notions like perceived fairness is to betray a misunderstanding of parliamentary democracy. I think that’s backward. Arithmetic in the Commons is the sum of the decisions of the fallible humans in it. They got there by winning elections. They’ll hope to win again. They can’t have voters too angry at them.

If the outcome on Oct. 19 isn’t clear, each MP one way or another will count. So will the claims they make, in person and on TV and Twitter, to power. Brinksmanship is much likelier than calm. Any conceivable outcome will upset a lot of people. That’s politics.



Paul Wells: What if Harper wins a minority?

  1. ‘What if Harper won 169 seats, the others, fewer than 90 each? A lot of voters would say, “Let the Conservatives govern.”’

    The only voters who would say this would be those who voted Tory — say 35%.

    Why would the opposition parties be motivated by that fact more so than the wishes of their own voters?

    Very hard to imagine the Grits or NDP having any political incentive to prop up a badly weakened CPC.

    • What’s in it for the 3rd place party? NDP & Liberals have no interest in propping up their opponents, especially when both are untested in government. Propel them to power and you take away the “can’t trust them/not ready” card.

      And that’s even assuming the true believers in the party really would prefer an NDP or Liberal government. Many would rather wait a couple of years and run against Harper again and play from a position of strength, than a marginalized 3rd party.

      Ontario in ’85 was an exception, but at that point the Tories had been in power for overover 40 years. The NDP saw a window of opportunity to implement some of their policies. I think this generation of NDP truly believes they can and will eventually forms a government.

      • They can take the opportunity to unilaterally change the rules of the game (say, propose a different electoral system) like Harper did. Both NDP and LPC would have an interest in a more proportional electoral system (ranked ballot or some more drastic change) since they are the biggest victims of vote splitting in the current arrangement. Second order effect of such a change would be weakening the glue that holds the CPC coalition together (red Tories + Reformists can split once again).

    • The Conservatives will win another majority and all of the lefties will be crying in their corn flakes yet again.

      • I wonder if Billy Bob will have the guts to show up if his predicted majority does not materialize?
        Will he be pragmatically gracious in defeat, saying “the people of Canada have spoken?” Or will he spew yet another venomous diatribe about the sky falling, filled with his usual mouthsick of lefty name calling?

          • Rancorous would have been better

      • Ahahahahahahahahahahahha. Ha. Heh. I look forward to meeting up with you here on Oct. 20th after Harper has lost and resigned. People are just too sick of him, he’s toast.

    • If the Bloc held the balance of power, there would be a problem. If the Liberals and NDP have a majority between them, all that is needed is an agreement between the Liberals and NDP. The best agreement for the country would be a stable coalition government that would last four years. In 18 elections since 1949, Germany has elected one one-party government and 17 coalition governments that gave it the strongest economy in Europe.

  2. Maybe its just me but I have a hard time with the idea that because a party has the “most seats” they get to govern in perpetuity even when a “coalition”–whether formal or informal–of MPs constitute a majority in the House and wish to work together. It is bad enough that first past the post produces majorities with only ~39% of the vote. Establishing as a convention that parties with an even lower popular vote count but a plurality of seats have a right to either govern or subject the country to perpetual elections really exacerbates the already undemocratic nature of our system. In my opinion a “plurality” is really a meaningless concept in a proper democracy. Majorities rule, not pluralities.

    That said I totally appreciate that this is as much a public opinion issue as anything. There is definitely a danger that you will anger a portion of the electorate that really buys into the whole most seats equals a win idea. The public reacted very poorly to the last attempted coalition. My conservative friends assured me that that case was “different” than King-Byng and other situations because 1) there would be separatists in the coalition and 2) no one made any suggestion before the election was over that such a coalition would be established. But this time it looks like #1 won’t happen, and while Trudeau has rejected a formal coalition they have openly acknowledged that they will not support a Harper government and would look at working with other parties so arguably #2 is no longer the case.

    Regardless I think there will be significant blow back if the Liberals or NDP attempt to take power. That is a given. Whether they have the fortitude to weather it is another question. It is also an open question how this Governor General–who was chosen by Harper–feels about the issue and ultimately its his call.

    Of course if the Conservatives win a majority none of this will matter and I’m more and more concerned by the day that it is no longer outside the realm of reasonable possibilities.

    • Aren’t you assuming te conservatives will actually win?

  3. Wells assumes he knows what the voters will think if Harper wins the most seats but not a majority, that is they will want a continuing Conservative govt. What more than 60% of the voters thought in 2011 was that some other party should govern, and with less than 40% of the vote Harper had a majority of 14 seats. If Harper does not win a majority this time, then many more than 60% of the voters will have told us unequivocally what they think: they do not want a Conservative government. “Some large component of public opinion would say the party with the most seats should govern.” That large component would be less than 35% of the voters.Wells is right: arithmetic matters.

    • While the Conservatives has only 40% of the popular vote, the other two averaged less than 40%. So more folks wanted a Conservative government than those who either wanted an NDP government or a Liberal government. However, that said, the only way to really end this ongoing, nonsensical debate is to move to a 2 party system in Canada-one with right of centre policies and one with left of centre policies. In either case, neither should be allowed to run deficits which forces each to make decisions rather than run the country into the ground as the Liberals have done for Ontario.

      • Yes, more than thirty million people should be forced to choose between two parties.
        Having parties forced to compromise and work together because the majority of voters actually achieve empowered representation would just be wrong.

  4. The odds of the Conservatives winning 169 seats and the NDP or LPC 90 each or less are very low right now; however, for a writer, even low odds is grist for the writing mill.

    In reality, the seats won by the LPC and NDP will be substantially more than those won by Harper (even if he wins more seats than either of those two parties individually), and the percentage of votes cast will be vaster more for these two parties combined that for the Tories.

    Add to that the very clear statements by Mulcair (not a snowball’s chance in hell) and Trudeau (in no circumstances) that neither party would vote confidence in a Harper minority, and we have a very clear moral and political case for the NDP and LPC to vote no-confidence in a Harper minority government’s Throne Speech, and then one of them (the one with the most seats) to have its leader asked by the Governor General to seek the confidence of the House.

    So the only realistic result is that Harper will not be prime minister again unless he wins a majority of 170 seats, and the only thing he can do is to resign, or stall as long as he can and hope that 6 months pass and the G-G agrees to another election without Harper trying to pass a Throne Speech. These flailings around are what Harper publicly told Mansbridge he would not do.

    So say Goodbye to the Harper Tories, Hello to a replacement government, and another Hello to a probable new Conservative Party leader.

    • Re that six months without a throne speech… a general election cannot be ignored. The next parliament will meet, and if Mr. Harper were to wait for months he would likely face an even more uncooperative bunch. Maybe the Bloc will come in handy, as in 2006.

  5. Anyone criticizing a coalition as “undemocratic” probably failed Social Studies and has NO understanding of our Westminster system, or History.

    Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden attempted to form a coalition with the opposition Liberals to broaden support for conscription into WW1. Roy Romanow formed a formal coalition with the Saskatchewan Liberals in 1999 after being reduced to a minority.
    Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, belonged to the Liberal-Conservative Party which existed until the turn of the twentieth century. Mackenzie King Governed with the support of the Progressive party.

    In federal Australian politics, the conservative Liberal, National, Country Liberal and Liberal National parties are united in a coalition, known simply as the Coalition.

    Recently, there have been coalitions in the UK, Israel, Germany, India, and Denmark. In Ireland, coalition governments are quite common; not since 1977 has a single party been able to form a majority government.
    This is our history, our legacy, and our unique Westminster system from our heritage.
    This nonsense of right-left split is Americanizing our political system.

    Coalitions work because they represent a greater percentage of voters, more so than a minority with just 30 something percent of the votes!

  6. It is a pretty big assumption to believe that Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair will be able to come to an arrangement.

    Stephane Dion was pretty selfless. Ignatieff wasn’t particularly. And Trudeau and Mulcair both have massive egos.

    If Harper “wins” a minority, he probably will delay calling parliament back till January, and give Trudeau and Mulcair lots of time to hang (themselves together).

    • Unless Mulcair resigns, which may happen if he’s back to third party status.

  7. Of more interest to me is how readily the PM will aceede to popular opnion should the Conservatives lose a confidence vote. Assuming he asks the GG for another election, what happens if he’s turned down? Hopefully he gracefully steps down, allowing another party/parties a chance. Hopefully the last omnibus bill didn’t include a well buried clause containing a three strikes and you’re out no confidence scheme.

    • If Harper wins a minority, he will step down and Brad Wall will replace him. Wall will tinker with a few of the more contentious current Conservative policies, call another election, win a majority and we’ll have another great run of Conservative leadership.

      • if Harper wins a minority we can only hope he steps down. Unfortunately it will not be Brad Wall who replaces him, it’ll be Jason Kenney, who has spent most of the last year or so positioning himself for the leadership … and God or whoever help us when that happens. If there’s anyone worse than Harper it’s Kenney.

  8. There are some who believe that LPC and NDP voters will not tolerate their respective parties propping up a Harper government. There have been several polls showing support for cooperation between the two parties.

    Personally, I think if Trudeau is the official opposition of a Harper minority, he may benefit from 18 months or so of maintaining that status. However, I think that ship has sailed.

    I don’t see Harper being able to push his bills through as easily as during the last minorities, when he was able to take advantage of the LPC’s poverty to prey on their unwillingness to trigger an election.

    • Remember, Gayle1, when every vote was a confidence vote, around 2006-7? If there is to be cooperation between a Conservative minority and anyone else, I hope that it be clear that only votes on the throne speech, money bills and motions clearly removing the confidence of the house in the government would trigger an election – not to mention the inability of a prime minister to take advantage of his opponents by calling an election when he wishes, as we are so lucky to have since the adoption of (hum, hum) fixed elections date law.

  9. Paul, in the scenario where both the NDP and LPC finish with a seat count significantly less than the CPC, such that they would not be able to form a government in the event the CPC failed to secure the confidence of the House, is not the only alternative another campaign?

    And would Canadians not rather at least a short-term power-sharing deal between LPC and NDP (with more popular support combined than CPC) than an immediate sequel to the Long Campaign as you have been calling it?

    I find it hard to imagine the LPC and NDP supporting (or through inaction allowing to continue) a CPC government just because their caucuses individually are quite a bit smaller than the CPC.

  10. Get our there and vote. Unless you’re voting to put a part time drama teacher in charge of the country. In that case, you are dangerous and don’t deserve a vote.
    4 more years!!!

    • Who is this part-time drama teacher all the Harperites keep rabbiting on about. Haven’t seen a single candidate in the entire election who has “part-time drama teacher” on their resume

  11. The most likely scenario is one whereby the Conservatives convince the Grits to come together to create a grand coalition in the same spirit of Merkel ‘s CDU / SPD government in Germany. This would certainly be another great political achievement for Harper who could then consider an early retirement ”par la grande porte” in a masterful manner. The blue liberals will still prefer finding a ”modus vivendi” with the conservatives rather than accepting any hazardous compromises with the NDP who has, on the other hand, closed (de facto) the door on an Orange / Red alliance by rejecting firmly the TPP.

    • A Con/Lib alliance will never happen. Trudeau has unequivocally stated he would not, under any circumstances, support a Conservative government. The Cons need a majority or they’re dead.

      And the TPP is also effectively dead. It has to be ratified by all signatory nations and the US is the top of the domino chain in that agreement. If they don’t ratify, no one else will and Clinton, who in all probability will be the next president, has already said she won’t sign. Looks like the whole thing will be DOA.

  12. I can’t see Harper willing to be Opposition Leader. And I don’t see either Trudeau or Mulcair agreeing to prop him up. Much as they don’t like each other, their policies aren’t radically different. It makes sense that they’d cooperate to the extent of writing in electoral reform.

    I think it’s a pretty urgent matter. Another few years of a Harper government would be almost a generation raised under his meager offerings. It will get increasingly difficult to find viable candidates who even remember Canada before Harper. Now is the time.

  13. I think the big question some of these leaders will have to ask themselves is, when can we afford to go into another election?

  14. The only way Harper can hope to form a government is with a majority. Any number less than 170 will result in instant defeat at the first confidence opportunity (likely the throne speech).

    Both the Liberals and the NDP have clearly and emphatically stated they will not support a Conservative government under any circumstances. That being the case, the Governor General has two choices: ask one of the other parties to try and form government or call another election.

    Harper cooked his own goose on option #2 by forcing us into this double-length expensive election. The GG will not want to call another one immediately after this one. Hence, if it’s not a Conservative majority on Oct. 19th, it will be either a Liberal or NDP government, likely Liberal the way the numbers look now.

    And that will be entirely in line with Canadian public opinion, since 2/3 of us do not want another Harper government in any form.

  15. What will happen? Harper will never get to govern. Harper and Trudeau go straight to the GG on E-night and say we won’t support Harper under any circumstances, we are willing to work in a formal coalition. GG says ok you get to form the government. Harper throws his toupee across the room, kicks a hole in the wall, grabs Jenny Byrne by the neck who says get your hands off me and knees Harper in the groin. In the corner a gang of young cons with brush cuts and short pants is putting the boots to Lynton Crosby, Jason Kenny quietly looks at his watch and ducks out for a cheeseburger whistling to himself as he keeps to the shadows on Spark street.

  16. Heavens forbid that from happening – most of what the PM has legislated has back fired already and while this election may be boring for some more young people are engaged thanks to Leadnow, Rick Mercer and other high profile young persons.

  17. It’s far from reasonable to assume that Harper will keep his word. He’s broken it many, many, many times before. I would expect that if he winds up in a minority government position, he’ll try to find some sneaky, underhanded way to hang on to power. That’s just his modus operandi, and nothing less than we’ve come to expect from him.

    • Well, we have a very weak ineffectual GG.
      Has been used in and agreed to a lot Conservative Party photo ops.
      We could face a constitutional crisis.

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