Is a Conservative minority government even possible?

Paul Wells: It would hang on how the opposition parties vote, of course. And it's hard to imagine the NDP paving the way for Erin O'Toole to become prime minister.

Justin Trudeau on Monday continued his Surprised By Canada tour, in which he flies from coast to coast warning Canadians about the looming threat of things that are already happening. People might get on a train without being vaccinated! (They already can. Trudeau used to explain why changing that isn’t the federal government’s role. It’s hardly clear what the policy he announced on the eve of the campaign, for the purposes of the campaign, will actually accomplish.)  Erin O’Toole wants private health care! (Don’t tell the poor Liberal leader about this and this and this.)

To some extent the Liberal’s level of agitation, like so much else, seems unsupported by the facts. He’s still ahead of the Conservatives in most polls. He already showed, in 2019, that he could finish behind the Conservatives in total votes and still win more seats. It’s still early in the campaign.

The title of my post today has a particular meaning, and I will be indulging some minority-parliament game theory in a minute. But it’s also entirely possible the Conservatives just lose this election outright. Ten days ago it would have been odd to suggest they might not: the big pollsters have shown the Liberals ahead at every moment since the COVID crisis began in early 2020. Trudeau’s side nears the end of that saga with some good stories to tell: second-lowest death rate in the G7 after Japan, highest vaccination rate in the G7. They’re coming off a 739-page budget that didn’t deliver much bad news to anyone. Trudeau will be the most experienced leader at the debates.

And Erin O’Toole might, for all you or I know, already have lost this election beyond his ability to redeem it with four more weeks of competent campaigning. Sure, his second-day platform drop was smart. The robust document filled in a lot of blanks on the map of 2021-era Conservatism that O’Toole’s opponents would otherwise have been tempted to fill with HERE BE DRAGONS. But his positions on key issues may become flashpoints. He wants to block the Liberals’ umpteenth attempt to build new child-care spaces. His position on vaccines—basically, “pretty please?”—isn’t night-and-day different from Trudeau’s, but it still seems a bad fit for the current mood among that large majority of Canadians who have been vaccinated. His climate policy is more ambitious than Andrew Scheer’s, but it’s still a bit of a bunt, and it’s been a very hot summer. The Liberals spent Monday making it clear they still think there’s juice in their misquote of O’Toole’s comments on health care. Any of these could yet end up being the moment pundits identify as the turning point in our thoughtful post-election analyses in an eventual Renewed Liberal-Land.

But what the heck. Let’s assume, for the sake of beating the crowd, that the result on Sept. 20 is much less clear. The Liberal government continued in 2019 after winning the lowest share of the national popular vote of any government since Confederation. This morning they’re polling lower than that.

So what happens if the Conservatives win, say, 140 seats and the Liberals 130?

We had an open dress rehearsal for the hijinx that would ensue, in such an event, on the night of last week’s Nova Scotia election. For a few minutes that night it was briefly clear Tim Houston’s Conservatives would win more seats than Iain Rankin’s incumbent Liberals, but unclear whether they’d capture a majority in the legislature. CTV called a Conservative government and said they couldn’t yet tell whether it would be a majority or minority. Every process maven on the internet promptly fired up the Twitter machine to say, “It’s impossible to elect a minority government! Voters elect parliaments/ legislatures, and parliaments/ legislatures designate governments! More Conservatives doesn’t necessarily = Conservative government!”

This is true. While in Canadian politics, the party with the largest number of seats almost always forms a government, that’s not actually the rule.

The main rule is that the party that controls the “confidence” of a majority in the House of Commons, as expressed through votes on important business, forms the government.

An important secondary rule is that, since elections affect but don’t decide governments, the party that formed the government before an election can, if it chooses, keep governing after an election, as long as it doesn’t lose one of those important votes.

So in 2006, when Paul Martin’s Liberals lost seats and popular vote but Stephen Harper’s Conservatives didn’t win a majority, Martin would have been within his rights to prepare a Throne Speech, have the Governor General deliver it, and make returning MPs vote on the speech and the budget that would follow. But Martin did the math on election night and decided not to bother. He was 21 seats behind the Conservatives, 52 seats shy of a majority, the entire NDP caucus couldn’t have come close to covering that gap — the math sucked. Martin knew he’d lost.

But sometimes it’s much closer, and interesting things happen. After the 1972 election, only two seats separated Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals and Robert Stanfield’s Conservatives. It was tense for a few days after the Commons returned. The 2017 British Columbia election was nerd heaven: Christy Clark’s returning Liberals won more seats and votes than John Horgan’s NDP, but just barely, and it was Andrew Weaver’s tiny Green caucus that eventually designated Horgan as premier, after entertaining offers of policy cooperation from both sides.

In Ontario in 1985, the provincial Liberals won the popular vote by a hair, but the returning Conservatives outnumbered them in the legislature by four seats. The Liberals cooked a deal with the NDP, the Conservatives tried to brazen it out in the legislature, and they promptly lost a confidence vote. Which is how four decades of Conservative rule in Ontario ended: with a parliamentary game of chicken. Which is how things should be.

So. Now that you know as much about all this as I do, let’s imagine that on Sept. 20, the Conservatives win more seats than the Liberals but are still well short of a majority.

How does everyone react?

Probably, Justin Trudeau resigns and Erin O’Toole becomes prime minister. As I’ve said, there’s no rule that seat plurality = power, but that expectation is easy to understand and hard to fight in the court of public opinion. But what if the results really are close, and Justin Trudeau is feeling scrappy?

In that scenario, until the Commons tells him otherwise, he’s still the prime minister. He convenes Parliament, has Mary Simon deliver a Throne Speech, and then MPs vote. Suddenly the other parties have a decision to make. If they vote to support the government’s agenda, Trudeau continues as prime minister and it will then be very hard to replace his government without provoking new elections. If opposition MPs say, “No, hang on here, you lost the popular vote and you’re 10 seats back in the House of Commons,” and a majority of MPs votes against the government, then the government falls. And, so soon after an election, probably the Governor General would designate a new government, led by Erin O’Toole.

So today’s question is: knowing that those are the options, how would the other opposition parties vote?

My own guess is that the Bloc Québécois would vote against the Liberals. Not out of a preference for O’Toole Conservatism, but because Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet has made it clear his preferred outcome this year is a weak and malleable minority government from which the Bloc can extract concessions. A rookie Conservative government led by an MP from outside Quebec simply sounds, to me, like an easier mark for Blanchet.

The NDP would have a harder choice. It’s already public knowledge that the NDP in the past has had talks with other parties before elections about minority-government scenarios after. The party’s current national director, Anne McGrath, led such talks before the 2008 election. I bet anybody on the NDP bargaining team would be willing to entertain any post-election scenario.

But the party rank and file matters too, because eventually the MPs making these calculations will have to run for re-election. And I think the big question after a close election would be: would NDP supporters, voters and party members permit Jagmeet Singh to oppose a Liberal government if it would mean installing a Conservative government?

I don’t think they would. Here, “permit” means Singh’s continued leadership of the NDP would become untenable if he became the instrument of O’Toole’s rise to the position of prime minister. So he’d make damned sure he didn’t. He’d prop up even an arithmetically weak Liberal government if it were at all in his power to do so.

In such a scenario, much would depend on small variations in vote, seat totals, the geographical distribution of the parties’ support, sheer isolated outcroppings of naked self-interest (can anyone from another party be coaxed into switching parties?), and much else. So it’s pointless, and a bit cruel, for reporters to ask leaders how they’d respond in a minority scenario. But pointless and cruel are what we do best, so expect a lot of that to happen. (The best answer is always, “I’m always going to work to improve the lives of Canadians, and I’m always going to be happy to work with anyone from any party who wants to do the same.”)

Anyway, now you’re briefed up. If Trudeau ends up just whupping O’Toole cold, remember I said that was an option. If weeks of nail-biting begin on Sept. 20, I suppose you’ll be hearing more about all this.