Here is a useful test of political thought, emotion and understanding.
First, review the following seat projection based on recent polling of support for the federal political parties. Second, imagine this seat projections coming to pass with a federal election on Oct. 19.
Now, while imagining that an election on Oct. 19 has resulted in this allotment of seats in the House of Commons, answer this: Who is the prime minister on Jan. 1, 2016? And why?
Barring a very quick call or trip to Rideau Hall to formally offer his resignation, Stephen Harper would still be prime minister on election night. But beyond that, as I’ve written about here and here, there are various possibilities from the above scenario. And we should probably give those possibilities a full airing.
I picked the date of Jan. 1, 2016 because it could take some time for matters to work themselves out.
Though the Conservatives would have the most seats, they’d be 28 seats short of a majority (remember that the House of Commons will have 338 seats after this year’s election). And as the incumbent government, the Conservatives would have the right to test the House and seek a vote of confidence.
But Harper could wait awhile before having Parliament reconvened—for that matter, he could conceivably delay until well into 2016. A delay might be controversial and it might limit his government’s ability to function, but any delay would avoid a possible defeat of his government in the House of Commons. It could also, I’m imagining, give he and his party a chance to mount a public campaign against any governing arrangement of the other parties.
Together, the Liberals and New Democrats would be able to constitute a majority. But would they be willing to make a deal to do so? Maybe they form a coalition (with the cabinet including both Liberals and New Democrats) or maybe they sign a governing accord that commits the New Democrats to supporting an agreed-upon policy agenda for a Liberal government.
But if the Conservatives are short of a majority, would they be willing to entertain negotiations with either of the Liberals or New Democrats to stay in power for some amount of time? Would the Liberals or New Democrats, perhaps for the sake of some policy achievements, be willing to prop up the Conservatives?
Would the Liberals, unwilling to work with the NDP or unable to agree on terms, stand down and hope to defeat the Conservatives and trigger a new election at some point in future? Do the New Democrats, unwilling to make Justin Trudeau the prime minister, similarly stand down and hope to do better in a new election? At an impasse, do the Liberals and New Democrats decide to make Elizabeth May prime minister as a compromise? (Hilariously inconceivable but technically not impossible!)
Or what if the Liberals and New Democrats don’t need to make a formal deal? Would the Governor General, in the absence of an agreement, invite the Liberals to form government anyway in the event that the Conservatives were in short order defeated in the House? Could the Liberals govern on a case-by-case basis, seeking the agreement of the New Democrats or Conservatives for each piece of legislation?
(If, sometime between now and Oct. 19, the New Democrats are polling better than the Liberals, you can flip some of these questions around.)
Stephen Harper’s hold on the Conservative leadership factors in here somewhere. What would this result mean for him? If he announced an intention to step aside, how quickly would he be replaced? (I don’t believe we’ve ever had an “interim” prime minister, so perhaps it is most likely that Harper would remain prime minister until his successor was chosen.) If the Conservatives were defeated in the House and Harper resigned, would a leaderless party be able or willing to defeat a Liberal government?
I’m generally not in favour of guessing about political events. When will the election be? Who will get appointed to cabinet? Those are questions that only a few people can claim to know with any certainty. Who will win the next election? That’s basically impossible to know, or at least impossible claim to know with anything other than silly confidence.
But I make an exception here because the issue of how a government can be formed is important to explore for the purposes of better understanding how our system actually works and the questions about what is possible are worth asking of the MPs, candidates and party leaders who might form the 42nd Parliament.
So far as predicting who the prime minister will be on Jan. 1, 2016, a seat projection that shows anything less than a majority is an inkblot to be deciphered.