The possibility of either a Conservative or Liberal minority government after Monday night's election has federal party officials, the Governor-General's office and political analysts striving to figure out all possible scenarios and how they might be worked out after an election that has energized a normally apathetic electorate.
“This is going to be fascinating. I think there's going to be a big political hangover following all this emotional rage [over the sponsorship scandal and voters thus punishing the Liberals]. But you pay a price. It's like any emotional binge. The politicians will have to try to manage it as best they can,” history professor and constitutional expert Michael Behiels of the University of Ottawa told globeandmail.com.
The last major poll results before voters went to the polls Monday showed the Liberals leading the Tories in voter support 32-31 per cent but the Ipsos-Reid seat projection model demonstrates that the Tories will take the most seats of any party -115 to 119 compared with the Liberals 99 to 103.
- Please see:
- Reality check: Holding the balance of power -- on alternate days of the week
- 'The universe is unfolding as it should'
- The real mechanics of minority government
- Minority government? Let's make a deal
Canada's past minority governments
First shot to Martin
If no party gets enough seats for a majority, the Governor-General asks the sitting prime minister if he can form a government, even if another party holds more seats. That may mean that the prime minister may have to resort to deal-making with other parties in order to retain power in the House of Commons and to win confidence motions.
But the first decision is up to Paul Martin and what he decides to do once he speaks with the Governor-General.
In a minority situation, the Governor-General, with the Privy Council office, also has seldom-used powers. She could persuade Mr. Martin to seek a coalition or some sort of commitment from the NDP and Bloc.
When to resign?
Or, in another scenario, if the prime minister feels he doesn't have the confidence of the House -- if, for example, if the Tories have much more seats -- the prime minister may go to the Governor-General and hand in his resignation. The Governor-General would then have to weigh what would be best for the country, in terms of political stability.
But the decision is not really the Governor-General's, Prof. Behiels said.
“Her role really is to oversee the system. The prime minister in a sense remains the prime minister until he decides to resign and not meet the House,” he said.
Several political science experts say that they feel that there are a number of possible sequences of events. In one possibility, the Liberals take fewer seats than the Conservatives, but still retain power.
Trailing, but still leading?
“If it is a minority government, I suppose that the first question in order of priority will be which of the parties has the plurality of the seats. That will give, really, a great deal of moral weight to the party which finishes first,” said Paul Nesbitt-Larking, a political science professor at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in London.
“If it's close, and if it's more plausible for Mr. Martin to form some sort of agreement or pact with which he can govern for say a year or two, then the Governor-General will go to Mr. Martin in the first place and he will probably try to do it,” Prof. Nesbitt-Larking said.
In 1925, the ruling Liberals won 15 fewer seats than the Conservatives, coming in second, but decided to meet the Commons for a vote of confidence.
Liberal Leader William Lyon Mackenzie King sought a vote of confidence, won the support of the third-place Progressives and was able to govern for a time.
As has been touched on by the Liberals, at least early on in the campaign, there could be some sort of Grit/NDP arrangement along with “some provisional, very contingent and brittle support from some Bloc members, maybe hoping for some crossover from some Conservatives, though that's not a such a strong hope,” Prof. Nesbitt-Larking said. That would allow the Liberals to keep enough order and control to run a government.
A solid minority
Prof. Behiels said that in a case where one party has a plurality of the seats, for example, the Liberals winning a few more seats than the Tories, Mr. Martin should be able to continue as prime minister as long as he can assure the Governor-General that he has the confidence of the House.
“So when you're in a plurality situation, it's really the leader or leaders who can assure the House or the Governor-General that they can maintain the government and stability. Stability is really the important thing.”
If Mr. Martin does decide to govern, he'll need the support of the NDP and Bloc, Prof. Behiels agreed.
He added: “I doubt the NDP will have enough seats to hold the balance of power. That's why [Bloc Leader Gilles] Duceppe is going to be in the driver's seat. That's why it's going to be extremely dangerous this time. The country is going to be held up to hostage [to the separatists]” he said.
Clear Tory lead
If the Conservatives win a plurality of seats, say, 20 more than the Liberals, political analysts predict Mr. Martin may go to the Governor-General and resign. Then the Governor-General would speak to Mr. Harper about forming a government, likely along with some sort of pact with the Bloc Québécois, Prof. Nesbitt-Larking said.
He added: “It's going to be an unstable situation until dust settles, until we see which leader forms government and we see in a sense which of the leaders can form a government.”
What happens next?
In the most recent example, when Liberal Leader Pierre Trudeau announced he would concede defeat the night of May 22, 1979, after he did not win enough seats.
But he did not officially hand in his resignation until a week later.
So, if there is a minority government on Monday, the nation may not see any kind of official resignation and new prime minister named for days or weeks.
After that, whoever is prime minister must form a government and then call the House back into session, which may not happen for a few months, possibly not until the fall, Prof. Behiels said, using the example of Conservative leader Joe Clark taking over from Mr. Trudeau in 1979 but not actually meeting the House for several months.
How it would work
Then once the minority government is in place, it may have difficulty actually passing any legislation. The four main parties differ significantly in their approaches to the economy, foreign affairs and social issues and any move could cause confidence motion. If the government loses, it may trigger another election.
The average duration of minority governments in Canadian history is just under a year and a half.
“Everyone is really jockeying already for the next election. This is going to be a very, very difficult unstable period,” said Prof. Behiels.