Why winning the most seats doesn’t always mean winning the election

Pollsters are saying this election could be a close one. So what happens if no party wins a majority of seats? Here’s a civics lesson
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 07, 2019
Canadian parliament
In the Westminster system, whoever commands the confidence of Parliament wins the right to govern, even if they haven’t won the most seats.(Adrian Wyld/CP)

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Let’s stipulate right off the top that polls can’t tell you what people are going to do at the ballot box tomorrow. They’re usually pretty good about telling you what people would have done yesterday.

Having said that, almost all the opinion surveys have shown very little recent movement in the electorate as Campaign 2019 unfolds.

So, if the campaign continues the way it’s been going so far, there’s every possibility that we’ll have what’s colloquially known as a “hung parliament.” In other words, no party will emerge with a majority of the seats. And, if you’re a fan of political deal-making and machinations, that’s when the real fun will begin.

Despite the fact that Canada has been a successful and thriving democracy for more than 152 years, we don’t really have a constitutional handbook that gives chapter and verse on what comes next when the voters decide not to give anyone the right to run the show.

But what we do have are a century and a half of conventions and customs. There are 338 seats in the House of Commons, which means a party needs 170 for a majority government. At the moment, polls suggest no one can win 170 seats.

If the Liberals win, say, 135 seats, the Conservatives win 130 seats, and the other parties split the remaining 73 seats, it’s pretty clear that Trudeau will try to cobble together a working majority by sealing an arrangement with one (or more) of the other parties’ MPs to reach the 170-seat threshold. His father did that in 1972, when he out-seated the Progressive Conservatives 109 to 107. The NDP’s David Lewis held the balance of power with 31 seats. Pierre Trudeau governed with Lewis’s backing, as their combined total of 140 seats was enough for a nine-seat majority.

But let’s toss a more intriguing scenario on the table. What if the Conservatives’ Andrew Scheer won 135 seats, Trudeau won just 130, and the other parties split the rest?

In sports, there’d be no question of who’d won — the party with the most seats. But Canadian politics isn’t sports. It’s governed by more complicated traditions. In the political arena, the sitting prime minister, by custom, has the right to have all the new members of the House of Commons return, in hopes of cobbling together a working majority. So, even if Trudeau has five fewer seats than Scheer, if he can convince enough of the other NDP, Bloc Québécois, Green Party, People’s Party, or independent MPs to vote with him, he can tell the governor general, “I can command the confidence of the House and continue to govern.”

And, by custom, the governor general has to let him try. There is only ever one prime minister in the country, and the governor general, by custom, takes advice only from that PM. If the prime minister says, “I want an opportunity to meet the House even though I have fewer seats, because I think I can hold it together,” tradition dictates that the governor general should allow that scenario to play out.

“Voters get to choose a Parliament, but that duly elected Parliament gets to choose the government,” says Sean Conway, who was a Liberal MPP for almost three decades and is a widely acknowledged expert in our parliamentary customs.

“I know that this distinction seems odd, annoying, and irrelevant to many modernists, but it is nonetheless a key point to understanding the rules of our parliamentary system,” he adds.

So whoever can command the confidence of Parliament wins the right to govern, even if they haven’t won the largest number of seats. Perhaps the best example of this happened in 1925, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government went down to apparent defeat at the hands of the Conservatives. King returned with only 100 Liberal MPs; the first-place Tories had 115.  But the third-place Progressives won 22 seats and opted to back King, who concluded that he could continue to govern with their support.

“The guy who clearly came second — Mackenzie King — decided to carry on in office and was allowed to do so because he rightly imagined that he could, and did, form a new government that could, and did, for at least eight or nine months command a working majority in that new House of Commons,” Conway points out.

That’s ancient history, you say?  Well, not if you live in Ontario. In 1985, the Progressive Conservatives won 52 seats and the Liberals 48; the NDP held the balance of power with 25. Since the Tories were already in power, they won the right to meet the Legislature and try to govern.

But they couldn’t. The Liberals and the NDP combined forces, defeated the PC government, and signed an accord indicating they could create a workable majority. The premier of the day, Frank Miller, went to the lieutenant-governor and advised him to let the Liberal leader, David Peterson, take over.

And that’s what happened. Even though he had only the second-highest seat total, Peterson became premier because he had the confidence of the majority of MPPs — the combined forces of the Liberals and New Democrats.

You ready for one more even-more-intriguing scenario? What if the next federal Parliament is so deadlocked that Trudeau’s ability to create a workable majority depends on securing the votes of, say, two independent MPs such as Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott — his two former cabinet ministers who resigned over the SNC-Lavalin scandal?

Now that would be some story.

These are the rules of the road in Canadian politics, but, chances are, you won’t hear the current PM muse aloud about them. First of all, very few Canadians seem to understand our parliamentary traditions. They assume that whoever wins the largest chunk of seats in a hung Parliament has the right to form a government, even though that’s demonstrably not true. And second, Trudeau may remember that, 40 years ago, his father mused aloud about trying to remain in power even if he didn’t win the largest number of seats. It was a perfectly legitimate position to take. But the Tories under leader Joe Clark pointed to it as an example of Pierre Trudeau’s legendary arrogance and used it to their advantage. In that 1979 campaign, Clark ended up winning more seats, even though Trudeau won many more votes. (Of course, Trudeau got the last laugh when the Clark government fell after less than a year, and Trudeau stormed back into office in 1980 with a majority government.)

“There are some widely held beliefs — often vigorously reinforced by many in the political class — that are simply wrong,” Conway reminds us. “And my best and most obvious example of this wrong-headedness is the widely and wrongly held view that, just because you have the most seats after an election in the British parliamentary system, you are automatically entitled to lead the next government.”

So, on election night, if it’s a hung parliament, don’t assume the story is over if the Liberals come a close second. Because in the Canadian parliamentary system, that’s when the game truly begins.

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