In order to pass laws, any minority government needs a parliamentary majority. Thus, whenever a parliament convenes without one party holding a clear majority, no prime minister can continue to hold power without creating a formal, or (less often) informal coalition. The exercise of executive power by the prime minister requires support by a majority of legislators.

In 80 per cent of cases around the world the link between executive and legislative power is created through coalitions of parties (mainly following elections using some type of proportional representation). Coalition governments have not been part of usual Canadian parliamentary practice. Canada is used to minority governments, which traditionally function on an issue by issue basis, seeking support from one stable partner. This was the case in the two Pearson minority governments (1963, and 1965) and the one Trudeau minority (1972), which depended on the NDP, the third party.

Currently the Harper minority governs with the support of Liberals, the official opposition. The PM has looked to the third party, the Bloc, for support in the past, and presumably could turn to it again. The Liberal-Conservative informal coalition bears some resemblance to the "grand coalition" German government made up of the two largest parliamentary parties, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, and its left-wing partner, the Social Democratic Party.

Last week the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany convened a one-day symposium (covered by rabbletv and CPAC) to examine the politics of informal and formal coalition government with European and Canadian political scientists and parliamentarians as featured speakers.

Professor Barbara Cameron (no relation) of York University, reflecting on the formal coalition agreement reached in December by the Liberals and the NDP, with the support of the Bloc, pointed out that unlike Germany, the Canadian parliament lacked a formal mechanism (such as a vote by parliament) entrusting a prime minister with power. She pointed out: "we rely on constitutional conventions that obscure the responsibility of the executive branch to the elected legislature and, in certain situations, give to the Governor General a larger role than an unelected official should have or probably wants."

The irony in this, said Cameron, is that constitutional conventions work well when they are not needed — so long as majority governments are the rule we know who becomes prime minister. These conventions do not work well when the situation is unclear — as can arise in minority parliaments when governments are defeated.

The constitutional practice is that Canadians elect a parliament, and parliament chooses the government. In minority situations, the leader of the largest party governs only so long as she or he maintains the confidence of the House of Commons.

The basic constitutional workings of Canada are obscured by what is referred to as the reserve powers of the Governor General. Once the prime minister has been defeated on a motion of confidence in the House, she or he is no longer prime minister, and the reserve power allows the Governor General to ignore a request by the former prime minister to call an election, and to invite another party leader to become prime minister, that is to say, meet the House, and seek its confidence.

Once a prime minister is defeated in the House, she or he is no longer the advisor to the Governor General. Only then may the Governor General ask another leader if they are able to form a government.

What Cameron suggests is that prior to the delivery of the speech from the throne, and after an election, parliament be asked to confirm by secret ballot the nomination of the prime minister by the party with the largest number of seats. This would make it clear that only parliament can confer, or withdraw, the powers of office of the prime minister. Cameron says: "the effect would bet to force negotiations among the parties before the House meets, and could result in more formal and positive agreements that the majority of elected members are committed to supporting." This could be a minority government or a coalition government, or an agreement on something in between.

Grant Amyot of Queen’s University presented research showing that coalition governments in general spent between 20 and 25 per cent of GDP on social welfare, while non-coalition governments spent less than 20 per cent. In other words, based on what he called this "rough" measure, coalition governments produce more progressive policies than non-coalition governments. He showed how in the case of the Sweden its long run of social democracy began when the Social Democratic Party entered into a formal coalition with a rural-based party.

In Canada, since 1945, the three minority Liberal governments of Pearson and Trudeau were the only progressive governments we have had, which helps explain why there was so much opposition last December from right-wing Liberals, as well as Conservatives, to the idea of a formal Liberal-NDP coalition government.

So long as Canada continues to elect four parties to parliament, Canada is likely to have more minority governments. The lesson from Europe is that the best way to get stable, progressive government is to form a formal coalition.

Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...