Minority Parliaments: What exactly are the rules?

It looks as if Monday’s election is going to leave us with our 4th minority parliament in 5 elections. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that he will form a government if he finishes with the most seats, but both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau said on CTV Question Period last weekend that they will not support such a government.

So what are the rules exactly? The most fundamental rule of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy (which Canada inherited from the British) is that the government must have the confidence of the House of Commons at all times. If the government ever loses the confidence of the House, it must resign.

The first order of business for the House of Commons after an election is the Throne Speech. The Governor General reads a speech prepared by the Prime Minister outlining his plans for the upcoming year, and the House will vote on whether it approves of these plans. This vote is considered to be a vote of confidence in the government; if the House votes against the speech, then that’s the end of the government.

This confidence exercise is relatively straightforward if a single party controls an overall majority of seats in parliament (i.e. a majority government). This party would be able to win any vote of confidence in the Prime Minister (by virtue of being their party leader), and that person would be able to continue as PM so long as they are able to stay in the leadership position.

In a minority parliament situation, the incumbent Prime Minister has the right, if he so chooses, to try to form a government. Even if his party does not finish with the most seats, he can put a Throne Speech in front of parliament. However, he really should only be doing this if he is confident that he can get this speech passed; if he doesn’t, then he cannot continue as PM.

If the Prime Minister resigns, either on his own or as a result of a rejected Throne Speech, the Governor General will invite another party leader to try to form a government. The new PM will then put a different Throne Speech in front of parliament, and another vote would take place.

There isn’t a precedent for the case where both Throne Speeches are rejected, so it’s hard to say what would happen in that case. Maybe the Governor General would get involved to help form a grand coalition. Or maybe he’d just order another election. But I think that’s unlikely.

Ultimately, it is MPs who decide who will be Prime Minister.

The 42nd general election will be taking place this coming Monday, October 19. Voting hours are dependent on your time zone: 08:30–20:30 Newfoundland Time, 08:30–20:30 Atlantic Time, 09:30–21:30 Eastern Time, 08:30–20:30 Central Time, 07:30–19:30 Mountain Time (incl. Saskatchewan), and 07:00–19:00 Pacific Time.

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