Monday (October 19) is the big day. The day we finally put an end to having political campaigns and partisan messages shoved in our faces everywhere we look. It’s the day we stop having to read on Facebook what position our friends take on every new political issue that Justin, Tom, Steve, and Elizabeth raise.
Monday will be a great day.
If advance polls are any indication, people are motivated to cast their ballot. Maybe it was the Syrian refugees, maybe it was the niqab; it could have even been the tax policies or how the last nine years and 250 days have gone. After months of campaigning, if you’re like me, you just want this to end and to have the government get back to running government.
But there are whispers (or all out shouts, depending on the news you follow) that this may not be the end. Constitutional scholars and former governors general (Adrienne Clarkson, if you must know) have come out and tried to explain what happens if a minority government is elected.
Canada has had minority governments before and there hasn’t been a problem. So why are they worried now?
No one actually knows what the Governor General will do if there is no clear majority from the outcome of this election. There are no written rules about what he should do if voters do not elect a majority government, only longstanding practice and tradition. Most of the work the Governor General does with government is behind closed doors and discussions are heavily guarded. We, the public, will never really know what is said between a potential prime minister and the Governor General or the basis for the governor general’s decision.
Why could a minority government be an issue? The answer can be found in our history and our system of government typically referred to as responsible government. In responsible government, there are two leaders: the formal leader (the queen/king) and the political leader (the prime minister). The monarch is represented in Canada by the Governor General.
The Governor General gives royal assent to various bills that have passed successfully through the House of Commons and the Senate; without royal assent, after a period of time the bill becomes null and void and never becomes law. The Governor General usually only acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and a governor general has never refused to give royal assent to a bill. In this way, the monarchy still retains power, but elected officials make all of the actual legislative decisions.
The only person who can instruct the Governor General is the person who commands the confidence of the House of Commons—meaning a majority of MPs will support the formation of a particular government. This is easy when a party wins a majority of seats, but requires some horse-trading in a minority situation.
As a result, the Governor General has a discretionary reserve power when a prime minister does not command a majority in the House of Commons. The Governor General can decide whether or not to allow any elected member of parliament to have a crack at commanding a majority of the House of Commons or dissolving government and calling a new election.
Let’s say Steve gets the most seats but not more than half the seats, and Justin or Tom come in second and third. Doesn’t that count as a majority for Steve? No, it doesn’t, because all the other parties together can defeat anything that Steve puts forward. In order to command the House of Commons without a majority, Steve needs to make some deals with the other parties and seek their allegiance usually in exchange for changes in policy on various issues. This is what happened in 2008.
Both Justin and Tom and said under no circumstances will they support Steve in this situation (Elizabeth too). If they keep their word, this means that Steve will only command the House of Commons if he wins a majority of the seats (a minimum of 170 seats to be exact).
Generally the Governor General’s practice and tradition has been to allow the leader of the party with the most seats to try to command the House of Commons. If that fails, most agree that the Governor General should allow the leader of the party with the second most seats to make a pitch to be allowed to form government. This has never happened at the federal level but there is provincial precedent from the 1985 Ontario election. There is, however, no written rule or law in Canada that the Governor General must do that.
If Steve fails to command the House of Commons, Governor General David Johnston has the power to bypass the leaders of the other parties and call an election. It seems unlikely, but who knows? It’s worth noting that Mr. Johnston did invite controversy for being partisan in his role in the truncated inquiry into Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber (look it up!).
A new election benefits the Conservatives just like a long election campaign was supposed to—more campaigning with the Liberals and NDPs financially exhausted compared to the richly funded Conservatives. It could mean a lot of voters will change their minds.
It could even mean our very own Canadian Spring, just in time for winter.
Laurel Dietz practices family law and criminal defence with Dogwood Law Corporation in Victoria, B.C. Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. She can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/UnbundledLawyer. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at firstname.lastname@example.org.