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Explainer: How does the Governor-General trigger an election?

Q: If the Opposition parties in the House of Commons - the Liberals, NDP and Bloc - pass a motion stating they've lost confidence in the government lead by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, how is an election triggered?

A: The prime minister visits the governor-general - currently David Johnston - to say that Parliament has lost confidence in his government. Only six Canadian governments have lost a confidence vote: Arthur Meighen's in 1926, John Diefenbaker's in 1963, Pierre Trudeau's in 1974, Joe Clark's in 1979, Paul Martin's in 2005 and now Stephen Harper's in 2011. Only a minority government usually loses a confidence vote, because it doesn't control a majority of seats.

The prime minister then requests the governor-general dissolve Parliament, so voters can elect a new Parliament.

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Q: Why does the prime minister have to go to the governor-general?

A: As the representative of the Queen and the head of state, only the governor-general can call a new election (but does so only when requested by the prime minister).

Q: Could the governor-general say no?

A: Technically, he can say no. But in practice, that almost never happens.

Constitutional scholars say it would be acceptable for a governor-general to refuse a request to dissolve Parliament only if:

a) An election had been held very recently, and there had been no time or issues likely to change the mind of the electorate. In other words, a prime minister couldn't call a new election if he or she disliked the results of the election just held.

b) An alternative government could be formed by other parties in the House.

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This has happened only once in Canadian history: In 1926, shortly after an election had returned a Liberal government propped up by the Progressives, the Liberal Prime Minister lost the confidence of the House and requested a new election. The Governor-General, Lord Byng, refused and allowed the Conservatives to form a minority government. That Conservative government was later defeated, an election was then called and the Liberals won a majority.

In 2008, Mr. Harper's minority government faced the prospect of losing a no-confidence vote, as the Liberals, NDP and Bloc prepared to form a coalition government to replace the Conservatives without triggering an election. However, the plan was short-circuited when Parliament was prorogued and enthusiasm for the coalition fizzled.

Download the MP3 of an interview with Peter Russell on the governor-general's powers.

Sources: Peter Russell, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto; Ned Franks, professor emeritus at Queen's University; The Canadian Encyclopaedia

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