Dr. Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
In the final days of the 2019 federal election campaign, polls indicate a dead heat between the Liberals and the Conservatives – with no majority government in sight. As voters get ready to close the door on an exhausting campaign that has been light on policy and heavy on snark – some 4.7 million Canadians have voted already in the advance polls – some have begun to look ahead toward what might happen after the election, if the polling bears out.
These conversations have even led leaders to muse publicly about the possibility of a coalition government, and to vaguely share the conditions in which they might consider such a scenario. But unlike the productive conversations over the sometimes arcane nuances of our democracy, this admittedly fascinating speculation should be acknowledged for what it is: the stuff of political strategy and trial-balloon posturing.
After all, there is no indication that a coalition government is any more palatable in Canada than it was before. Though such a government has always been a legitimate and constitutionally viable option, partisan adversarialism has undermined its political viability to the point that it is generally discarded out-of-hand as both highly unlikely and deeply undesirable here. There’s a reason a federal coalition has only really occurred once before, in 1917: Canadians have come to expect our parties to fight, not to get along.
That said, while Canadians have been exposed to minority governments in federal and provincial contexts, there remains a lingering cloud of mystery around their specific rules and conventions. But there are things that are clear: No matter what happens on election night, Justin Trudeau will be the prime minister through the duration of the evening and will remain so until such a time that he resigns. Even if Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives win a plurality of seats, Mr. Trudeau retains the right to meet the House of Commons and offer a Speech from the Throne for the approval of the House. If he obtains approval by a majority of MPs – that is to say, the confidence of the House – he’s good to go.
No doubt, Mr. Scheer and others would decry the audacity of a rogue prime minister who lost the election but keeps on governing, but this would be a political dilemma for Mr. Trudeau, rather than a legal or constitutional one. The prime minister is the MP who holds the confidence of the House – period. The constitution is agnostic about the details of how that confidence comes together.
Barring a majority, the Liberals – no matter whether they finish first or second – would need the support of at least one other party in order to hold onto government. A formal coalition, which would mean that both parties have representation in cabinet, is one way to achieve this, but it is not the only way. In British Columbia, a provincial election delivered a hung parliament in 2017, and when incumbent premier Christy Clark lost confidence after her Speech from the Throne, the NDP formed government through a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Green Party around issues of common priority. This, however, is expressly not a coalition, as there are no Greens in cabinet. And in New Brunswick, Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs formed government last year despite a razor’s-edge plurality of just one seat. The People’s Alliance pledged its support for the government for 18 months, but there is no formal agreement or coalition around this hung parliament.
So given the many potential resolutions, and the unpopularity of the coalition option, why are parties even musing about such a possibility? It’s all just noise and gamesmanship.
Besides, there’s no way to know how negotiations between the parties will go until the votes are counted and the seats are allocated. Those results will also dictate the strategic calculations that will govern these negotiations: what parties share common interests? Which parts of the base might be alienated by certain partnerships, and will it be irretrievably? How much money needs to be raised ahead of a potential new election? But no matter what happens, a coalition remains the least likely option for self-interested parties who want to reserve the right to attack one another. Everything currently being said is, more or less, just hue and cry.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.