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Well, that was a surprise. All the polls heading into the final days of the campaign said the Liberal-Conservative race was close to a dead heat, and whoever formed government would do it as a minority.

Instead, the Liberals won by a considerable margin over the Conservatives. However, they lost enough voters, and enough seats, to wind up with no more than that expected minority.

A minority government: It’s nothing new. The last 20 federal elections, going back to the 1950s, produced nine minorities. Rather a lot of the governing of Canada has been done by them.

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Between 2004 and 2011, for example, Canada had three elections that yielded seven years worth of minority governments, first under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and then under the Conservatives and Stephen Harper.

A generation earlier, Pierre Trudeau was elected with a majority in 1968, then re-elected with only a minority. The elder Mr. Trudeau parlayed two years in minority into a renewed majority in 1974. John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives were elected first as a minority in 1957, re-elected with an overwhelming majority in 1958 but then returned to office four years later as a minority. That second minority lasted less than a year, ending with a 1963 election that delivered a Liberal minority under Lester Pearson.

Mr. Pearson went on to be one of Canada’s most successful prime ministers, at the head of one of history’s busiest governments. In five years, his administration introduced universal health care, created the Canadian Pension Plan, ended capital punishment, unified the armed forces and introduced the new Canadian flag.

The Pearson government did all that as a minority government. In other words, minorities are not necessarily a bad thing.

And if the current trend in Canadian politics holds, they’re something we could be seeing more of. There were six candidates at the leaders’ debates, representing six parties with legitimate shots at electing MPs. Even without electoral reform, the menu of voting options has grown, taking votes from both Liberals and Conservatives. That makes it harder to imagine a future of those two parties endlessly trading majorities.

Sometimes a minority can govern and sometimes it can’t. When it can’t, it may be time for voters to go back to the polls and send a new slate of MPs to Ottawa. But that’s the last step, not the first.

First, it’s up to the MPs and the parties in the House of Commons to see if a leader and a party can command the confidence of the House. In Canada’s Westminster-style system, governments rise out of Parliament, and the executive only governs as long as a majority of MPs will let it.

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When a government has a majority, that’s a theory that bears little relation to reality. But in a minority, the executive has to pay more attention to MPs, both its own and those of other parties. Power, concentrated in a majority in the office of the Prime Minister, may be spread around.

The new Liberal minority government will have to play ball, to some extent, with MPs from other parties. The New Democrats, the party most easily aligned with the Liberals, were on Monday night heading for a markedly reduced seat count, but still enough to offer the Liberals the needed votes.

When nobody has a majority, who gets first crack at forming a government? The PM. He visits the Governor-General, declares his intentions and makes his pitch. He will say that he believes, despite his minority, that he can command the confidence of the House. And in this case, he can, likely for some time. The Bloc Québécois’s newly elected MPs have no incentive to put their new jobs at risk, the Conservatives will need to recalibrate, and the NDP is financially and electorally exhausted.

Majority governments have their virtues, the chief of which is that they can get things done. They have the power to pass almost anything they want through the Commons. (The Senate is another story.)

But the example of Mr. Pearson’s busy government is a reminder that a minority can be as ambitious as a majority – or even more so. The desire for re-election, and the need to reach across the aisle for support, can make governments tentative. It can also force them to be bold.

SCENARIOS IN CONFIDENCE VOTE

LIB

CON

BQ

170 seats

for majority

NDP

GRN

216

LIB + BQ + NDP + GRN

213

LIB + BQ + NDP

189

LIB + BQ

181

LIB + NDP

180

CON + NDP + BQ + GRN

177

CON + NDP + BQ

153

CON + BQ

145

CON + NDP

SCENARIOS IN CONFIDENCE VOTE

LIB

CON

BQ

170 seats

for majority

NDP

GRN

216

LIB + BQ + NDP + GRN

213

LIB + BQ + NDP

189

LIB + BQ

181

LIB + NDP

180

CON + NDP + BQ + GRN

177

CON + NDP + BQ

153

CON + BQ

145

CON + NDP

SCENARIOS IN CONFIDENCE VOTE

170 seats

for majority

LIB

CON

BQ

NDP

GRN

216

LIB + BQ + NDP + GRN

213

LIB + BQ + NDP

189

LIB + BQ

181

LIB + NDP

180

CON + NDP + BQ + GRN

177

CON + NDP + BQ

153

CON + BQ

145

CON + NDP

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