Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and holds a research chair at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He is a former campaign manager for conservative parties.
Once again, minority government seems like a possible outcome of a federal election, so let's look at some scenarios. They all involve a double helix of constitutional rules and political calculations. Start with the constitutional parameters.
A sitting prime minister remains in office until he resigns or is defeated on a confidence matter in the House of Commons. If defeated, he would either have to resign or ask the governor-general for another election.
The government cannot be defeated until the House is in session, and it is up to the prime minister to advise the governor-general when to recall Parliament after the election of Oct. 19.
How long could a prime minister wait before meeting Parliament? Section 5 of the Charter says that Parliament must meet "at least once every twelve months," but no prime minister would wait that long, because of the need for Parliamentary approval of spending. A more realistic upper limit was set by Joe Clark when he waited 41/2 months to recall Parliament after winning a minority victory in the 1979 election.
The Speech from the Throne opens a parliamentary session, giving the opposition parties an immediate chance to defeat the government on the reply to the governor-general's address. The opposition, if they have the votes and the desire to defeat the government, would be wise to take this first opportunity because the prime minister is more likely to get another election from the governor-general if he has survived even one confidence vote.
These rules offer an incumbent prime minister a "first mover advantage," as it is called in game theory. Control of the timetable, even for a few months, gives him the precious resource of time. Stephen Harper could use those months to explore possibilities of co-operation with either the Liberals or the New Democrats. He could offer, for example, to enact major items from the campaign platform of one of those parties, thus forestalling co-operation between them. That's more or less what Mr. Harper did in 2009, introducing a budget that Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals supported as they withdrew from their 2008 agreement with the NDP and Bloc Québécois.
Whether Mr. Harper would use his first mover advantage in this way would depend on the election results. At one extreme, he would probably resign quickly, as Paul Martin did in 2006, if another party won the most seats. Strictly speaking, he wouldn't have to resign just because another party had won more seats than the Conservatives; but after nine years in office, it would be hard to interpret such a result as anything but a defeat.
At the other extreme, he would probably try to remain in office if the Conservatives won a large plurality over both main opponents. Suppose the Conservatives won 150 seats, not all that far from a clear majority (171), while the Liberals and NDP each took 95. Such a result could be interpreted as an admonition from the voters but not total repudiation, and the Prime Minister would be entitled to see if he could run a minority government. Maybe the opposition parties would combine to defeat him at the earliest opportunity, but he could make the attempt.
Another favourable scenario for the Conservatives would arise if the Liberals and NDP have to rely on the BQ to control a majority of seats, as was the case in their attempt in the fall of 2008 to unseat the Conservatives. Reliance on the BQ is constitutionally possible but politically toxic, and Mr. Harper would almost surely continue in office, as in fact happened in 2008.
Between the clear-cut extreme cases lie many intermediate possibilities, far too many to analyze individually. But the same principles apply if the Conservatives win the most seats. The closer the Conservatives come to a majority, and the greater their plurality over the second party, the more likely Mr. Harper is to remain in office and play for time. The further the Conservatives are from a majority, and the smaller their lead over the second party, the more likely Mr. Harper is to resign quickly.