Maxwell Cameron is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia
A fog of confusion is ready to descend upon the country. While no one can predict the outcome of Federal Election 2015, Canadians must be prepared for the possibility that no political party will win a majority on Oct. 19. If that happens, the debate over who "won" the election – and who has the right to govern – will be made murkier by misinformation that will be spread in the post-electoral struggle for power.
Understanding the rules and conventions of our political system can dispel the confusion and misinformation. Education can help ensure public support for a smooth transition to a minority or coalition government.
One source of confusion is the claim that it is undemocratic for the parties with fewer seats to work together to form a new government. On the contrary, a minority or coalition government may well better represent a majority of Canadians. Why? As the distinguished political scientist Peter Russell says, our first-past-the-post electoral system often creates "false majority" governments – governments that have more than half the seats but fewer than half the votes. If such a government only represents its base, it can be unresponsive to the majority.
Doubts about the legitimacy of minority or coalition government are fostered by a deeper misconception. Many voters will head to the polls thinking they are choosing the next prime minister. In fact, we elect our local Member of Parliament. The prime minister will be the party leader able to earn the trust and confidence of the House of Commons.
If no party wins a majority of the seats in the House, the Governor-General will invite the party with the most seats to form the government.
Such a government might negotiate a "supply and confidence" arrangement with other parties to ensure the government survives votes of non-confidence and passes money bills. Or it could form a coalition in which cabinet and other appointments are shared.
Minority governments are commonplace in Canada. In the 28 elections since and including 1921, 11 have resulted in minority governments. They tend to be brief, lasting less than two years, but they can be very productive. In fact, minority governments intentionally co-operating across party lines brought us the Canada Pension Plan, bilingualism, the new Canadian flag and Medicare.
The first opportunity to test whether a new government has the confidence of the House is the Speech from the Throne. If the Conservative Party receives the largest number of seats, it may not be able to survive a Speech from the Throne. Since the Conservative Party has been highly partisan in its approach to governing, it would have considerable trouble winning the support of the other parties.
Were the Conservative Party to lose a vote of non-confidence, or the prime minister resign, the Governor-General would have the prerogative to invite the leader of the next largest party to form a new government. This would require co-operation on the part of the leaders of the NDP and Liberals (and possibly the Greens). Their ability to present a common program and to work together would be very important for the Governor-General.
In the end, a minority government might better represent the majority of Canadians. It could accomplish substantial progress in the areas where the programs of the parties align: economic measures to strengthen the middle class, a more multilateral and less belligerent foreign policy, action on climate change, and electoral reform, to name a few.
If our leaders act in a spirit of co-operation, a minority Parliament could actually restore the independence and integrity between the government and the legislature, and give greater say to our elected representatives. It would inoculate our politics against the hyper-partisanship that has infected it.
Co-operation could be good for our democracy, our country and for us. It is exactly the kind of sunshine needed to clear the fog.
Maxwell A. Cameron is a Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia and the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He is the author of a new white paper entitled, Trust and Confidence: Post-Election Cooperation in Parliament. You can find him on Twitter @MaxwellACameron.