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Ask Kady Anything: Deconstructing minority politics

Kady O'Malley breaks down the minority politics around forming government and coalition-building in Victoria
B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark waves to the crowd following the B.C. Liberal election in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, May 10, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

What with the sudden onset of electorate-induced uncertainty on the west coast, it seems like the perfect excuse to dive into what is, in my admittedly biased opinion, one of the dependably fascinating sub-genres of parliamentary speculative non-fiction.

First, a very quick rundown of the fundamental rules of engagement for anyone who has managed to avoid picking up the basics thus far: Minority parliament is… pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a parliament (or, in the case of British Columbia, legislature) in which no one party manages to win a majority of seats.


Generally speaking, this results in one of three scenarios unfolding. In the first — and, in Canada, the most common — the party with the most seats will attempt to form government, either by entering into a formal alliance with one of the other parties or by negotiating support on a vote-by-vote basis.

In other countries, particularly those with proportional representation — which tends to produce minority parliaments as a rule rather than an exception — it’s more common to see coalitions of two or more smaller parties emerge. In both cases, the resulting government can only continue as long as it has the support of a majority of members, which is usually put to the test shortly after the first post-election meeting of the newly elected legislature.

Under the Canadian system, the first chance for a party to demonstrate it has the confidence of the House comes at the first vote following the Speech from the Throne. If it survives the vote, that government can continue… well, governing, basically, until that confidence is lost.

If it doesn’t survive that initial vote, the lieutenant-governor can invite the leader of one of the other parties to try his or her luck, and if it turns out that no party can lay claim to the confidence of a majority of their colleagues, there’s no option but to head back to the polls.

So, how will all that work in British Columbia? Well, barring a major rejigging of the initial results — which is a distinct possibility, what with the thousands of advance ballots that still have to be counted and the multiple recounts that will likely take place between now and May 24 — it would appear that B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark won’t have to start packing up her desk anytime soon.


She may be one seat short of a mathematical majority — her party currently holds 43 out of 87 seats total, with the B.C. New Democrats at 41, and three Green MLAs — but as the incumbent, she will continue to serve as premier until the new legislature is convened. She will, however, have to win that all-important first confidence vote in order to remain in office.

If she can’t muster up the necessary votes — 44, assuming perfect attendance — the lieutenant-governor may give New Democrat Leader John Horgan a shot at winning the day, and, if he does, the opportunity to govern — but that would require the support of three non-NDP MLAs (or, alternately, convincing three MLAs elected under a different party banner to cross the floor to join his caucus.)

Presumably, the trio of Green members would be the most likely partners, but there’s no guarantee.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to your questions!

Guerric Hache (@GarrickWinter) asks:

On a similar note, Chuka Ejeckam (ChukaEjeckam) observes:

I’ve been thinking about this question ever since it popped up in my twitter window, and I’m still not entirely sure if this is the right answer — or, indeed, if there even is one empirically, inarguably right answer, for that matter — but as far as I can tell, it just isn’t compatible with the peculiarities of our particular political ecosystem, at least under its current structure.

With a few exceptions, most of the parties with a hope of actually winning even one or two seats are similarly convinced that, one day, they’ll manage to win enough to form government under their own power, which makes the prospect of teaming up with another party – even one that might seem, to outside observers, like a natural fit – less appealing.


That’s definitely the case with the Big Two — the Liberals and the Conservatives, politically — and in B.C., the Liberals and the New Democrats. (Obligatory note for non-British Columbians: Although it may go by the same name as the federal party, the B.C. Liberals tend to be viewed as the small-c conservative option on the provincial front, as there is currently no viable big-C party to fill that slot.)

Since minority parliaments are, at least for now, relatively rare occurrences, both at the federal and provincial level, there’s little incentive for parties to build such a possibility into their long-term strategic plans — or, indeed, their election platforms, since it would be, in effect, an admission that they might not be able to win enough seats to go it alone, which would promptly be seized upon by both their opponents and the press. As for post-election deal-making in a minority situation, well – we saw that with the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois back in 2008, and it didn’t end well for the putative partners.

Overall, there seems to be more willingness to agree to strategic alliances that either have a built-in end date or are universally understood to be temporary arrangements that would last for the duration of a minority parliament at most, and could break down at any moment.

Just to be clear, I’m not defending it, just trying to explain it. I know it’s considered absolutely standard operating procedure in parliamentary democracies around the world! As yet, though, that’s just not the case here, although a lengthy spell of minority governments could change that.


Now, a classic What If from Steve Ethier (@SteveEthier):

So! Much! Excitement!

So, this question inevitably comes up in advance of an anticipated minority result — at the federal level, you can even add in the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois to make it a theoretical five-way tie! — but as delightfully symmetrical as it would be, it really doesn’t change the basic math. It just makes it more fun to play fantasy confidence vote.

As incumbent, Clark would still get the first chance to test confidence, and if she managed to demonstrate it, it would be off to the minority governing races. The New Democrats wouldn’t get a turn unless/until the Liberal government fell.

But as Balirand points out, there’s another factor to consider in that hypothetical tie:

And see, this is where you can really get creative with your worst-best-case-scenarioizing, especially since the B.C. legislature elects its speaker by secret ballot, which means it’s not so much about the impossibility of “flipping” a member of another party than strongly encouraging your party members not to allow their name to go forward.

(Traditionally, unless one formally withdraws one’s name, all members are considered eligible for election as speaker, which almost always leads to at least one or two accidental candidates who have to bashfully drop off after the first round of voting.)

However, from the perspective of a potential governing party, it may not be quite that simple, because if you do decide to throw the race in favour of a member of the putative opposition, you’re also leaving open the possibility that they might be less likely to side with you in future procedural disputes, which, in minority, tend to come fast and furious. The speaker is, of course, supposed to be utterly impartial, but that doesn’t mean they might not have particular leanings, particularly when a ruling really could go either way.

Still, if it’s a question of give up a vote or risk potential censure down the line, most parties would definitely opt for the latter, which is why speaker elections in minority parliaments can take on far more significance than is the case in a majority setting.

In any case, in this specific situation, the least disruptive option from the perspective of the two main parties would seem to be to convince a Green MLA to take the job.