Minority governments in Canada

From Academic Kids

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The House of Commons after the 2004 election, resulting in a Liberal minority government

During the history of Canadian politics there have been nine previous minority governments on the federal level, and a number provincially. The tenth federal minority was elected in the 2004 election.

In a minority situation coalition governments are rarely formed, rather the government stays in office due to an understanding with a third party. This increases the instability of governments greatly. On the federal level no minority has lasted a standard term, and most have lasted less than two years.


William Lyon Mackenzie King

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Liberal minority after the 1921 election
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Liberal minority after the 1925 election
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Liberal minority after the 1926 election
  • Seats short of a majority (1921): 1
  • Seats short of a majority (1925): 22
  • Seats short of a majority (1926): 7

Canada's first minority government was a result of the rise of the Progressive Party in western Canada. In the 1921 election the Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King fell one seat short of a majority government. The almost seventy member strong Progressive contingent had little unity and there was always at least one that would vote with the government on any matter. Mackenzie King thus governed as if he had a majority.

In the 1925 election, the Progressives fell to 25 seats, but the Liberals won only 101 seats. both losing seats to the Conservative Party, which won 116. The Progressive were far closer to the Liberals, and Mackenzie King as Prime Minister had the first option of forming a government. He did so and governed with the help of the Progressives until June 1926.

In 1926, a scandal over the customs department cost Mackenzie King the support of the Progressives. He thus asked the Governor General to dissolve parliament and hold another election. Viscount Byng of Vimy, the Governor General, refused, and opted to give the Conservatives a chance to govern. This infuriated Mackenzie King who felt that the appointed Governor General should not be able to override the Prime Minister. This led to the King-Byng Affair.

Arthur Meighen of the Conservatives was given his chance to govern, but his attempt to lead a minority government failed in September of 1926. In the subsequent election, the Liberals used the furor over the King-Byng Affair to win a strong majority government.

Arthur Meighen

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Conservative1 minority after the 1925 election
  • Seats short of a majority (1926): 8

Arthur Meighen led two short lived Conservative governments. The first was a majority at the end of 13th parliament, elected in 1917 under the Unionist ticket. The second government was a minority in 1926. Meighen's conservatives won a plurality of the seats in the previous 1925 election, however a government was instead formed via an agreement between the Liberals and Progressives. After King's Liberals had lost the progressives' support he requested parliament to be dissolved by then governor general, Lord Byng, resulting in the King-Byng Affair. The resulting conflict caused King to shortly resign as prime minister, and Byng subsequently appointed Meighen as prime minister. A week after being appointed prime minister by Byng Meighen lost a confidence vote, resulting in the 1926 election.

1Not elected as such

John Diefenbaker

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Tory minority after the 1957 election
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Tory minority after the 1962 election
  • Seats short of a majority (1957): 22
  • Seats short of a majority (1962): 17

After many decades of Liberal rule, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, led by under John Diefenbaker, unexpectedly won a minority government in the 1957 election. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, seeing the mood of the nation, stepped aside and let Diefenbaker govern. Diefenbaker needed the support of the Social Credit Party of Canada and three independents to get any legislation passed. This minority lasted only a few months. Diefenbaker's skyrocketing popularity led the Tories to begin preparing for another election. No major bills were introduced, and Diefenbaker quickly asked the Governor General to dissolve parliament. Diefenbaker won a massive majority in the subsequent 1958 election.

The Diefenbaker government ended badly with party infighting and controversies over relations with the United States during the Kennedy administration. In the 1962 election, the Tories won only a minority. This time, the momentum was with the Liberals and the imploding Tories were all but incapable of governing. This quickly resulted in another election.

Lester B. Pearson

Liberal minority after the 1963 election
Liberal minority after the 1963 election
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Liberal minority after the 1965 election
  • Seats short of a majority (1963): 5
  • Seats short of a majority (1965): 2

In the 1963 election, the Liberals, led by Lester B. Pearson, were also unable to win a majority. The next three years were productive ones, however, as a close working relationship between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP) resulted in he introduction of Canada's health care system, the Canadian flag, and the Canada Pension Plan. In 1965, Pearson asked the Governnor General to dissolve Parliament in an attempt to win a majority, but the make up of parliament after the 1965 election remained almost exactly the same, leading to three more years of a productive alliance between the Liberals and NDP.

Canada's constitutional law dealing with minority governments was altered in 1968 when Pearson's government was unexpectedly defeated on a matter of confidence. While this should have led to an immediate dissolution of parliament, none of the parties were ready, and Pearson was in the process of being replaced as leader of the Liberals. By mutual agreement among the party leaders, it was decided that the parliament would continue, setting a new precedent.

Pierre E. Trudeau

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Liberal minority after the 1972 election
  • Seats short of a majority (1972): 232

In the 1972 election, the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau won only two seats more than the Tories. It was the second election for Mr. Trudeau. However, even though the Liberals entered the election strong in the polls, the Trudeaumania buzz had all but evapourated, and the party was hurt even more by a weak economy. With few issues to campaign on, and one of the weakest campaigns seen in Canadian history, they were again forced to rely on the NDP to remain in power. In this instance, the NDP demanded the creation of Petro Canada among other things to support the Liberals. In 1974, Trudeau successfully won a large majority government.

2Speaker was elected as indpendent

Joe Clark

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Tory minority after the 1979 election
  • Seats short of a majority (1979): 6

While the Liberals have had first the Progressives and later the NDP to support them in minority situations, the Progressive Conservatives have had no such natural partner. After the aftermath 1979 election, which ended 11 years of Liberal government, this became evident to Tory Prime Minister Joe Clark. Clark's government was defeated in a vote on the budget orchestrated by the Liberals and NDP. Clark could have prevented this, but he hoped to follow the precedent of Diefenbaker and advance to a majority. However, the dissolution was portrayed as a blunder, and in the subsequent 1980 election, the Tories were defeatedby the Liberals.

Paul Martin

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Liberal minority after the 2004 election
  • Seats short of a majority (2004): 20

Although the 2004 federal election was initially expected to be easy for Martin to win a fourth consecutive Liberal majority government, during the campaign many began instead to predict a far closer result. Mostly due to the sponsorship scandal, polls started to indicate the possibility of a minority government for the Liberals, or even a minority Conservative government, which in turn created speculation of coalitions with the other parties. In the end, the Liberals fared better than the final opinion polls had led them to fear, but not well enough to win a majority.

On May 10, 2005, a motion was passed by the opposition parties in the House of Commons to instruct a committee to call for the dissolution of the government. The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois defeated the Liberals and the NDP by 153 votes to 150. Although the motion was technically nothing more than a procedural instruction to a committee, the Conservatives and Bloc demanded the resignation of the government. There is ongoing debate between parties and constitutional experts as to whether or not this was a vote of no confidence. For further details, see CBC news (http://www.cbc.ca/story/canada/national/2005/05/10/confidence-vote050510.html).

On May 19, 2005, the House voted on two budget bills, deemed unquestionable matters of confidence. With the support of two Independents and a Conservative MP who crossed the floor to the Liberals, the result of the vote was a tie, which was broken in favour of the government by the Speaker, resulting in a vote of 153-152.


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