Canada’s minority government in comparative and historical perspective

I noted earlier that the election in Canada resulted in a leading party with the smallest plurality of seats in Canadian history: 40.26%. Here I want to compare this result to other plurality jurisdictions. As part of an academic paper that I am working on now, I have collected data on 187 elections held under plurality electoral rules in parliamentary systems that have mostly nationalized party conpetition.* These elections cover a period of 30-40 years in the U.K., Canada and the Canadian provinces, New Zealand (prior to its shift to MMP), and several Caribbean countries.**

How many of these 187 elections produced a plurality smaller than what the Conservative party currently holds? One.

In Nova Scotia in 1998, the Liberal party obtained 19 of 52 seats in the provincial legislative assembly, or 36.5%, on 35.3% of the votes. That election produced a tie in seats, with the NDP also obtaining 19 seats on 34.6% of the vote.

The next closest examples are:

Ontario 1975, 40.8% seats (36% votes)
Canada 1972, 41.3% seats (38.5% votes)
Ontario 1985, 41.6% seats (37% votes)***
Canada, 1957, 42.3% seats (38.9% votes)

These are the only cases in my data in which the largest party in parliament won under 43% of the seats.

As I noted in a post on election day, Canada’s federal minority parliaments have averaged a life of about 18.5 months, or about the length of the minority parliament elected in 2004. Given what a dysfunctional parliament this is likely to be, it will be hard pressed to keep itself together even that long.

In fact, I think Declan said it best:

Something about Martin’s tone when he said that ‘the people of Canada have chosen Harper to lead a minority government’ made me feel that he was trying to hide his glee about how Harper would suffer trying to do just that.

Declan also notes, in his running commentary from election night: “Is Stephen Harper still speaking?” I saw it on C-SPAN and I have to admit, I stayed up past my usual bedtime to hear what Harper had to say, and I thought it was the worst victory speech I had ever heard any politician give. I am not sure how I stayed awake.


*The data therefore do not include India, where a very large share of the seats and votes are won by state-specific parties. In India coalition governments have been the norm in recent decades because the largest party usually has under 30% of the votes and seats. I also did not include cases that hardly have a party system at all, such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

**Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

***In this election, the second largest party in parliament (which had obtained a higher votes percentage) formed the government with the support of a third party.

0 thoughts on “Canada’s minority government in comparative and historical perspective

  1. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  2. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  3. “…Canada’s federal minority parliaments have averaged a life of about 18.5 months, or about the length of the minority parliament elected in 2004. Given what a dysfunctional parliament this is likely to be, it will be hard pressed to keep itself together even that long.”

    That was 20 months of functional government ago.

    The previous minority gov’t (Martin, Liberal), despite having a greater share of seats, was weaker than today’s gov’t (Harper, Conservative). This was predictable on election night.

    How? Both times, there were 4 parties and 1 independent elected to parliament. However, in Martin’s case, the support of the NDP and the lone independant was never enough to pass legislation (since the Speaker was drawn from government ranks, astoundingly). In contrast, today’s Conservatives only need any one of the three opposition parties to side with it to prevent a general election (with the Speaker drawn from Opposition ranks, more astutely).

    (Aside: Martin’s failure, perhaps, was never reading Archer’s First Among Equals)!

    Put another way, the current minority gov’t is quite stable, since bringing it down requires all three opposition parties to believe that they will do better in the ensuing election… or that they will do much worse in, say, 6 or 12 months time.

    Such a time may soon be approaching in the form of the Conservatives’ second Speech from the Throne, a matter of confidence. Both the Liberals and the Bloc believe they could be much worse off in 6 months, while the NDP is game to try to do better. However, it is just as likely that Harper’s gov’t could last two more years and become Canada’s longest minority gov’t, if it so chose. And choose that it might, since one of Harper’s goals is to demonstrate Conservative governance, a rarity in Canada since 1935.

    In short, at least in Canada’s Commons, which features extremely strict party discipline, insofar as the allocation of seats affect the sustainability of a minority gov’t, the allocation of opposition parties is more important than the share of seats the governing party enjoys.

  4. I like your thinking, Ross!

    One thing to consider is how the issues play into this analysis. As we all know, minority governments usually must make some concessions to the opposition in order to stay in power. If some minority has many ways of winning a vote, you’re right that this could make the government more stable. But the government could equally use the benefits of a weak opposition to be less conciliatory on the issues, without changing its chances of survival.

    In the past, most minorities have been willing to risk an election. They may therefore have spent their political capital mostly on policy (or buying votes, which may or may not be the same thing), and the government was always near the brink of falling. The real story here is what you said about Harper wanting to “demonstrate Conservative governance”, meaning he values stability over policy–that is what I think is giving us such a relatively stable minority.

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