POLITICS
10/15/2019 21:50 EDT | Updated 10/18/2019 12:19 EDT

What Does A Coalition Government Mean And Can The 2019 Election Result In One?

A party needs to win 170 seats for a majority. In the event of a minority, the rules change.

“Absolutely.”

With one word spoken during an event Sunday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh set off a flurry of searches with regards to coalitions, minority governments, and collaborating with the Liberals. 

The NDP leader said he would be willing to do “whatever it takes” to avoid a Conservative government coming to power. And that could mean forming a coalition government with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — and possibly other parties, too.

“We’re not going to support a Conservative government,” Singh said. “We’re going to fight a Conservative government, we’re going to fight it all the way. We’re ready to do whatever it takes.”

On Monday, Singh walked back his comments somewhat. But that doesn’t mean it’s out of the question. Polls are projecting the Liberals and Conservatives are in a tight race to win the most seats, but the chances of either earning a majority mandate are slim.

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Canada's parliament building in Ottawa. 

That would mean we likely end up with either a minority Liberal or Conservative government — or the much-discussed coalition. 

But what is a coalition government? What does it mean? Has Canada ever had one before? And could it actually result in Green Party Leader Elizabeth May as environment minister? 

Here are some questions about coalitions, answered.

What is a coalition government?

A coalition government is when two or more parties come together temporarily to form a majority government. They can form a cabinet with members from different parties, and sign an agreement to formally work and govern together. That means that yes, in a hypothetical coalition involving the Greens, Elizabeth May could be a federal environment minister. That is a big hypothetical, though. 

How is it different than a minority government?

A minority government is when a single party wins the most seats, but not enough (170) for a majority. That means they need other parties’ support to pass each piece of legislation. As a result, minority governments often don’t last long, because it’s hard for the governing party to keep the confidence of the House of Commons. Canada had three different minority governments under Liberal Paul Martin and Conservative Stephen Harper from 2004 to 2011. 

Could there be a coalition from this election?

Nothing is impossible. It will depend on how the seats for each party play out. Hypothetically, if Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives win the most seats but not a majority, the Liberals, NDP and possibly Bloc Québécois or Greens could team up to form government.

WATCH: Scheer blasts spectre of Liberal-NDP coalition. Story continues below. 

That would require a lot of conversation and compromise though, and we likely won’t get any answers right away on election night. The inclusion of the Bloc in any formal arrangements could prove controversial, because the party is committed to Quebec separatism.

None of the other major parties have explicitly said they’d be open to forming a coalition with the Tories. And Scheer has doubled down on pushing for a Conservative majority. 

Have we ever had a federal coalition government before?

Only once since Confederation, more than 100 years ago in 1917. In that year, the Unionist Party, a pro-conscription coalition of Progressive Conservatives and former Liberals, formed a majority under Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. Both former Tories and former Liberals were appointed to the cabinet.

 

We came close to another coalition in 2008, after Stephen Harper won a minority government in that year’s election. The Liberals and NDP — with the Bloc supporting — signed an agreement to form a coalition if the Tories lost a vote of non-confidence. However, the Governor General dissolved Parliament and it never materialized. 

They happen a lot in Europe, right? Why not here?

According to historian Christopher Moore, coalition governments in Canada are difficult because leaders are not chosen by elected MPs, but instead are chosen by party members. Moore notes that system concentrates power in the hands of the leader, and makes coalitions very difficult. 

In European parliaments, meanwhile, leaders are usually chosen by elected MPs rather than the party mass, diffusing power and making agreements between parties a lot easier. 

The United Kingdom has usually only formed coalition governments in times of crisis, like the National Government from 1931 to 1940. Meanwhile, coalition governments are quite common in Germany. In Ireland, coalitions are so common, a single party hasn’t been able to form government since 1977. 

But what about British Columbia? Don’t they have a coalition right now?

Sort of! The 2017 B.C. election was historically close, with Christy Clark’s Liberal Party winning 43 seats to John Horgan’s NDP’s 41. However, the Green Party won three seats, and thus had the power to decide which party they wanted to support.

Ultimately, the Greens and NDP teamed up to form government. However, it wasn’t a formal agreement of coalition, but rather a vow by the Greens to prop up the NDP minority. Thus, Green Leader Andrew Weaver doesn’t hold a cabinet position, but definitely holds some influence in how the NDP runs the province. 

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B.C. Premier John Horgan and B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver speak to media following a 2017 announcement banning union and corporate donations to political parties.

The New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives also govern the province with the temporary support of three members of the People’s Alliance, an arrangement that has been described as a de facto coalition.

In 1985, Ontario Liberals replaced Tories who had fallen short of a majority by striking a two-year deal with the NDP for support.

Actual coalitions have happened throughout history in various provinces. Fun fact: Manitoba has had more coalition governments than any other province! The Manitoba Liberal Party was actually born out of a coalition in 1932 between the Progressive Party and Liberal-Progressive Party.