The Liberal - NDP Coalition and Forming Government

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Dec 19, 2008

Find an explanation of how a proposed Liberal-NDP coalition government could assume power according to Canada’s parliamentary tradition. Includes an examination of a possible vote of non-confidence against the Conservative minority government; a request to the Governor General to allow a Liberal-New Democratic coalition to form a new government; and the immediate tasks facing a possible coalition government once in power.

Even though the Liberal Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party have agreed, if necessary, to form a coalition government, a number of events must occur for such a scenario to become reality. The following feature provides an overview of how it is possible for a proposed Liberal-NDP coalition government to assume power according to Canada’s parliamentary tradition, even without an election. It also includes a discussion of the particular steps that must be taken for such a change in government to occur, including: the introduction of a vote of non-confidence against the Conservative minority government; a request by the Governor General of the leader of the Liberal Party to form a new government; and the immediate tasks facing a possible coalition government once in power.

Responsible Government and Canada’s Parliament

Under the proposed coalition government, the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Québécois agreed to defeat to the Conservative minority government and replace it with a Liberal-NDP coalition. How can a change in government without an election be considered democratic?

For more information on minority and coalition governments in Canada:

The answer lies in Canada’s parliamentary system and its particular structure of responsible government. For many people, the term “responsible government” means that government should be directly chosen by and accountable to the people. In some democracies in the world, this is precisely the case. In the United States, for example, voters directly elect their local representatives (Members of Congress and Senators), as well as their political executive (the President).

In Canada, and most other parliamentary democracies in the world, the notion of responsible government means something quite different: government is not directly responsible to the average citizen, but to their elected representatives (called Members of Parliament or MPs). Under this system, Canadians directly choose their MPs, who, in turn, are responsible for selecting and holding accountable the government (in this context, the “government” refers to the Prime Minister and Cabinet). In modern Canadian politics, this is generally decided along political party lines, with the party that has the greatest number of MPs forming the government and its leader becoming the Prime Minister.

It is at this point that a second element of responsible government is critical, specifically, the requirement that the government must maintain the “confidence” of the House of Commons to remain in power. In order for the government to govern, it must maintain majority support among all MPs. If it cannot do so, then the government falls (or is “defeated”) and must be replaced. It is in this way that democratic accountability is maintained in the Canadian parliamentary system. If a government acts in a manner that loses the support of a majority of representatives — representatives who have been elected by the citizens of Canada — then said government no longer has the legitimacy to rule and must step aside.

Normally, the defeat of a government due to lack of confidence triggers a general election. Citizens are given an opportunity to have their say, and they may choose to return their elected representatives to the House of Commons or select new representatives if they are dissatisfied with their past conduct. The Canadian Constitution, however, does allow for another option. The Governor General of Canada has the power to ask the leader of another political party to form a government, without holding a general election. This may be done in situations where another leader has the ability to gain the majority support of all Members of Parliament.

Some might criticize such a situation as “undemocratic,” and they would be correct if one considers democracy to require governments to be directly chosen by and responsible to average citizens. If, however, one accepts the definition of democracy as it is understood in Canada’s parliamentary tradition, then the claim of being “undemocratic” is far from clear. Democratic legitimacy, at least in this context, simply depends on whether Canadians have had an opportunity to choose their elected representatives, and whether the government enjoys the confidence of those representatives.

Vote of Non-confidence in Conservative Government

As discussed above, Canada’s parliamentary system allows the opposition parties to defeat the government and form a coalition government. This, however, raises an important question: what must take place in order for the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition to become the government?

Three steps are important in this context: 1) the defeat of the Conservative government through a vote of non-confidence; 2) a request by the Governor General of the leader of the Liberal Party (the party with the second greatest number of seats in the House of Commons) to form a new government; and 3) the filling of actual Cabinet positions by the new government. The subsequent sections examine each of these steps in detail.

Before the Liberals and New Democrats could assume the reins of power, they must first defeat the Conservative minority government. This is accomplished by casting a vote of non-confidence in the government, which may be performed in a number of ways. The opposition parties may, for example, defeat an important piece of government legislation, such as a money bill (a budget, for example) or throne speech (which outlines the government’s planned agenda). Another option is for the opposition parties to introduce and pass a motion explicitly declaring they no longer have confidence in the government (a “motion” is a formal proposal by a member of the House to take certain action).

It is important to note that the Liberals and New Democrats could not perform a vote of non-confidence without the support of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. In this case, the Liberals and New Democrats do not have sufficient combined numbers to pass such a vote. As such, the third opposition party in the House, the Bloc Québécois, would also have to support such a vote of non-confidence — something the Party has publicly pledged to do.

Initially, the three opposition parties had stated they would vote against the Conservative government’s November economic and fiscal update. This update is considered a money bill, as it contained initiatives regarding government revenues and expenditures. Its defeat in the House, therefore, would have been considered a vote of non-confidence and thus would have triggered the defeat of the government. The opposition parties, however, were denied an opportunity to exercise a vote of non-confidence when the Conservative government first delayed the vote, and then prorogued (or “temporarily suspended”) Parliament until late-January 2009. Upon the reopening of Parliament, the Conservative government is committed to introducing both a throne speech and an early budget. Defeat of either of these pieces of legislation will represent a vote of non-confidence and the defeat of the government.

As of December 15, 2008, it is unclear whether this vote of non-confidence will take place. The New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois have publicly stated they will vote against the government regardless of any changes in its policies. The Liberal Party, under new interim leader Michael Ignatieff, has taken a somewhat different position. If the Conservatives are willing to work with the Liberal Party and adopt key Liberal economic policies, such as an aggressive economic stimulus package, then the Liberals have suggested they might be open to supporting the government’s January budget. If, however, the Conservatives fail to cooperate with the Liberal Party, then the Liberals have indicated they are prepared to defeat the government and form a coalition government with the New Democrats. Hence, much depends on whether the two major parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, are able to cooperate.

Governor General and a Coalition Government

Even if the opposition parties defeat the Conservatives through a vote of non-confidence, this does not assure a Liberal-NDP coalition government.

Should it be defeated in the House, custom would dictate the Prime Minister (in this case, Conservative leader Stephen Harper) should resign and offer advice to the Governor General of Canada as to what should occur next. In most cases, a defeated government will advise the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. This is likely what the Conservative government would do, as it would view another election, with the possibility of forming a majority government, as preferable to being relegated to opposition party status. It is, however, open to the Governor General to disregard the advice of the Conservative government and, instead, ask the leader of the next largest political party, in this case the Liberal Party of Canada, to form a new government. As such, Parliament would not be dissolved, no election would be held, and the Liberals and New Democrats would be given an opportunity to form a coalition government.

As of December 15, 2008, it is far from clear what the Governor General would decide under such circumstances. This is due, in large part, to conflicting constitutional traditions. On the one hand, there is the tradition that the Governor General, as a purely ceremonial figurehead, should always adopt the advice of the democratically elected government. According to this view, the Governor General would accept the Conservative government’s advice to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. The likelihood of this outcome is bolstered by the fact the Governor General accepted the Conservative government’s advice to prorogue Parliament in early December, even though the practice was deemed by many to be completely inappropriate at the time. (A prorogation is a mechanism traditionally used to suspend Parliament towards the end of a session, after the House has completed its work. It is not customarily used, as occurred in this case, at the beginning of a session, before the House had even begun its work, and solely to protect the government from being defeated in a vote of non-confidence).

Despite tradition, precedence exists for the Governor General to disregard the government’s advice and ask an opposition party to form a new government. Although it has been well over half a century, a similar situation occurred in 1926, when Governor General Lord Byng refused then-Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s advice to dissolve government, instead asking the Conservative Party to form a new government. Back to the current context, it would seem there are a number of factors that could tempt the Governor General not to dissolve Parliament. The first is the presence of a viable alternative government, in the form the Liberal-NDP coalition — a coalition which has been formally and publicly established by the parties through the signing of key documents (see below for more information). The second is the fact that a federal election was held as recently as October 2008, which may persuade the Governor General to give the current Parliament a second chance under a new government rather than calling another election only months after the previous one.

The Coalition and Forming Government

If the opposition parties defeat the Conservative government and the Governor General asks the leader of the Liberal Party to form a new government, the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition would then be required to deal with a number of immediate issues.

The first of these would be the make-up of the new coalition government. The coalition agreement, signed by the Liberals and NDP in early December, establishes a number of general rules regarding the composition of a coalition Cabinet. This includes the number of ministers to be included in the Cabinet (24), how many ministries each party would receive (18 for the Liberals and 6 for the NDP), and the granting to the Liberal Party of the two most important Cabinet positions — those of the Prime Minster and the Minister of Finance. Nevertheless, the new coalition government would have to deal with the difficult issue of who precisely would fill individual cabinet positions, and other senior public service staff (such as deputy ministers) positions — a task that could prove challenging for a coalition based on membership of two political parties with differing ideologies.

A second key issue will be setting up mechanisms for cooperation between the two coalition partners, the Liberals and New Democrats, as well as between the coalition government and its key supporter in the opposition ranks, the Bloc Québécois. To this end, the coalition agreement does provide some general principles on how this cooperation will take place. For example, it provides that the Liberal Prime Minister would consult with the leader of the NDP on key appointments, and that the caucuses of the two parties would deliberate together on “joint issues.” Moreover, the agreements call for the implementation of a consultation process with the Bloc Québécois. That said, many of the details around this cooperation will have to be worked out by the coalition government if it is to maintain unity over the long run.

Third, a possible coalition would have to work out its policy priorities and strategies. Again, the coalition agreement provides a general policy framework for the coalition government. This includes a focus on the economy, with economic stimulus package and reforms to aid those most affected by the deteriorating economy. Nevertheless, the coalition partners, and the Bloc, would have to work out the specifics around these economic initiatives, while compromising on other policy decisions that could arise over the lifespan of a possible coalition government.

In sum, a possible Liberal-NDP coalition faces a number of challenges before and once it comes to power. These range from first defeating the Conservative government, to being requested by the Governor General to form a government, to implementing and maintaining a cooperative and productive relationship between the coalition partners (the Liberals and NDP), as well as with the Bloc Québécois.