Coalition Governments in Canada

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jul 1, 2007

Coalition governments have been rare in Canadian history; however, the ones that have existed had have important impacts on Canadian politics. This article describes the nature of coalition governments in Canada, including a basic definition of coalition governments, an overview of different types of coalitions, and a historical perspective on coalition governments in Canada.

Introduction to Coalition Government in Canada

What are coalition governments?

Types of Canadian Coalition Governments

Why are coalition governments formed?

Canadian Coalition Governments in History

Important coalition governments in Canadian history.

Links to Further Information on Coalition Governments

Find more information on coalition governments.

Introduction to Coalition Government in Canada

What are coalition governments?

Generally speaking, coalition governments are ones in which two or more political parties enter into a formal agreement to govern together. The parties form a coalition with one another - hence the term "Coalition Government." In understanding this type of government further, it is important to examine key concepts in Canadian Parliamentary politics, such as the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the notion of responsible government, and the role of political parties in forming governments .

Prime Minister and Cabinet as Government

In Canada, the term “government” refers to the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet (in the case of provincial/territorial legislatures, "government" refers to the Premier and their Cabinet). These persons lead the nation and decide important issues of governance; for example, how much money the state should tax and spend, what the nation's laws should be, and what programs and services the state should offer. In essence, the Prime Minister and Cabinet represent the pinnacle of executive political power in Canada.

For more information on the head of government in Canada:

Notion of Responsible Government

The Prime Minister and Cabinet, however, are not completely free to govern the country as they wish. Rather, they are responsible to Canadian voters indirectly through a process called "responsible government." Under this process, the Prime Minister and Cabinet can only govern so long as they the support of the majority of Members of Parliament (or "MPs") in the nationally elected legislature, which is called the House of Commons. These MPs, in turn, are responsible to the voters during general elections – voters may decide to re-elect their incumbent MP or vote for a new representative. It is through their democratically elected MPs, then, that the government in Canada is responsible to, and held accountable by, the Canadian people.

For more on information on responsible government in Canada:

Political Parties and Government

What does all of this have to do with coalition governments? The answer lies with the relationship between responsible government and another key political concept - political parties. Most MPs in the House of Commons belong to a particular political party, for example, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, or the New Democratic Party. Membership in a political party is not mandatory. Over time, however, political parties have developed in such a way as to become essential to persons desiring a successful political career. Moreover, political parties exert an incredible amount of control over their MPs in the House. This is due in large part to a practice called “party discipline,” in which the leadership of a political party will use certain tactics, such as the threat of demotion within the party hierarchy, to ensure that MPs ”toe the party line.”

Political parties thus play an important role in the process of forming and maintaining governments; the political party with the most MPs elected to the House usually forms the government, and the leader of that party usually becomes the Prime Minister. Why is this the case? Remember, under Canada's system of responsible government, the Prime Minister and Cabinet must have the support the majority of MPs in the House of Commons. As such, the leader of political party with the most MPs in the House generally has the best chance of gaining this majority support. S/he can use party discipline to ensure the greatest amount of votes in the legislature.

Majority & Minority Governments

In most cases in Canada’s parliamentary history, a single political party has had more than half of all the MPs in the House of Commons. This is called a majority government because the governing political party has a “clear majority” in the House. Majority governments are usually very stable: since more than half of the MPs in the House belong to the same political party as the Prime Minister, s/he can simply use party discipline to ensure that the government always has majority support in the legislature.

In some cases, however, no single political party has a clear majority of MPs in the House. The political party with the most MPs, nevertheless, may decide to form the government on its own. This is called a minority government because the governing political party only has a “minority” of MPs in the legislature. A minority government governs much differently than majority ones: because it does not have a clear majority in the House, the government cannot simply use party discipline to guarantee support in the legislature. Instead, it must negotiate with opposition parties to gain their support for government legislation. This is usually done on a legislation-by-legislation basis. The government may, for example, strike a deal with one opposition party to gain the support it needs for one piece of legislation, and then negotiate with a different political party on another piece of legislation.

For more information on minority governments:

Coalition Governments

Coalition governments are different from majority and minority governments in that they involve two or more political parties forming the government together (whereas the other two involve only one political party sitting as government). In coalition governments, members from each coalition party will fill government offices. It may be the case, for example, that the Prime Minister is from one political party, while the Minister of Finance is from another. The coalition parties will work closely together to develop government policy, and their MPs will vote in unison in the House of Commons.

Coalition governments can occur when no single political party has a majority of MPs - two or more parties will form a coalition and together exercise a majority in the House. These types of coalitions, however, should not be confused with minority governments. In the latter case, a single political party forms the government alone and then seeks the support of different opposition parties on a case-by-case basis. In coalition governments, two or more political parties enter into a long-term agreement to form the government together, to the exclusion of all other parties in the legislature.

Moreover, it is important to note that a coalition can be formed even when a single political party has a majority of MPs in the House. It may be the case that the majority party desires complete unity in the legislature, for example, during war or some national crisis, and, as a result, asks other political parties to join it in government.

Types of Coalition Governments in Canada

Why are coalition governments formed?

Coalitions to Form Government

Coalition governments, be it in Canada or in other parliamentary democracies, are formed for several different reasons. One sort of coalition government occurs in parliamentary systems when no single party holds a majority of seats in the national legislature. Instead of forming a minority government, two or more political parties enter into a formal agreement to form the government together. In most cases, such coalition governments will involve a major political party entering into a coalition with a minor party, or several minor parties, to gain the few seats it needs to enjoy a majority in the legislature. Such coalitions are often very unequal, with the larger, dominant coalition partner holding the majority of key government positions and exerting greater influence on government policy.

Why would a major political party in this situation prefer to form a coalition government instead of governing with a minority? Such decisions depend, in large part, on the make-up of the legislature following an election. If the major political party is only a few seats shy of a majority in the legislature, and there is a smaller potential coalition partner that holds a similar ideology and enough seats to make up the difference, then a coalition government may make more sense than a minority one. The major political party gets the benefit of playing the dominant role in a stable government, with a like-minded – but weaker – partner. The smaller party, in return, gets to participate directly in government decision-making to a greater extent than may have otherwise been the case.

Coalition governments are very common in countries that have long traditions with a proportional representation electoral system. This type of electoral system can often produce a fractured legislature in which no single political party has a majority of seats. In Germany, for example, the two major political parties, the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), have rarely been able to form majority governments. During the 1980s and 1990s, the CDU governed in a coalition with the smaller Free Democratic Party. Then, from 1998-2005, the SPD formed a coalition government with the smaller German Green Party.

Coalitions in National Crises

Coalition governments are also, on occasion, formed when a single party has a clear majority in the legislature. This type of coalition usually occurs as the result of a national crisis or emergency, such as war or widespread civil unrest, which requires difficult and potentially divisive political decisions. The governing party will seek complete unity in the legislature in dealing with the crisis by inviting opposition parties into government through a coalition. Members of the former opposition parties will take up key government positions and participate in government decision-making.

The purpose of this type of coalition government is quite different from those formed under minority situations. The objective here is not to secure enough seats to form the government; the governing party already possesses a majority in the legislature. Rather, the objective is to organize the legislature in such a way that it can deal with a national crisis in an effective and unified manner. By bringing all parties into government, partisan politics is temporarily removed from the legislative process, and responsibility for difficult policy decisions is spread amongst most or all of the political parties in the legislature.

Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government during World War I serves as an example of this sort of coalition. The governing Conservative Prime Minister invited Liberal and independent members of Parliament to join his government to present a united front on the divisive issue of conscription.

Canadian Coalition Governments in History

Important coalition governments in Canadian history.

The Great Coalition (1864-1867)

Prior to Confederation, several coalition governments ruled throughout the Canadian colonies. One of the more important of these was the Great Coalition of 1864-67, which was formed in the Province of Canada. This was a large coalition involving most political parties in the Colony’s legislature at the time. It was formed in order to overcome legislative deadlock that had plagued the Colony for several decades, and eventually led the Colony into Confederation.

At that time, the Province of Canada consisted of Canada West (present day Ontario) and Canada East (present day Quebec), and was heavily divided along linguistic, religious, and ethnic lines. English-speaking Protestants, with strong ties to the British Empire, dominated Canada West. In contrast, Canada East was a former colony of France, and was predominately French-speaking and Catholic.

When the British formed the Province of Canada under the Act of Union, 1840, it gave the Colony a “unitary” parliamentary government in which there was only one level of government with a single legislative assembly. Moreover, the British instituted a double majority rule to govern the operation of the Colony’s assembly. Most parliamentary systems operate under a simple majority rule whereby the government only needs the support of a majority of all members of the assembly to pass legislation. Under the double majority rule, however, the Canadian colonial government needed two majorities. It had to gain the support of the majority of assembly members from Canada West, as well as the majority of members from Canada East.

The intent of this rule was to give each part of the Colony a veto on government legislation. At any time assembly members from either Canada West or Canada East could pool their votes together and defeat any piece of government legislation that they felt was against their interests. The effect of the rule, however, was legislative deadlock and the continual defeat of governments. The Colony’s linguistic and religious divisions resulted in assembly members from one part of the Colony constantly pooling their votes to block the legislative proposals of the other side.

In 1864, a consensus was reached in the Colony’s assembly to create a coalition government to reform the political system and end the legislative deadlock. This coalition government, commonly referred to as the “Great Coalition,” included the Conservative Party, the Clear Grits of Canada West, and the Parti Bleu of Canada East. John A. Macdonald, the leader of the Conservative Party, and Étienne-Paschal Taché became joint heads of the government. The only party not to join the Great Coalition was the Parti Rouge of Canada East.

One of the most important outcomes of the Great Coalition was Confederation, which led to the creation of the Dominion of Canada. The Great Coalition saw confederation with the Maritime colonies as a means of reforming the politics of the Province of Canada and of ending its legislative deadlock. With Confederation, the colony would be dissolved and Canada West and Canada East would become separate provinces, each with their own provincial legislatures and jurisdictions. In 1864, representatives from the Great Coalition proposed the idea of confederation to the Maritime colonies. Three years later the new Dominion of Canada was proclaimed. The Coalition Government was disbanded immediately when Confederation was realized.

For more information on the Great Coalition:
Library and Archives Canada: The Great Coalition
Marianopolis College: The Great Coalition Government

The Union Government (1917-20)

Since Confederation there has only been one coalition government in Canada’s history: the Union Government of World War I. This was a coalition between the Conservative Party, led by Robert Borden, and Liberals and independents. The coalition was formed in order to broaden support for the Borden government and its controversial conscription policy. 

In 1917, Prime Minister Borden announced that his government was going to introduce conscription to increase troops for the war in Europe. This policy was strongly opposed by many groups in Canada, in particular, French Canadians in Quebec and rural farmers. These groups resented being forced to participate in a British foreign war.

Prime Minister Borden hoped that a coalition government consisting of Conservatives and Liberals would help overcome these growing divisions within the country on this issue. Wilfrid Laurier, then leader of the Liberal Party, was opposed to conscription; he refused to lead his party into a coalition with the Conservatives. Many English-speaking Liberals, however, disagreed with their leader and left the party to join Borden in a coalition commonly referred to as the “Union Government.” Ultimately, the Union Government was successful in wining the general election of 1917 and eventually pushing conscription through Parliament.

With the end of the war in 1918, the primary raison d’être for the Union Government ceased to exist and the coalition began to break apart. Many former Liberals returned to their original political party, and the coalition dissolved completely with Prime Minister Borden’s retirement in 1920.

For more information on the Union Coalition Government:

Find more information on coalition governments.

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