Thursday, October 17, 2019

Does most seats = Government? No. And yes.

There's been a bit of a debate on Twitter as of late about if winning the most seats entitles you to form the next government. The simple answer to that is "no." Not just a no, but "no, not at all, this is not how this works, this is not how any of this works."

The complex answer, however, is "yes, absolutely it does." How can that be. How can the simple answer and complex answer be different. And more, which answer is right.

They both are.

That might sound absurd - in fact, in a way, it is absurd - but it is true. How? Simple; it matters in what context you ask the question and give the answer. It matters "when" said government would form. It matters "how" said government would form.

Let me give you two examples from our past. One 100% real. One fictional, based on real election results, but showing you what could happen if you take the argument to the extreme.


In 1972, the Election result was not clear on election day.
E-day results had the Liberals ahead by one. The following day, the Tories were ahead by one. It was only after recounts that it became clear the Liberals had won more seats.

Even while the PC party lead, the PC leader made it clear that the government gets the first chance to govern.

Why is this?
Simple; it is true.

The sitting government gets the first chance to govern.

Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy. We share a monarch with the United Kingdom, from where our political system originated. We do have a written constitution, but many things, such as the relationship between monarch and government, are left unwritten. That part of the constitution is thus based on tradition and on precedent.

That tradition and precedent clearly outlines the following: The Prime Minister remains the Prime Minister until they resign (or die)

There is another tradition, that is much less explicit, that a Prime Minister will resign when they no longer command the confidence of a majority of the house. This, however, is often bent. This is why actual Votes Of Non-Confidence (VONC) happen and pass. Generally, a Prime Minister is expected to act in good faith, and, if they know they could not pass a VONC, to resign in advance. Mid-term, the actual vote often happens. After an election, however, this is especially true. A Prime Minister who has just lost an election is expected to resign.

So, what of 1972. Did Trudeau lose the election? Simply, no. Even at 108 seats vs the 109 seat PC Party, there were two other parties in the Commons. Social Credit with 15 seats, and the NDP with 31. Two independents were also elected. Simple math, however, tells us only the NDP matters. Lets take the actual final results, 109-107. There is a 2 seat lead (109-107=2). This deals with the Liberals and Tories. Now that we've done that, we deal with all non-NDP members. 15 Social Credit plus 2 Independents. Add the 2 seat lead to that; 19. Lets assume that somehow we end up with a Tory speaker, that would increase the lead from 2 to 3, bringing our 19 to 20. Now lets add another seat to ensure there are no tricky ties; 21. 21 is less than 31, the number of seats the NDP has. As such, so long as party votes are whipped, the only party that matters in this situation (the situation of deciding who has a majority, the Liberals or the Tories) is the NDP.

The NDP did end up, in that term, offering soft support to Trudeau and the Liberals, only to bring them down in a VONC in 1974.

For all of these reasons, we end up with (what was thought at the time to be) a party with fewer seats, still holding on to government.

We've even seen this recently in New Brunswick, and a similar if more muddled example from BC.


Now we go on to fiction. Our actual election results will not change, the Liberals have just won a majority. The governing PC party, under Prime Minister Kim Campbell, have gone from 196 seats in the last election, to a grand total of 2 seats after this election. Campbell herself lost her seat.

So, what if we apply the rule we learned about above to this election. Could Campbell have stayed on as Prime Minister?


That's probably shocking to hear, but, legally, yes. She absolutely could have.

Our election happens on October 25th 1993. The last sitting day for Parliament was September 7th 1993. The Constitution (actually the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if you want to be specific, section 5) clearly says that Parliament must meet once every "twelve months" As such, the latest meeting date therefore is Friday September 30th 1994.

What happens next is a bit clouded, there is some argument that because the government controls the sitting calendar for the House, it could use this to significantly delay as well. Arguing against this, is the fact that the Speaker elected during that first meeting would most certainly use all of their power to block such a move. As such I've decided simply that said House would have an extended "thanksgiving break", it would debate the Throne Speech for the 6 days it is debated on the 16th, 17th, and 18th, as well as the 23rd, 24th, and 25th of October. Finally, a vote on it would very clearly show the government does not have the Confidence of the house.

So, what now?

Well according to the current UK Prime Minister, Campbell would be within her right to simply call another election, remain PM, wait another full year, and do this all over even. In fact, there seems little to stop her from doing so a third time; save the fact that all of this means no Federal Budgets are being passed the whole time, and thus, the country is likely spiralling into chaos.

Even without Johnson's absurd idea, we still face the fact that, legally, Campbell could have remained Prime Minister for a full year, even after losing such a massive election. So.

Why didn't she?

Because its not right.

That's it. Simple as that. It's not right.

According to whom?

The voters.

Yup. According to what the voters think is "right"

There is a 3rd player in this story. You. You, and me, and all the other Canadians out there.

Imagine for a moment if Campbell had tried to do this. Imagine the outrage from voters. Not just opposition voters, but people within her own party wouldn't stand for it. It would destroy the party far more than it just has been. Jean Charest, the sitting Deputy Prime Minister, almost certainly would have contacted the Governor General himself and requested he dismiss Campbell on the grounds of insanity. Frankly, if such a situation ever did occur, I would not be surprised to see mobs of protesters storm Parliament, carrying opposition MPs. Hell, even the Military might get involved to show Campbell that nobody will put up with this nonsense.

But, what then, of 1972? Or the recent New Brunswick election? Why were there no riots then? No military coup d'etat?

Simple: It was right to give them a shot to govern.

Put another way, it did not make voters "mad enough" to "do something about it"

That is what is key.

That is all that matters.

That is why this debate can get nonsensical.

The only thing that matters is if the voters will "put up with it" and, more importantly, if the people involved think the voters will "put up with it"

Trudeau will not try to cling to power if he does not think the voters will "put up with it". If he does not think so.

It goes beyond simply asking the electorate if they will or will not put up with it, it rests in the judgement of the Prime Minister.

And, what does the Prime Minister think?

I don't know, but I can make reasoned, thought out, educated guesses, based both on his past behavior, and on the traditions and precedents that surround these events.

10 seats is not enough. Even if Scheer wins 10 more seats than Trudeau, as my last gutomatic projection showed, (132-122), Trudeau will decide (so says I) that he can stay PM and test the confidence of the house.

40 seats though? (147-107) Trudeau will decide that he can not stay PM and will inform the GG that Scheer has a mandate to test the confidence of the house.

How about 25?
Now we get into the weeds. This is a tricky thing, based on what I, and you, and everyone else talking about this, think Trudeau will do. Hell, even I'm not convinced Trudeau would step aside at 40 if the other parties are making friendly noises.

This is a complex, complicated, nuanced issue, one that is not well suited to discussion on Twitter with its character limits. The true answer is we do not know what Trudeau will do until he does it, and until then, we can only guess.

1 comment:

  1. My gut is if the Liberals and NDP (maybe also the Greens, but the chance of them making a difference is slim at this point) has a combined majority, they will announce a coalition almost immediately, even if the Conservatives have the most seats. If they don't and it would take some kind of support from the Bloc, they will just let Scheer have that headache.