Minority GovernmentA minority government exists when the governing party does not hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons. A minority Parliament (in which no party can claim a majority of MPs) need not result in a minority government if 2 or more parties are willing to form a coalition government, but since 1867 no peacetime coalition governments and only one wartime coalition (1917-21) have existed. Since 1921 there have been 10 minority parliaments (1921-25, 1925-26, 1957-58, 1962-63, 1963-65, 1965-68, 1972-74, 1979-80, 2004-06, and 2006-). Of the CONSERVATIVE minority governments (1926, 1957-58, 1962-63 and 1979-80), none endured for more than a few months and only one (1957-58) did not fall on a vote of confidence. Of the LIBERAL governments, one (1925-26), under Mackenzie King, left office following the refusal of the governor general to grant a dissolution of Parliament and call an election (see KING-BYNG AFFAIR). Two Liberal governments were defeated in the Commons (1972-74 and 2004-06). The remaining Liberal minority governments (1921-25 and 1963-68) were able to govern with the support of the third parties until they could call elections at a time of their choosing.
The balance of power in minority parliaments in Canada has been held by reformist parties of the broad left (Progressives, CCF, NDP) or, occasionally, by a regional French Canadian party (Créditistes) - parties that have feared and distrusted the intentions of the Conservative Party, which was, in any event, unable to compromise its policy positions to accommodate them. The Liberal Party, however, has always been willing to accommodate them, at least minimally. For example, the King government's ability to retain the confidence of the Commons from 1921 to 1925 depended partly on the strong anti-tariff policy favoured by the Progressive Party. The Pearson minority governments of 1963-65 and 1965-68 won over the NDP with legislation that included a considerable expansion of social programs. The Trudeau minority government of 1972-74 wooed the NDP by enacting, or by committing itself to enact, regulation of election expenses and the establishment of Petro-Canada and the Foreign Investment Review Agency. The minority government of Paul Martin (2004-06) clung to power with the support of the NDP, in part by amending its proposed budget to increase spending on social programs and defer tax cuts for large corporations.
In contrast, immediately following the election of the Conservative minority government of 1979-80, PM Joe Clark announced he would govern as if he had a majority. He tried, even to the extent of allying with the Liberal Party and NDP, to deprive the Créditistes of their standing as a recognized political party in the House of Commons, although his government depended for its existence upon the votes of those same Créditistes. As a result, the Créditistes lost their collective right to speak in all matters before the House as well as their right to public funding for their caucus research office. In the non-confidence vote of December 1979, the Créditistes withheld their support for the government despite their chances of re-election being slim.
Though politicians frequently claim that their parties need a majority to carry out their program, this has seldom been true. Though never holding a majority, the Pearson governments were among the most productive in Canadian history, enacting universal health care, the Canadian Pension Plan, the Canada Assistance Plan, and the Canada Student Loans Plan, as well as unifying the armed forces and creating a new national flag.
Minority Governments in Canada
1921-26, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Liberal
1926, Arthur Meighen, Conservative
1957-58, John Diefenbaker, Conservative
1962-63, John Diefenbaker, Conservative
1963-68, Lester Pearson, Liberal
1972-74, Pierre Trudeau, Liberal
1979-80, Joe Clark, Conservative
2004-06, Paul Martin, Liberal
2006-2011, Stephen Harper, Conservative