#onpoli newsletter - Could Scheer win the most seats, but Trudeau form government?

Examining the politics of minority governments
By Eric Bombicino - Published on Oct 18, 2019
Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath engage in some speculation about possible coalition governments following the Oct. 21 vote.



Hello, #onpoli people,

This week, dear listeners, we have a special treat for you. We’ve published two episodes of the podcast to get you ready for the federal election on Monday.

On Thursday, we released an episode about the issue Maxime Bernier has made central to his People’s Party of Canada platform: immigration. Although the People’s Party is polling at only about 3 per cent, according to our AI pollster, Erin Kelly of Advanced Symbolics, negative views among the Canadian population about immigration have jumped to 42 per cent from 25 per cent since 2015.

How should we understand this shift in attitude? And let’s post the unasked question that hums in the background of many heated conversations around immigration: is it racist to want less of it? This week, we heard two contrasting views from independent Senator Ratna Omidvar and Eric Kaufmann, author of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities.

Line graph showing favourability rating of party leaders during campaign. Jagmeet Singh is first with 64 per cent, Y.F. Blanchet at 56 per cent, Elizabeth May at 47 per cent, Andrew Scheer at 37 per cent, Justin Trudeau at 36 per cent, Maxime Bernier at 17 per cent.
Source: Angus Reid Institute

We also have a bonus episode, out today. The NDP’s shift in the polls switched on #onpoli’s bat signal (that’s two Batman references in the last few newsletters, for those keeping count).

Our hosts, Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath, hopped into the recording booth for a chat about Jagmeet Singh’s rising popularity and, more important for these two parliamentary procedure nerds, the possible scenarios that could play out in a hung Parliament — including how Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives could technically win the most seats, but still see Justin Trudeau’s Liberals form the government.

It’s not like hockey or baseball

What is a hung Parliament, you ask? It’s when no party — or pre-existing coalition, known as an alliance or a bloc — controls a majority of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. The magic number for a majority in this election is 170 seats.

“If you’re watching a hockey or baseball game, whoever scores the most goals or the most runs wins. In our parliamentary system, that’s not how it goes,” Steve says, melding his two life passions together. “We elect parliaments, not governments.”

That means whoever can cobble together a workable majority wins. If Trudeau wins the second-largest number of seats on election night, there’s no reason to “automatically conclude that he’s lost the election,” says Steve.

In a hung Parliament scenario, there is one person, and one person only, who gives advice to Governor General Julie Payette on what to do next — the prime minister.

If the sitting prime minister — that would be Justin Trudeau  — “goes to the Governor General and says, ‘I think that with the help of the NDP and maybe the Greens — and who knows, maybe even some of the Bloc Québécois members — I can cobble together a workable majority on the floor of the House of Commons [and] I would like the right to continue to form government and be the prime minister,” Steve explains, “her obligation at that point is to say ‘yes.’

“He gets the first right to try to form a government.”

Getting to 170

If you tallied up the CBC’s seat projections as of Thursday morning, the Liberals would have 131, the NDP 37, and the Green party two. That’s exactly 170 seats. Just sayin’.

However, as John Michael explains, “there’s a bunch of different ways a government could be cobbled together.” We don’t have a strong tradition, as in Germany or other European countries, where a coalition government often includes different parties holding seats in cabinet together. John Michael pointed to the 1985 Ontario election, when Bob Rae and the NDP agreed to support David Peterson’s Liberal government but didn’t ask for any seats in cabinet.

Black and white photo. Man stands in front of group of men.
In 1917 Prime Minister Robert Borden addresses Canadian troops in England during WWI (Photo: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022654)

In fact, as Steve points out, “it’s been 100 years since we had a formal coalition at the national level in this country.” (That would be Robert Borden’s 1917 Union government, for those who are curious.)

So, it’s entirely possible that Trudeau’s Liberals wouldn’t offer any seats in cabinet and instead just declare “this is our program, support it, or don’t,” John Michael says.

Let the speculation begin!

But what if they did offer seats in cabinet? Steve and John Michael had some fun with possible scenarios.

How about Yves-François Blanchet as the minister of Canadian heritage and multiculturalism?

Or here’s a wild one from Steve: what if Scheer wins the most seats, but Trudeau does some math, adding up NDP and Green seats, and finds he’s one seat short of potentially forming government?

“There’s that one independent in British Columbia named Jody Wilson-Raybould,” Steve says with a smile. “Wouldn’t that be something, if it all came down to Jody Wilson-Raybould, Justin Trudeau’s former justice minister and attorney general?”

John Michael did his best to outdo Steve in this game of wild political speculation. “Part of the reason the Liberals have suffered a bit in the polls this year is because of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, and the belief that maybe the government didn’t keep as thick a wall between the political and the non-political topics of criminal prosecution as it should have,” John Michael says.

“Jagmeet Singh is a lawyer, which is one of the primary qualifications to be named attorney general.” That would go a long way toward signalling that “maybe you’re accepting a more chastened Liberal party.”

Fun speculation aside, Steve says, “if the polls stay where they are, we’re not going to know the night of the 21st, election day, what the final score of the game is going to be. We’ll know what the seat count is, but that does not necessarily mean the game is over.

“In fact, that might mean the games are just beginning.”

That’s all for this week! We’ll be back with the next edition of the #onpoli newsletter on Tuesday. In the meantime, enjoy election day — which, for the record, should be a national holiday. Who’s with me? As always, write in at onpolitics@tvo.org.

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