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Majority and Minority Governments

In Canada, the government must maintain the support of a majority of members of Parliament (MPs) to stay in power. A majority government is formed when a political party has more than half of the seats in the House of Commons. A minority government has fewer than half the seats and requires support from opposition MPs.

Governments and MP Support

In Canada’s single-member plurality electoral system (also known as “first past the post”), the political candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins the seat and becomes the MP for that area. The government is usually formed by the party whose candidates win the most seats, as they are most likely to hold the confidence of the House (be supported by a majority of MPs).

Canada has had both majority and minority governments regularly throughout its history. In both situations, the opposition parties play an important role in keeping the government accountable. They ensure that the government’s decisions are examined and analyzed throughout the legislative process.

Majority Governments

A majority government has more than half of the seats in the House of Commons: at least 170 out of 338 seats.

Majority and Minority Governments

In a majority government, the governing party has more than half of the seats – and potential votes – in the House of Commons (170 out of 338 seats).

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Seating plan of a majority government in the House of Commons. There are five political parties represented in this plan: party 1 has 184 seats, party 2 has 99 seats, party 3 has 44 seats, party 4 has 10 seats, party 5 has 1 seat.

Hover over the parties to highlight the seats

Characteristics of Majority Governments

In a majority government, decision-making power is concentrated in the governing party. Majority governments are usually considered to have the following characteristics:

  • Mandate: By winning a majority of seats, a government may deem that it has a clear mandate to introduce and pass laws that will accomplish the goals set out in its electoral platform.
  • Legislative power: All bills (proposed laws) need a majority of votes to be adopted by the House of Commons. If the members of the governing party all vote the same way, they can pass or reject any law because they have more than half the votes.
  • Stability: Most majority governments finish their standard four-year term in office between federal elections.

The Role of the Opposition in Majority Governments

Opposition parties hold less decision-making power in a majority government since they are unlikely to change the outcome of a vote. However, opposition members still have an important role to play in holding the government to account: they ask questions during Question Period, participate in committee hearings, debate in the chamber and speak with the media.

Minority Governments

A minority government is formed when no political party has a majority of seats in the House of Commons. As a result, the political party that forms the minority government requires the support of another political party (or parties) to pass laws. It may also seek the support of independent MPs.

Characteristics of Minority Governments

When there is a minority government, decision-making power is shared between different political parties, rather than being concentrated in the governing party. Depending on how many MPs the governing party has, one or more of the opposition parties could be the deciding factor during a vote. In such cases, political parties with a small number of MPs can hold a lot of decision-making power.

This can change the way that the government functions for the duration of the Parliament and can lead to some of the following situations:

  • Legislative compromise: The government must draft bills that other political parties would be willing to support. The government often needs to adjust and adapt its priorities to stay in power and reflect the interests of MPs from other parties.
  • Increased influence by the opposition parties: The opposition has more direct power during a minority government. At any point, the government can fall through a confidence vote – a declaration that the majority of MPs no longer supports the current government. This can lead to an early election. Opposition parties can use this risk as leverage to change bills to reflect their own priorities. As a result, laws from a minority government tend to include elements put forward by different political parties.
  • Limitations on legislation: Since the government requires the support of at least one other political party, a minority government might not be able to pass as many laws as a majority government can.
  • Instability: Minority governments are less likely to last a full four-year term than majority governments. Governments can fall to confidence votes, or the Prime Minister can request an early election in the hope of winning a majority.

Coalition Governments

A coalition government consists of two or more political parties that agree to form a government together, with a Cabinet that includes ministers from each party. While such governments are common in other countries, coalitions are rare in Canada.

Minority governments in Canada may use informal or written agreements with opposition parties instead of forming coalitions through multi-party cabinets.

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