Our parliamentary system requires that
governments must be supported by the majority of Members in the House of
Commons and Senate. Thus, majority government results from a general
election where one party (or a coalition of parties) wins the majority of seats
in the House of Commons. A minority government usually occurs when the party
which wins the most seats in a general election nonetheless does not hold the
majority of seats in the House of Commons. Canada has never been governed by a
true coalition of parties.
Within each Parliament, party standings can and do fluctuate because of deaths,
resignations, by‑elections, floor crossings or other changes in the
status of individual Members. As a result, the government’s ability to retain
the support of the majority of Members can be increased or diminished.
All questions arising in the House are to
be decided by a majority vote of those Members present. Even the rules by
which the House governs its own proceedings are adopted by simple majority
vote. It is therefore obvious that the government’s ability to command the
support of a majority of the House allows it to exercise control over the
management of the business of the House and, by extension, of its committees.
The government’s powers in this regard are counterbalanced by its
responsibility to the House to account for its actions.
The government’s role in the management of
House business is established in several Standing Orders, which refer either to
the government or a Minister as the initiator of certain types of proceedings.
Likewise, there are many Standing Orders that recognize the House’s role in
holding the government to account for its actions. Parliamentary
procedure must balance the government’s power to manage the business of the
House, against the opposition’s responsibility to hold the government
accountable. The crucial test of the government’s power comes in votes of
confidence, for in Canada’s parliamentary democracy, a government must enjoy
the confidence of the House.
academics have labelled the first Ministry a coalition. In the years leading to
Confederation, Sir J.A. Macdonald helped form the “Great Coalition” of 1864,
which united Upper Canada’s Reformers with the Lower Canadian “Parti Bleu”.
This led to the formation of the Liberal-Conservative Party (forerunner of
today’s Conservative Party). Macdonald’s first Cabinet consisted of an almost
equal number of Liberals and Conservatives. (Library and Archives Canada, “Sir John A. Macdonald”, Canadian Confederation,
www.collectionscanada.gc.ca, May 2, 2005; and English, J.,
“Coalition Government”, The Canadian Encyclopedia,
www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com, 2008). The second instance, often cited as a
coalition government, occurred in May of 1917, during the final days of the
Twelfth Parliament, when Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden,
attempted to persuade Liberal Opposition leader, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to create
a coalition government to legislate conscription and to form a united war-time
front. Laurier refused, and on October 12, 1917, Borden formed a Ministry known
as the Union government, which brought together 12 Conservatives,
9 Liberals and independents and 1 Member to represent “Labour”
interests, all of whom supported conscription. The Prime Minister then called
an election, running as the leader of the “Unionist Party” and defeated
Laurier’s Liberals in a landslide victory. See Brown, R.C., Robert Laird
Borden: A Biography, Volume II: 1914-1937, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1980, pp. 84-90, 101-10, 123‑5.
Constitution Act, 1867, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5,
s. 49. See also Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”.
For example, the bulk of House time is allocated to government business, which
is called in such sequence as the government determines (Standing Orders 30 and
40(2)). Furthermore, to name but a few examples, it is the government that
requests a recall of the House when it stands adjourned (Standing Order 28(3)
and (4)); that moves the extension of sitting hours in June (Standing Order 27(1));
that causes a special Order Paper to be issued (Standing Order 55(1));
that initiates time allocation (Standing Order 78) and closure (Standing Order
57); that gives notice of and designates Orders of the Day for the
consideration of ways and means motions (Standing Order 83(1) and (2)); and
that initiates debate on the Standing Orders at the beginning of each Parliament
(Standing Order 51(1)).
Examples may be found in the rules governing supply (Standing Order 81(3), (4)(a)
and (b)); questions (Standing Orders 37, 38 and 39); petitions (Standing
Order 36); and the tabling of documents (Standing Order 32).