While all minority governments fall short of a parliamentary majority by definition, not all are created equal and Canada’s 10th minority government since 1945 falls in the middle when measured by the number of seats short of a majority.
Pending any changes, Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals will be short 13 seats of a majority. By comparison, the two minority governments headed by Liberal Lester B. Pearson in the mid-1960s were short by five and two seats respectively.
The ‘weakest’ minority government of the post-war period was the first minority government (2006-2008) of Conservative Stephen Harper, who fell 31 seats short of a majority. The second-weakest minority government was the minority government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who fell 23 seats short of a majority, followed by Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker, whose first minority government (1957-58) was short 22 seats of a majority.
But the perceived weakness of a minority government does not necessarily preview its eventual fate one way or another, as the following examples show.
While Harper failed to convert his first minority government into a majority, it lasted for almost three years to become the second-longest lasting minority government in Canadian history, behind Pearson’s second minority (1965-1968). Harper, for the record, eventually turned his second minority (2008-2011) into a majority the following election before losing the 2015 election to the current office holder.
Pierre Elliot Trudeau — whose Liberals won just two seats more than the Tories in 1972 — converted his minority into a majority less than two years later. Finally, Diefenbaker turned his ‘weak’ first minority government into the largest majority government in Canadian history in 1958 in less than a year’s time.
Pearson, not surprisingly, used his two ‘strong’ minorities to govern for some five years. While Pearson never achieved a majority government, Policy Options deemed him Canada’s Best Prime Minister in 2003.
Progressive Conservative Joe Clark, meanwhile, badly bungled his minority government. Six seats short of a majority, Clark’s government lasted less than 300 days, accomplished little of substance, and lost a vote of non-confidence over its budget. Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who had stepped away from politics after losing to Clark in 1979, returned to power with a majority in 1980.
What followed were perhaps the most influential years of the Trudeau period. They included the first referendum on Quebec sovereignty won by federalists and constitutional reforms that led to the patriation of the Canadian constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also Quebecois and western alienation, leading to the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords of the late 1980s, early 1990s under Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney, who sought to revise, if not reverse the Trudeau agenda.
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