Three Commonly Heard (But Incorrect) Election Phrases

Last night Peter Mansbridge wrapped up one-on-one interviews with each major party leader in the current federal election on CBC. To each leader he put forward a frank question: what do you think of the phrase, ‘the leader with the most seats forms government.’ I am not going to go into detail regarding what each leader said on the topic (for that you should go to this post for great analysis of what the leaders are saying). What the question did trigger, however, was the realization that there are a number of misconceptions about how our parliamentary system works especially regarding how a government is formed post-election. These misconceptions seem to fester more than usual around election time. I’ve written three phrases here that I have heard said a number of times by Canadians when speaking about elections and the formation of government specifically.

Number One. I am going to vote for so-and-so-party-leader.

Unless you live in the ridings of Calgary Southwest, Outremont, Papineau or Saanich–Gulf Islands you are not going to be voting for the leader of any federal party which held seats in the last parliament during this election. For the vast majority of Canadians who will vote on Oct 19, the names listed on their own ballot will be people who we have never seen or heard of on the nightly news (save for the election night coverage). They are candidates who are seeking election within your riding (electoral district) which is based on geography and population. In essence, as mentioned in this post, there are 338 elections taking place during this federal general election. This fact is more obvious in U.K. election night coverage where each riding collection officer announces the winner for each riding separately, which emphasizes the fact that individual elections for candidates take place across the country. This is much different than the U.S. model where the President (Executive) is elected through a national electoral college and separate from members of the legislature. In Canada (and other Westminster parliamentary countries), we elect candidates who are summoned to Ottawa by the Governor-General after the election. That is it. We do not elect our Prime Minister, we do not elect any members of government for that matter. We simply elect the person who we want to have summoned to Ottawa when parliament is opened. Our work in the process is done and our democratic will has been satisfied through a democratic election of our candidate.

Now, the typical response to this goes something like this: I know that I elect the candidate but once elected they are whipped into following what the leader wants so essentially I am voting for the leader. But this is not entirely correct. You have elected a person in parliament who is charged with representing your riding in the House of Commons. While there may be whips and mechanisms for controlling members within parliament, they have the legal right to cast a ballot in their own choosing and no authority can remove that right. However, the topic of the whip in parliament is meant for an entire post (or series of posts) on its own, therefore what is important is just to remember that nothing aside from party created mechanisms prevent your member from breaking ranks.

There is something to be said about creating a de facto proxy vote system in Canada. First, elections are meant to legitimize the presence of an individual in the House of Commons. If we are just electing the leader of a party or the branded party itself, we are throwing out 334ish people who are paid and have a legal right to sit and act in parliament. And, as is pointed out here, when you proxy vote, you have no control over the other 337 results and on top of that you are working within a system which is designed to facilitate the election of 338 ridings into one parliament. I would therefore make no sense to attempt to vote within your own riding for a strategic outcome overall. This is where misconception concerning our electoral system begin to creep in as well (but more on that in future posts).

Number Two. The leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons forms government.

The leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons does not get to form government, the convention is simply not that simple. Suppose this election results in a hung parliament (where no single party gains the plurality of seats), it would probably surprise you to learn that the incumbent government (i.e. the Harper government) gets the so-called first crack at seeking the confidence of the House of Commons. This is called the incumbency principle and it is important for two reasons. First of all, it permits a continued chain of governance in Canada and secondly it promotes stability. It is a clear mechanism for a hung parliament to display confidence in the government or, if no confidence can be obtained, for the process to form the next government to begin. If the incumbent government cannot obtain the confidence of the House, than the Governor-General may invite another member to form the government provided they can carry the confidence of the House. This can go several ways. The party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons may be asked to form government, a coalition may be formed between parties in which a leader approaches the Governor-General to form government or the Governor-General drops the writs and a new election is called (very unlikely). It is important to move even further away from the idea that the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons forms government when we talk about coalitions. It would be perfectly democratic for a group of small parties to form a coalition and carry the confidence of the House within a single member. This coalition could be loosely based or it could include a formal agreement. But what is important is that it is (a) democratic and (b) normal within a Westminster system when in a hung parliament situation. Ideally, first-past-the-post is designed to produce clear parliaments, but it is also a system designed for two major parties and not three.

Number Three. This election is about who will be the next Prime Minister of Canada.

As mentioned before, this election is not about who will be the next Prime Minister of Canada. This election is about who will be your representative in the House of Commons and parliament. From this election a parliament will be formed, and from that parliament, a government will be formed but this election is not about who will form government. This might seem like a trite technicality but in fact it is essential to gain the fullest understanding of our political system, specifically including why we have the first-past-the-post system in Canada. Those are topics for other post, but for now just understanding that we are not electing the Prime Minister of Canada and Canadians, during a general election, play no role in the formation of government. We are electing the House of Commons, the democratic and highest organ of parliament.


I think that Canadians as a whole have a lot more to learn about their own government structure and constitutional system. It is a shame, in my personal opinion, when the leaders of the three major federal parties appear to not understand how the systems works. But there is also something which is key to keep in mind when we speak about constitutional conventions. While they are accepted practises regarding constitutionally mandates requirements, they are not enforceable in courts and by definition can change when a new approach is adopted or favours shift to no longer follow the convention. This has happened with numerous constitutional conventions in the past, and it seems that as they die, there are some people left wishing that a certain convention remained or that another existed in its place. A convention can be seen as a constitutional norm, and it is important in my opinion that these conventions exists as they are because they strengthen the institution of parliament by ensuring that it can be fluid enough to remain relevant through-out time. This can, to some degree, work to prevent institutional decay over time, which is important especially in our most sacred political body. All of that to say, if the convention where to change it certainly would not be outside of the realm of the possible, but there could be some follow-on consequences, and that is a topic for another post as well.