Oral Questions / Question Period

Oral Questions, or Question Period as it has come to be unofficially called, is by far the most routinely watched and followed segment of the parliamentary day. It is during this daily 45 minute period that Members of Parliament are permitted to put oral questions to the government of the day and Ministers of the Crown are called upon to answer. Since Confederation, the period of time reserved for oral questions has evolved and now includes formal rules outlined in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons as well as through various Speaker Rulings throughout the history of the House of Commons. In this post we are going to examine the modern nature of oral questions, their historical significance and development over time.

Historical Development of Oral Questions

Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.
Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.

When Parliament first opened following Confederation, there were actually no provisions within the Standing Orders for oral questions. The only provisions for any sort of questions from MPs toward the government came in the form of written questions. Interestingly enough, the first recorded oral question took place without any formal guidance in place on 29 Nov 1867 (a full three weeks before any rules were formally written down, actually) when an oral question was posed to the Chairman of the Printing Committee. The inspiration for an oral question period came from the British House of Commons where the Prime Minister was subjected to questioning three times a week by MPs. It became a Canadianized practice during the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada and eventually in the United Province of Canada prior to Confederation. It was not uncommon for MPs to put forward oral questions to Ministers of the Crown for urgent matters that required an answer within a timeline tighter than that of written question requirements. It was under this sentiment that Speaker Timothy Anglin made the first of a series of historical Speaker’s Rulings on oral questions when he said in 1878:

It is customary for hon. members to ask the Government for any special information between the various calls from the Chair for the day, before Notices of Motion or the Orders of the Day. I am not aware that any hon. member has a positive right even to do that; but I think he must confine himself entirely to asking the information from the Government, and he must not proceed to descant on the conduct of the Government.

But the 1940s a period of oral questioning had become an accepted part of the parliamentary day. However, there remained no official rules or guidelines covering their use and conduct. In 1944, the House procedures committee reviewed the practice of oral questions and concluded that it was “neither possible not advisable to do away with [oral questions].” However, the report from the committee was not accepted by the House of Commons and therefore was not actioned. This did not mean that oral questions went by the wayside, simply that the practise continued with little or no formal guidance in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

In 1964, the Speaker of the House of Commons attempted to enforce what was later viewed to be outdated rules concerning the conduct of oral questions and the formation of specific questions. This led to the formal codification of oral questions into the House of Commons Standing Orders. Thus Standing Order 37 was born which established a period of time for questions of an urgent nature to be put before the government. Under this new order, the Speaker had the power to determine that a question was not urgent enough to warrant an oral answer and could order the question sent to written questions. By 1975, a set timeframe for oral questions was established when a complete overhaul of the House of Commons routine business was conducted by the procedures committee. Since that time oral questions happen for 45 minutes each day at 2:15 pm EST Monday-Thursday and 11:15 am EST on Fridays, immediately following Statements by Members.

In 1974, Speaker Jerome established guidelines for questions during oral questions which were expanded and articulated in 1986 by Speaker Bosley. Bosley’s directions on oral questions remain the standard today for the conduct of this segment of business in the House of Commons. Speaker Bosley established four principles for the conduct of oral questions:

  1. The time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible.
  2. The public in large numbers do watch, and the House, recognizing that Question Period is often an intense time, should be on its best possible behaviour.
  3. While there may be other purposes and ambitions involved in Question Period, its primary purpose must be the seeking of information from the Government and calling the Government to account for its actions.
  4. Members should be given the greatest possible freedom in the putting of questions that is consistent with the other principles.

And adding to the ruling made by previous Speakers of the House of Commons, Bosley went on to articulate the principles, saying:

Mr. Speaker Jerome, in his statement 11 years ago, put his view with regard to the first principle of brevity so well that I would merely quote it:

“There can be no doubt that the greatest enemy of the Question Period is the Member who offends this most important principle. In putting the original question on any subject, a Member may require an explanatory remark, but there is no reason for such a preamble to exceed one, carefully drawn sentence.

“It is my proposal to ask all Hon. Members to pay close attention to this admonition and to bring them to order if they fail to do so. It bears repeating that the long preamble or long question takes an unfair share of the time, and invariably, in provoking the same kind of response, only compounds the difficulty.”

I agree with these comments and would add that such comments obviously also apply to answers by Ministers. I would also endorse Mr. Speaker Jerome’s view that supplementary questions should need no preambles; they should flow from the Minister’s response and be put in precise and direct terms without any prior statement or argument. It is the Chair’s view that it equally follows from the first principle, that time is scarce, that Members should seek to avoid merely repeating questions that have already been asked. I do not mean that other questions on the same subject should not be asked — as apparently I have been interpreted — just that subsequent questions should be other than ones already asked.

For similar reasons it has always been a fundamental rule of questioning Ministers that the subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the Government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions.

Beyond these few restrictions, there are a few other traditional restraints that flow from the principles above. Questions should relate to matters of some urgency and not be purely hypothetical. They should not seek a legal opinion or inquire as to what legal advice a Minister has received. They should not normally anticipate Orders of the Day. However, I hasten to add that there is normal exemption to that with regard to the budget process which I fully intend to honour. Members should be very careful with regard to questions or matters that are sub judice. Ministers should be questioned only in relation to their current portfolios and not in relation to any previously held responsibilities or Party responsibilities.

Since his ruling in 1986, Speaker Bosley remains the authority on determining the conduct of business during oral questions and has been cited by Speakers since as the foundation of our understanding of business during this segment of the parliamentary day.

Supplementary Questions

The development of oral questions over time also saw the introduction of supplementary questions– or follow-up questions. Today, the standard is that one question is asked and then the member who posed the original question has up to three supplementary questions to ask. There is very little formal guidance for these supplemental questions but in 1997, Speaker Parent articulated in a ruling that supplementary questions should be related to the topic of the original question. This has become somewhat outdated with the current practice of having a different member rise to ask a supplemental question, and little formal direction has come out as of late from the Speaker’s Chair. It is not uncommon to see the Leader of the Official Opposition and the leader of each respective opposition party to take advantage of all three supplementary questions following their initial line of questioning on the government, and occasionally we see backbench members following up on their original questions.

Adjournment Proceedings or The Late Show

In 1964, the procedures committee implemented a new practice each day called Adjournment Proceedings. Essentially, it became a half hour period at the end of each day initiated by a motion to adjourn the House for the day under Standing Order 37(3). The idea was that members who were not completely satisfied with answers on a given topic would have a chance to bring up the issue one more time at the end of the day. Since that time, three topics are given notice during the day to the Speaker that will be brought up during the Adjournment Proceedings– or Late Show. These topics are typically follow up items from issues that have arisen during the day or week. Ministers of the Crown typically do not attend the Late Show, however it is not uncommon for Parliamentary Secretaries to spar and follow-up with MPs on issues that arose during oral questions earlier in the day. This proceeding coupled with question period and the odd opposition day are essential the only periods of House business that the opposition can control away from the government. They are therefore even more important in majority government situations (such as the current parliament) as they give the opposition a forum to bring issues of the day to light. Most Canadians are not aware of the connection between Oral Questions and Adjournment Proceedings and almost every major media outlet does not give the Adjournment Proceedings the same level of attention and coverage as Oral Questions.

Answers During Oral Questions

The old parliamentary adage goes that oral questions are called “question period and not answer period for a reason.” And there is a lot of truth to this statement. When answering questions a Minister of the Crown has a handful of options available to them:

  • answer the question;
  • defer their answer;
  • take the question as notice;
  • make a short explanation as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or
  • say nothing.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.

Most of the time the Minister chooses to answer the question, or if you were to ask the opposition, they chose to speak to the question, rather than give an answer. It has come up often times throughout any discussion on oral questions that there are virtually no mechanisms available to the Speaker to ensure that questions are answered. This was put on a fantastic show during the previous session of parliament when the Parliamentary Secretary to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Paul Calandra, refused to answer a direct question from the NDP and instead spoke about issues in the middle east. The NDP was out of line for pleading for the Parliamentary Secretary to answer the question at hand, and the Speaker was left powerless to watch the House devolve into a circus as a result of Calandra’s poor answers. In the end, he apologized to the House and all was made well but not before an attempt was made by the opposition to have the Speaker rule that answers should have substance. In his ruling, Speaker Scheer outlined the guidelines handed down since 1867 and explained to the House the limits that the Speaker had in holding the government to account in answering questions to the satisfaction of the opposition. And with that statement he hit the crux of the issue on the head; by what metric would a Speaker determine that a question has been adequately answered? If the opposition is the benchmark, in other words a question if answered only when the opposition is happy with it, than we are entering into the realm of political and the debate of facts, which is not the place of the Speaker to determine but of the whole House.

There is little in the way of guidance for answers however the following three principles have arisen out of Speaker’s Rulings on the subject:

  • no particular Minister is compelled to answer a particular question, even if that question was directed to a particular Minister in the statement,
  • no MP can insist on the answer and no point of order can be raised on the grounds that a question was not answered satisfactorily
  • the content of answers is considered a debate about facts and thus within the realm of the entire House and not the Speaker to rule when is in order and out of order

Questions and answers in the House of Commons are subject to all other Standing Orders and Speaker’s Rulings, meaning that language must always be parliamentary in nature (cannot call someone a liar, for example) and questions must be directed to the Speaker and not individual members. Additionally, the following guidelines on what questions should not be asked have been established over time based on existing Standing Orders and past Speaker’s Rulings:

  • be a statement, representation, argument, or an expression of opinion;
  • be hypothetical;
  • seek an opinion, either legal or otherwise;
  • seek information which is secretive in its nature, such as Cabinet proceedings or advice given to the Crown by law officers;
  • reflect on the character or conduct of Chair Occupants, members of the House and of the Senate or members of the judiciary;
  • reflect on the Governor General;
  • refer to proceedings in the Senate;
  • refer to public statements by Ministers on matters not directly related to their departmental duties;
  • address a Minister’s former portfolio or any other presumed functions, such as party or regional political responsibilities;
  • be on a matter that is sub judice;
  • deal with the subject matter of a question of privilege previously raised, on which the Speaker reserved his decision;
  • create disorder;
  • make a charge by way of a preamble to a question;
  • be a question from a constituent;
  • seek information from a Minister of a purely personal nature;
  • request a detailed response which could be dealt with more appropriately as a written question placed on the Order Paper; or
  • concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses.

Conclusion

The inspiration of this post came from comments made by a Liberal Minister concerning questions related to the Liberal cash for access scandal currently before the government. There were significant questions on the subject during question period, and the Minister was commenting on the fact that the way she understood the guidelines, such questions were not in line (see: concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses, above). It could be argued however that the questions concerned the conduct of government, and not the Liberal party specifically.

As mentioned earlier, question period is the most watched and most engaging aspect of the parliamentary day. It’s importance within the Canadian political culture cannot be understated, however given it’s importance it is alarming how little the average Canadian knows about the conduct of question period. Opposition leaders are often measured in their capability within the job against their performance in the House of Commons, Ministers of the Crown conversely are measured in their capability through their answering and performance during question period. It is an essential element of our democracy in Canada.

PMO - Justin Trudeau

The Summoning of the Canadian Parliament

Members elected to form a new parliament following an election must meet within one year of the dissolution of the previous parliament. In the case of the recent election, parliament would have had to have met by 2 Aug 16. The Canadian Parliament is summoned by the Governor-General of Canada on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The summons itself does not just occur following an election, it also happens following prorogation of parliament, however the mechanism remains the same with the Governor-General issuing the proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

The 42nd Parliament of Canada was summoned by Governor-General David Johnston 13 Nov 15 for members retuned from the 42nd General Election to “appear in person, on Thursday, the third day of December, 2015, at one in the afternoon, at Our City of Ottawa, for the DISPATCH OF BUSINESS, to treat, do, act and conclude on those things that Our Parliament of Canada may, by the Grace of God, ordain” (Canada Gazette, 2015). This proclamation was issued on recommendation provided by Justin Trudeau who commands a Liberal majority in the House of Commons. Trudeau was summoned to form government on 20 October 2015 after the Governor-General had met with outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper who “signalled his intention to resign as prime minister” (Rideau Hall Press Release, 2015). On 4 November 2015, the Governor-General swore Justin Trudeau and his 30 person cabinet into office and the 29th Canadian Ministry had been formed.

Members who won seats in the House of Commons meanwhile take the Oath or Solemn Affirmation of Alliance and register on the Test Roll. Following an election, returns are made from the Chief Electoral Officer to the Clerk of the House of Commons that officially recognize a person as having won a certain electoral district in Canada. The notice is published in the Canada Gazette, an example of which can be found here. After notice is given, the members make the oath and sign the Test Roll before the Clerk at a time pre-arranged between the member and office of the Clerk or during a ceremony held prior to the opening of parliament (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009). The Clerk of the House of Commons issues the Oath or Solemn Affirmation of Allegiance and members sign the Test Roll at the Table of the House of Commons. From this point on, members are permitted to rise and speak in the House of Commons and cast a vote in questions put before it. Every member returned to the House in the previous election takes the oath and signs the Test Roll for each parliament formed following an election (House of Commons Compendium of Procedure, 2015). Thus, each Test Roll is unique to each Canadian Parliament.

The text of the oath read as follows:

“I, (Member’s name), do swear, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009)

With an alternative for members who do not wish to swear an oath:

“I, (Member’s name), do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009)

Members who were appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister to become members of the 29th Canadian Ministry and Privy Counsellors took an additional oath at Rideau Hall in the presence of the Governor-General. That oath reads as follows:

I, __________, do solemnly and sincerely swear (declare) that I shall be a true and faithful servant to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, as a member of Her Majesty’s Privy Council for Canada. I will in all things to be treated, debated and resolved in Privy Council, faithfully, honestly and truly declare my mind and my opinion. I shall keep secret all matters committed and revealed to me in this capacity, or that shall be secretly treated of in Council. Generally, in all things I shall do as a faithful and true servant ought to do for Her Majesty. So help me God. (Rideau Hall Swearing-in Ceremony Fact Sheet, 2015)

Additionally, Privy Counsellors and members of Trudeau’s cabinet who are not officially appointed Privy Counsellors (for example, Secretaries of State who assist certain Ministers) take the Oath of Office which reads:

I, _________, do solemnly and sincerely promise and swear (declare) that I will truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me as… So help me God. (Rideau Hall Swearing-in Ceremony Fact Sheet, 2015)

Members who do not wish to swear an oath may replace “swear” with “declare” and the phrase “so help me God” is removed.

The opening of the 42nd Parliament of Canada will immediately follow the summons which will include a Speech from the Throne delivered by Governor-General David Johnston in the Senate Chamber. We will explore that process in a later post.

Image: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signing the Register after taking the Oath of Office. With Governor-General David Johnston. Source.

Post-election, What Happens Now?

The results of 42nd Canadian General Election. Liberal candidates from across the country were elected to 184 seats in the House of Commons, earning a majority government under the leadership of Prime Minister in-waiting Justin Trudeau. The Conservative Party of Canada saw candidates elected in 99 ridings and will form the Official Opposition in the 42nd Parliament of Canada. Trudeau will (within the next two weeks) appoint the 29th Canadian Ministry from among his 184-strong caucus. The NDP was reduced to third party status with 44 seats and the Bloc next in line with 10 seats. Green Party leader Elizabeth May held her Saanich–Gulf Islands riding on Vancouver Island. But the results of this election are probably not news to you. The question is what happens now that the election has finished and we have a new majority government in Canada?

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Canada election results 2011/15. BBC News.

First let’s understand what has happened in parliament as a result of the election. Most importantly, the 41st Parliament of Canada has given way to the 42nd Parliament. This is the largest parliament in Canadian history with 338 seats distributed evenly across ridings roughly equally representing over 35-million electors. The direct result of casting a ballot on 19 Oct 15 was the formation of this parliament. This is why you were not handed a ballot with the name Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair, Stephen Harper or Elizabeth May on it (unless you lived in their particular riding of course).

As a result of the formation of the 42nd Parliament of Canada, a new ministry is now required. Through responsible government, the Governor-General is compelled to appoint persons who have been duly elected into parliament to form the Canadian Ministry and who gets appointed to lead it depends on who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. Once a new parliament is formed, convention dictates that the Governor-General assess parliament to determine the potential requirement for new ministry (or the continuance of the current) and designates a Prime Minister, if required. Justin Trudeau is currently technically the Prime Minister in-waiting because he has not been designated by the Governor-General (that I know of as of this being posted), but that is a really technical detail; Justin Trudeau will lead the next ministry and will become Prime Minister with a majority government. During this entire period, the current Prime Minister has not been relieved of his responsibility as the leader of the country. Stephen Harper at the time of this publication is (was) still Prime Minister of Canada and leader of the 28th Canadian Ministry. Justin Trudeau has indicated that he will appoint a new cabinet in two weeks which will start with a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall overseen by the Governor-General of Canada. This will be the official start of the 29th Canadian Ministry under Justin Trudeau.

This all might seem very technical but there are some implications for our country. Suppose, for example, that something tragic happened in the country, no doubt Stephen Harper would be legally permitted to issue orders if required. He might listen to input from Trudeau, as the Prime Minister designate, but whether there is an exact requirement is legally dubious. On the flip side, suppose for some reason Justin Trudeau was unable to fulfill his duties as an MP and thus as Prime Minister (for example, a major illness suddenly discovered). A new person could be appointed by the Liberal caucus and eventually elected by the party membership to take his place. This could happen at any time during the ministry as well, however it would start a new ministry (and Trudeau would be required to resign). But these are topics for other posts, the important thing is that the Prime Minister from a legal standpoint is just the person who can marshal command of the House of Commons (all major federal parties have developed internal mechanisms for how this person is elected and legitimized within the party and parliament through convention).

Now, we may not know to what extant Harper may still exercise power as out-going Prime Minister but we do know that Trudeau and his soon-to-be ministry are moving in on parliament. In the coming two weeks Harper will move his office out of the Langevin Block (home of the PMO and Privy Council) and Justin Trudeau will move in. There are already indications that public servants at the Privy Council (the bureaucratic arm of the PMO) have begun to comb through the Liberal platform to present options on how to implement their promises. In short order, briefing material will be created for each soon-to-be-appointed minister that will include a letter from the leader explaining his vision for their portfolio and sometimes a letter from the Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada. Most of this material has most likely already begun to be put together by civil servants across the country.

Trudeau himself will be busy combing through his caucus to build a representative government. Cabinet-making in Canada has always been a particular art. All of the way back to the United Province of Canada when cabinet required an absolute balance between French and English (often with two leaders speaking different policy agendas). In modern political times the cabinet must still be balanced with representation from Quebec, but also from Eastern Canada (where the Liberals preformed very strongly), Central Canada and Western Canada. The cabinet will also have to include a proportional number of woman and aboriginals reflecting the values of Canadians. The Liberal government will need new-Canadians and people of all perspectives in order to build a cabinet which is representative of the people. And we also cannot forgot competency, which is required of every minister in order to quarterback the leaders’ vision for the government and implementation of policy within their respective departments.

So the short answer to the question of what is happening post-election is that Harper remains Prime Minister until the new ministry is sworn-in and the Liberals, in particular Justin Trudeau, are extremely busy.

Image of Trudeau from CBC News. Election 2015/2011 results from BBC News.

Could Harper Hold on to Power Without a Plurality of Seats in the House of Commons

…the short answer is yes. The long answer is the purpose of this post. The question is, could Prime Minister Stephen Harper hold on to power without earning a plurality of seats in the House of Commons on Monday, 19 Oct 15? Before we can answer the question, however, there are a few misconceptions we have to clear up and a few terms we have to define and better understand.

The Ministry. House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed describes the Ministry as “exercis[ing] the practical functions of government, [which] has no fixed maximum duration. Its duration is measured by the tenure of its Prime Minister and is calculated from the day the Prime Minister takes the oath of office to the day the Prime Minister dies, resigns or is dismissed.” Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of the 28th Canadian Ministry which was sworn in with the confidence of the House of Commons on 6 Feb 06. The Ministry continues regardless of the outcome of an election and thus the composition of each particular parliament. The 28th Canadian Minister continues at the time of this being published.

The Parliament. House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed defines parliament as the period “between elections during which the institution of Parliament exercises its powers—is calculated from the date set for the return of the writs following a general election to its dissolution by the Governor General.” There is also a five year limit set on any part in accordance with the Constitution Act and that there must be a sitting once every 12 months. The parliament which just ended was the 41st Parliament. Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister through three distinct parliaments (two being  hung parliaments) which combined had seven separate sessions.

A Session of Parliament. A session exists within a parliament. Every parliament convenes in the first session of the respective parliament with a Speech from the Throne, an election of a Speaker of the House of Commons and the swearing-in of Members (this opening is often made distinct from others in calling it the opening of parliament). Subsequent sessions open with all of the fanfare of the first session, however do not include the election of a Speaker and the swearing-in of Members. The ending of one session into another is called prorogation of parliament and it is trigged by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Hung Parliament. Often referred to as a minority government parliament. A hung parliament is one in which a clear option for the Governor-General in terms of who will be invited to form government is not present. In a hung parliament, the sitting Prime Minister retains the Ministry and carries on in government (the incumbency convention) but often in modern times a new Ministry is formed by the leader of the party with the plurality of seats in the House of Commons (if not the sitting Prime Minister).

On 2 Aug 15 the 41st Parliament came to a close when the writs were dropped by the Governor-General David Johnston on the advice of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It started the longest campaign in modern Canadian political history. On 19 Oct 15, Canadians will head to the polls and cast ballots for candidates in the largest number of elections ever to take place in the country– 338 in total. From all of those elections, partisan (or independent) candidates will earn seats in the House of Commons– Canada’s legislature– and the 42nd Parliament will be composed. Out of the composition of the 42nd Parliament one of two things will happen; (1) the 28th Canadian Ministry will be invited to continue to govern or (2) the 29th Canadian Ministry will begin with a new leader being invited to form government. The first situation could happen if the Conservative Party of Canada receives a majority of seats in the House of Commons, a plurality of seats in the House of Commons or, in a hung parliament and without a plurality of seats, invokes the incumbency convention. The second situation could happen if, in a hung parliament and without a plurality of seats, Stephen Harper steps down as Prime Minister and the Governor-General invites the leader with the plurality of seats to form government or if another party wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Let’s use the most recent poll numbers and seat projections from Eric Grenier at threehundredeight.com to understand a plausible situation where Stephen Harper would legitimately and constitutionally hold on to power without having a majority of seats or a plurality of seats in the House of Commons. Suppose a Conservative upset resulted in that party taking the high end of 139 seats to the low end of the Liberals with 124 seats. Regardless of how many seats the NDP, Green Party and Bloc have the 28th Canadian Ministry would be standing to the right of the Speaker during the opening of the 42nd Parliament. Whether or not their Speech from the Throne would pass is another question, and as a matter of confidence it would mean the end of that Ministry. However, the opening itself could be delayed up to an entire year after the closing of the last Parliament, specifically 2 Aug 2016. Even if the NDP and Liberals decided to merge and form a majority of seats in the House of Commons, they would have to convince the Governor-General that the incumbency convention should not stand, which would be a tough sell.

Another example where Stephen Harper could hold on to power is more sinister in terms of how Canadians have come to understand the function of the House of Commons and the formation of government (which, for the record, is largely misinformed) but I would argue is more plausible than the first situation (at least in terms of the composition of parliament as a result of the election). Let’s say it goes right down the middle of Mr. Grenier’s seat count projection. The Liberal Party taking 149 seats, the Conservative Party 118 and the NDP 66 (again, it wouldn’t matter how the other parties came out). In this instance the 28th Canadian Ministry would continue as per the incumbency convention. There is a snag here however, as all three federal leaders have stated that they believe the statement that the leader with the plurality of seats gets first crack at forming government to be true and so, politically speaking, Harper would face pressure to step down (thus keeping the incumbency convention intact as well). However, Stephen Harper could decide to not step down, remain Prime Minister and delay the opening of parliament to buy time. This is highly unlikely, but would be well within the bounds of the Constitution.

The situation becomes even more aggravated if we close the gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals in terms of seat count (most likely how the chips are going to fall in my opinion). Imagine the Liberals taking 130 seats to the Conservatives taking 128 seats. Stephen Harper would remain Prime Minister and one or both remaining major federal parties would most likely be looking to a leadership convention. In that instance, a delay in the opening of parliament, or even an immediate opening of it, would change the landscape. It would become even tougher for the Liberals and the NDP to vote down Harper in the House of Commons if a delay in opening parliament included the election of a new Conservative leader who could face parliament with a Throne Speech riddled with goodies  for the other federal parties.

There are several scenarios in which Stephen Harper could remain Prime Minister into the 42nd Parliament of Canada. The only sure way for critics to see him out for 24 Sussex Drive would be for the Liberals or the NDP to win a clear majority of seats in the House of Commons. Considering that a majority government outcome in the election has pretty much all but been ruled out during this extremely long campaign, we just may all be in for a constitutional lesson tomorrow evening.