FAQ: How Canada transitions from election to a new government

NATION by Nathan Raine


Yup, the beautiful dream has come true: Harper out, Trudeau in. Huzzah!

But, what now?

It’s been nearly a decade since Canada changed its government, and what comes next might seem a little unclear. So to help us brush up on our federal transitions, we consulted two political experts from the University of Saskatchewan: David McGrane, associate professor of political studies, and Charles Smith, assistant professor of political science, to talk winners, losers, and what we can expect in the following weeks. (SPOILER: Here’s betting we can expect very little of Stephen Harper.)

The Victorious Liberals

After winning only 34 seats in 2011, the 184 seats the Liberals won this election represents the highest election-to-election increase for any party in Canadian history. (Meanwhile, at 99 seats the Conservatives are back to the same amount of seats they had in 2004.)

So: when does Trudeau take office? C’mon, hurry up! Right?

Well, apparently it’s largely up to the discretion of the governor general.

“The Canadian electorate doesn’t actually decide who is prime minister,” says McGrane. “The governor general looks at who gets the most seats in the House of Commons following the election, then invites the leader of the party with the most seats to form government. Obviously, the governor general isn’t going to ask for Harper.”

Pending any sudden emergency — like a war or an attack on Canada (which one would also assume to be at least kind of a war…) — the governor general will usually take about two weeks to allow for all of the formalities to process. Trudeau has announced that he plans to appoint his cabinet on Nov. 4. Before then, can Trudeau simply kick back and enjoy a soon-to-be legal joint before he takes office?

Probably not, says McGrane.

“Generally, it’s a good idea to take a step back and figure out what’s going on before you rush into things. However, what some prime ministers have been known to do is [offer up] three or four quick deliverables,” he says.

These “deliverables” are things that the new PM could do immediately, without having to execute any ambitious plans.

Vhat iss thees deliverables? McGrane has a list: “Addressing Bill C-51, some democratic reform, two or three simple things straight away, before the things that are more complicated,” he says. “Removing the fighter jets from Iraq? Yes — that’s simple and easy to do. Legalization of pot? Not so simple.”

When parliament will be called is still unknown, although some experts believe they’re required to resume by Jan. 8. Trudeau, who ran on a campaign of tax hikes for the upper class and tax cuts for the middle class, has said that introducing legislation on the cuts would be the Liberals’ first major move.

But, before that, Smith also believes that Trudeau will act quickly on a number of smaller promises.

“If you look at some of their policies put out through the campaign, I think there are a few things they can scratch off quickly. Giving the parliamentary budget officer real [authority] to perform the job seems like a likely one, [as does] opening dialogue in areas where Harper was seen as indifferent, such as missing and murdered women — things like that, where there will be no political pushback and it won’t cost much. I think in the first 100 days you’ll see a lot of changes that will distinguish [Trudeau] from the previous government,” he says.

The Vanquished Conservatives

After a dramatic and satisfying-for-us decrease in seats, the Conservatives announced on election night (in a press release — tacky) that Stephen Harper would be stepping down as leader. But can he still do any damage before Trudeau takes over?

“One would hope that the Conservatives just slowly fade away and don’t do anything damaging,” says Smith. “When a government has been in power for a long time, we start to see really troubling things. One would hope that doesn’t happen. There is no official duty for Harper; it’s really just making the transition as smooth as possible and working with the incoming government.”

“Strangely enough, if he wanted to, Harper could’ve asked the governor general to allow him to be in parliament, and to have a vote to see if he still has the confidence of the House,” says McGrane. “Which would’ve failed miserably. He did the responsible thing, which was to resign that night.”

But could the Harper government do anything in their remaining days? Say, introduce the death penalty for smoking pot?

“If the Conservatives tried to do anything unconstitutional in the next couple of weeks, the governor general would just step in and say, ‘I’m going to take that power away from you,’” says McGrane.

The Rest Of Them

The Bloc Québécois’ Gilles Duceppe lost his riding (again), while Green Party leader Elizabeth May sits firmly on her party’s one and only seat. Duceppe resigned, but momentum may be building for May, who was recently invited by Trudeau to attend the upcoming climate change conference in Paris.

Then, there’s the collapse of the NDP. At the beginning of the campaign, Thomas Mulcair was leading the polls and looking poised for a serious run. At the outset no one expected such a poor showing from the NDP on election night, falling as they did from 103 seats in 2011 to only 44 this year.

Does this mean NDPers will be screaming for Mulcair’s blood?

“I think the NDP has to go through some soul-searching,” says Smith. “What does social democracy mean in 2015? There were times during the campaign when Liberals looked more left than the NDP. It’s not just a leadership issue; the NDP refused to take positions on some issues where they could be criticized of being too left-wing. A party of democratic socialism being too left-wing? The NDP has to take a look at what they stand for. If they see it only as a failure of leadership, I think they’re in trouble.”

“In regard to Mulcair, I think he will have a hard time staying on,” Smith  says. “I think there’s going to be a lot of whispering behind the scenes.”

“There’s this new rule that the first time a caucus meets, they can actually vote to kick out their leader,” says McGrane. “Generally speaking, it’s his decision: Mulcair will see if he has the support of first his caucus, then his party executives. But with this new rule, caucus can opt in and use it to kick him out. But he could decide to resign tomorrow, in which case this entire conversation is moot.”

So that’s where we’re at. Stay tuned for more exciting developments.