Speaking to reporters in Brampton, Ont., Scheer was pressed about his comments to CTV News Wednesday. The Conservative leader said he expects other parties to “respect the fact” that whichever party ends the campaign with the most seats gets to form government. Scheer suggested that if he falls short of a majority, but has more seats than Trudeau, he should have the “right” to implement the Tories’ agenda.
As a former Speaker of the House of Commons, Scheer knows the conventions of Canada’s parliamentary system give an incumbent prime minister the first crack at attempting to form government after an election, even if his or her party has fallen to second place.
Trudeau could, for example, keep governing if he has the confidence of a majority of the MPs in the House. The most likely avenue for a sitting prime minister to stay on without his party having a plurality of seats is through a coalition or alliance with other parties.
Watch: Scheer calls Trudeau unfit to govern
Though Trudeau has not said he would entertain such ideas, Scheer has taken to repeatedly warning voters in recent days that a “Trudeau-NDP coalition” could be on its way, alleging that will mean major tax hikes.
“It is clear that in modern Canadian history, the party with the most seats forms the government and that a prime minister who comes out of an election with fewer seats than another party, resigns,” Scheer said. “That is the convention in modern Canadian history.”
Scheer’s comments to CTV drew condemnation online from outgoing NDP MP Nathan Cullen.
“As a former Speaker and as an MP, like me for 15 years and sitting through multiple minority parliaments, Scheer is completing making up this ‘right’ and he knows it,” Cullen said. “He’s simply preparing the ground for a made up fight about what’s proper procedure.”
In 2006, Liberal prime minister Paul Martin conceded defeat and stepped down as prime minister after his party won 21 fewer seats than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Harper went on to lead a minority government.
However, in 1925, Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King briefly continued governing with the backing of the Progressive Party, despite winning 15 fewer seats than the Tories in a federal election.
In 2018, then-New Brunswick premier Brian Gallant attempted to keep governing after a provincial election gave his Liberals one fewer seat than Progressive Conservatives. Gallant’s government fell weeks later on non-confidence vote.
In British Columbia, John Horgan’s NDP formed government in 2017 thanks to an alliance with Green MLAs, after Christy Clark’s government fell on a confidence measure. In a provincial election weeks earlier, Clark’s Liberals won 43 seats, and the NDP won 41.
Reporters noted Thursday that, as a former Speaker, Scheer would understand better than most how Canada’s parliamentary system works.
“Do you recognize that holding power depends on winning and holding the confidence of the House of Commons?” a reporter asked.
Scheer ducked the question by saying that the Liberal leader will “do anything” to stay in power.
The Tory leader also wouldn’t say if it would be illegitimate to see a government formed by a party that doesn’t hold the most seats.
“I am very optimistic that we will win Monday’s election with a very strong mandate,” he said. “We’re asking Canadians for a majority mandate to prevent an NDP-Liberal coalition that will run massive deficits and raise their taxes.”
With polls suggesting that neither Liberals nor Tories are poised to form a majority government, the dying days of the campaign have been consumed with questions about how the next Parliament might function.
Over the weekend, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he’d be open to joining a coalition to keep Tories from power. Singh has since walked those comments back, saying he is focused on electing as many NDP MPs as possible.
The NDP leader promised before the campaign began that his party would not prop up a Tory minority government because of Scheer’s past opposition to same-sex marriage.
Trudeau ‘focused on electing a strong Liberal government’
At a campaign stop in Trois-Rivières, Que. Thursday, Trudeau wouldn’t say if he would be entertain leading a coalition government.
“We are focused on electing a strong Liberal government that is going to be able to continue the hard work of fighting against climate change and investing in families,”Trudeau said.
Asked if he agreed with Scheer that the leader of the party with the most seats should get to form government — a position former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff expressed during the 2011 election — Trudeau again said he was focused on forming government “with progressive Canadians” who will fight “Conservative cuts” and act on climate change.
“The choice Canadians are facing is a very, very clear one. We are entirely focused on that.”
The Liberal leader also stuck to that message when he was asked if he would attempt to govern without obtaining a plurality of the seats.
Singh: Coalition is not a dirty word
At a campaign event in Welland, Ont., Singh said the “vast majority” of Canadians don’t want to see a Conservative government.
“So whatever we can do to ensure that doesn’t happen is what New Democrats are committed to doing,” he said.
The NDP leader added that while he would like to be prime minister, he wants Canadians to “win,” no matter the machinations after the election.
“If you vote in New Democrats, you’re going to get the things that you need because we’re going to fight for you,” he said.
A reporter suggested that Scheer is making “coalition” seem like a dirty word.
“It’s not,” Singh said, sparking laughter and applause.
Expert: Scheer trying to ‘give more weight’ to custom
Carleton University political scientist Philippe Lagassé told HuffPost Canada that the tradition of a prime minister resigning if his or her party fails to win the most seats isn’t particularly modern.
“It’s just a custom that’s been in place in Canada for some time but it’s not binding and it can be set aside if the situation warrants it and if the serving prime minister believes that he or she is better placed to command the confidence of the House,” he said.
Lagassé told HuffPost he thinks Scheer is trying to “give more weight” to the idea to put extra pressure on Trudeau to step down if Conservatives garner more seats, even though it’s not a constitutional requirement for him to do so.
As for the “right” to govern, the expert says that doesn’t come from seats.
“It’s about who can hold the confidence of the House of Commons.”