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Hub Explainer: So who is running the government right now?


It is well known that a “caretaker” government operates during an election campaign, with a focus on routine proceedings, urgent matters and all-party collaboration on important issues that arise.

But what happens after election day, in that uncertain period before a new cabinet is sworn in and before Parliament is recalled?

At some point, between election day and the resumption of Parliament, the government shifts out of caretaker mode and into normal day-to-day business.

The precise moment is often a mystery. It’s not publicly announced and, in minority Parliaments when the incumbent wins, it’s often based on a subjective test of whether or not the governing party believes it can gain the confidence of the House of Commons.

In response to The Hub’s questions to the Privy Council Office about when and how the caretaker mode was lifted in the current government, media relations officials said only that the PCO “works closely with departments to provide advice and guidance on issues relating to the caretaker convention.” Wednesday’s major announcement on vaccine mandates for public servants and air and rail travellers implies heavily that the government is operating at full capacity now, though.

According to scholars, the government must clear one of two hurdles to shift out of caretaker mode after an election, with one being obvious and objective and the other being more subjective.

The most obvious sign is when a new cabinet is sworn in, which means the government is ready to start governing without any caretaker restrictions. We’re still waiting on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint his new ministers, but he already has a cabinet assembled from the previous government.

The second test is less obvious and far more subjective. The Privy Council Office advises that a government can shift out of caretaker mode “when an election result returning an incumbent government is clear.” This is the guideline that matters now.

After the September election, which gave the Liberals a plurality of seats, it looks like the government has cleared the second test, but “you could, looking at the language of the guidance, say no,” said Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University, who researches the Westminster system of government.

That means pundits, scholars and opposition MPs are free to quarrel with the idea that we just witnessed a “clear” victory for Trudeau, but the discussion is mostly academic.

The caretaker guidelines are a Parliamentary practice, not even rising to the level of a convention and, in the end, it is “ultimately dependent on the prime minister’s call,” said Lagassé.

Is there a better way?

It might seem odd to leave a subjective decision like this in the hands of the prime minister. He may, after all, be biased.

Trudeau has been vocal recently about winning a “clear mandate” in the election, despite some quibbles from critics and pundits.

In the U.K., most of the uncertainty is taken out of this transition period by almost immediately recalling Parliament. That means minority governments have to sort out plans for maintaining the confidence of the House and the make-up of the new cabinet within a week or two of election day.

The practice in the U.K. is that Parliament will have its first meeting in under 12 days, which was a guideline adopted in 2010. Before that, Parliament was convened on the Wednesday following the election. In Australia, Parliament has to reconvene within 30 days and in New Zealand, the government has six weeks to bring Parliament back.

This is a stark contrast to the practice in Canada. Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government took nearly 100 days from election day to throne speech in 2004. In 1979, Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government took a whopping 141 days to get a throne speech together after election day.

“It says something about our attitude towards Parliament that it’s a bit of an afterthought. You’re going to have the swearing-in of cabinet, and then after that, we’ll get around to reopening Parliament,” said Lagassé.

If Canadians grew tired of these laggard governments, they could follow the example of the U.K. system and codify some expectations for when Parliament should be recalled in a cabinet manual. In 2011, then-Prime Minister David Cameron published the U.K.’s current two-week rule in that document making it harder for subsequent governments to flout the guideline.

What happens to ministers?

One of the quirks of Canada’s parliamentary system is that defeated members of Parliament can still hold cabinet spots after the election. In the September election, four Liberal cabinet ministers lost their seats, with three being defeated and one resigning.

And although Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna was recently tweeting about how she’s not sad to be out of politics after retiring as a member of Parliament, she is actually still in charge of her department until Trudeau appoints a new minister.

Maryam Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality and rural economic development, Bernadette Jordan, the minister of fisheries and Deb Schulte, the minister for seniors, are all in similar spots after losing their seats in the election.

Lagassé said there’s a few options for the government in this case. One is that the unelected minister continues doing the job as usual until the new minister comes in.

“Individual ministers retain their authorities, even if they will not be returning to the House of Commons, until a new minister is sworn into their position,” said Stéphane Shank, a media relations officer in the Privy Council Office. “By convention, a returning government continues to exercise a degree of restraint, to the extent possible, until a new/revised ministerial team is sworn-in.”

Another option involves transferring that power.

“The deputy minister can act in the minister’s stead in almost all matters, so day-to-day kind of functions of the department are not really affected. And similarly, in a pinch, you can even pass regulations transferring functions to another minister as necessary,” said Lagassé.

When should we expect a speech from the throne?

After the 2019 election, in which Trudeau’s majority government was demoted to a minority one, it took 46 days from election day until the throne speech.

The average since 1968 is 69 days for a government to recall Parliament, but it’s possible that the level of urgency will be higher this time.

Since the 2021 election occurred in the midst of a global crisis, the best one to compare it to could be the 2008 federal election: where an incumbent minority government was re-elected with another minority parliament in the midst of the 2008 global financial crisis.

It took Stephen Harper’s re-elected Conservative minority government 36 days from election day to the day of the throne speech, which is one of the quickest transitions in the last 50 years.

Minority governments are now likely the norm


Welcome to The Hub’s Federal Election 2021 Policy Pulse, where we’ll be tracking all the policy announcements from the major parties, with instant analysis from our crew of experts.

With the election scheduled for Sept. 20, we’ll be monitoring 36 days worth of policy ideas, so watch out each morning for the day’s live blog where we’ll be tracking every announcement as it happens.

1:00 p.m. — Minority governments are now likely the norm

By Royce Koop, contributor at The Hub

The polls suggest we are heading for another minority government in Canada. The CBC’s poll tracker currently puts the Liberals and Conservatives neck-and-neck at about 31 percent each. That will likely translate into a Liberal minority.

Minority governments have been quite rare throughout Canadian history. This is in part because Canada’s single-member plurality electoral system is designed to produce majority governments by giving the winning party a boost in seats. Most of the time it’s done just that. But the 21st century has been quite different than the 20th: four of the seven elections held since 2000 have produced minority rather than majority governments. The current election is likely to add to the minority column. 

In part, this is due to the presence of small parties that make it harder for the big parties to clinch enough seats to form a majority. For example: the Bloc, NDP, and Greens won a total of 59 seats in the 2019 election. Taking roughly a fifth of the seats in the House of Commons out of play makes it that much harder for either the Liberals or Conservatives to get to the 170 needed to form a majority. And the continued presence of small parties means minority governments might be the norm in Canadian politics for some time to come.

Majority and minority governments have different advantages. Majority governments, given the prevalence of party discipline in Canada, are secure and so allow the cabinet to be decisive and take initiatives that might be unpopular in the short term. In contrast, minority governments are thought to be more moderate and consensual since the they must patch together support from opposition parties if they hope to govern.

That’s how things are supposed to work. In practice, however, they can be quite different. If opposition parties don’t want an election because, for example, they lack money or are in the middle of a leadership race, then they will effectively let a minority govern as it wishes. And, while consensus sounds good in theory, it can result in a never-ending game of brinkmanship between the government and opposition. Every vote is super-charged, and every issue drowned in partisanship as the parties constantly position and re-position themselves for an election that could be just around the corner.

The immediate consequence of the election of another minority government may be leadership change as one or more of the parties comes to terms with their inability to secure a clear majority mandate. Canadian politics is likely to become more, not less, intense after this election.

8:00 a.m. — For candidates on election day, it’s about blocking out the noise

By Rob Leone, contributor at The Hub

In the dying days of the campaign, astute citizens and political observers are hanging at the edge of their computer screens trying to get the latest news. We are hitting refresh to see the latest news, meme, or TikTok video. We watch election news on social media like it’s the final of the U.S. Open tennis match with balls being batted back and forth, and we hope that our team scores that ace on our opponents.

But, for candidates, whose name is on the ballot, they can’t be consumed by any of it. I’m reminded of the famous Dr. Suess line: “And then all the noise. All the noise, noise, noise, NOISE! They’ll bang on tong-tinglers, blow their foo-flounders, they’ll crash on jang-jinglers, and bounce on boing-bounders.” That’s what all of the fluff on social media is: noise! It’s a distraction from doing the singular thing that might make a difference – knocking on more doors and bringing supporters out to the polls.

What of that noise? While it remains mission critical for candidates to work extra hard in the dying days of the campaign, the problem is that everyone else is listening to the noise. The candidate’s spouse and family start to get concerned. Volunteers are sizing up your winnability. If they think winning is possible, they’ll show up. If they think it’s a foregone conclusion, they won’t.

That is the rub. No matter how much candidates are told not to pay attention to the noise, a candidate cannot turn it off for everyone else around them. All those hours, those steps, those doors of the past weeks and months of a campaign are about to end. It will be over today and they’ll suddenly have empty days on their calendar instantaneously.

The great news for winners is that they get to bask in the glory of victory. They will get to sit in the House of Commons, one of 338 people who get to determine the fate of a nation. Being in that seat will be a surreal experience.

The good news for the non-winners is that they will feel good about making a run. It is also an experience like no other. To see your name on a ballot, on signs in front of people’s lawns, and to know that people liked you enough to cast their ballot in your favour. The candidates, if they are doing their jobs, will be a few pounds lighter and forever moved by the experience.

There’s also one other nugget that will make candidates smile forever: they will never find a person in the days and weeks after an election that didn’t vote for them. Everyone will say they did, even though we all know it couldn’t possibly be true.