We don’t need to wait for the final results to know that CBC’s headline is false
When the preliminary count was completed on Tuesday night, no single party had broken the 44-seat threshold for a majority in British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly. The Liberals were in the lead with 43 seats, followed by the NDP with 41 and the Greens with 3.
It is unknown whether these totals will remain the same after the final count (which, unlike the election night results, includes absentee ballots) is completed in a couple of weeks. Until then, it is impossible to say who will end up in power. However, this has not stopped major media outlets from declaring that the outcome of the election is a Liberal minority government. This is false.
Assuming the preliminary count holds up, the outcome of the election is a hung parliament (sometimes called a minority parliament), meaning that no single party has a majority of seats. Under BC’s parliamentary system of government, elections determine the composition of the Legislative Assembly; they do not determine the composition of the government. It is up to the Legislative Assembly to determine whether Clark can continue to govern with a minority. Reporting that the election has resulted in a minority government is therefore not at all accurate.
For the time being, Clark is the premier, and will remain so until such time as she tenders her resignation to the lieutenant governor. If she wishes, she has every right to meet the legislature and test whether she has the confidence of the house. As long as she can hold the confidence of the house, she can continue to govern with a Liberal minority in the legislature.
However, this is not the only possible outcome. In the days to come, Clark may try to form a majority government through coalition with the Greens, inviting members of their caucus to join her cabinet while maintaining their party affiliation. Alternatively, being unable or unwilling to make the concessions necessary to bring the Greens into her government and anticipating inevitable defeat once the new legislature convenes, Clark may announce her resignation. In that case, the lieutenant governor, Judith Guichon, would invite John Horgan to form a government. Like Clark, Horgan would have the option of trying to keep a minority government afloat, or he might try to form a majority government through an alliance with the Greens.
So it is wrong to report that the election has resulted in a minority government. By the fall, we may very well have a Liberal minority government, but with Tuesday’s results we could just as easily have a Liberal/Green majority government, an NDP minority government, or an NDP/Green majority government. Or, if it seems no viable government can be formed with the legislature the people voted in on Tuesday, we might even be heading back to the polls.
Like Stephen Harper in 2008, Clark’s people can be expected to try to exploit the public’s unfamiliarity with situations of this type and rule out the various constitutional alternatives by portraying them as illegitimate. In this situation, the media need to be mindful of their responsibilities.
By reporting that the election has yielded a Liberal minority government, journalists risk fostering the mistaken impression that a Liberal minority government is more democratically legitimate than the alternatives. Such a false impression would be uniquely politically advantageous to the governing party. That makes it especially important for the media to take great care with the constitutional accuracy of their reporting on the election result and aftermath.