The "explain to a five-year-old" question is a semi-standard format where the answer demonstrates their ability to understand both the subject matter, and the perspective and limitations of the answer's recipient.

See for example Forbes' Why Explaining To A 5-Year Old Challenges Your Understanding Of Collaboration which begins:

How well do you really know a subject? I think the best way is if you can teach the concept to someone else new to the idea. If you really want to test yourself, try explaining it to a 5 year old.

I will not state that a typical American's understanding of politics is necessarily that of a political five year old equivalent, but for many the American "2.1 party system" is often simplified as "party A or B" in control of the Presidency, House, and Senate and then those three then either work together or fight against each other.

Which of the two opposing teams is in control of the Presidency, House, and Senate is determined by direct elections (except for the weirdness of the Electoral College which we don't like to talk about).

Politico's Trudeau will be prime minister until 2025; The Liberals and New Democrats brokered a deal that will keep minority government in power until the next election. (which links to Trudeau's letter to Canadians Delivering for Canadians Now) is likely confusing to the average American because:

  1. Huh? There are more than two parties? How does that work?
  2. Huh? A political deal between two parties? What is that and how does that work?
  3. Huh? Until the deal it was Liberals vs Democrats?

Question: How do you explain Canada's Trudeau's power-sharing agreement to a five-year-old (American)?

No complex jargon or reliance on substantial historical reference or knowledge, just simple explanations with simple vocabulary, ideally not too long, direct, and to the point.

I understand this is the antithesis of how may Politics SE answers are written, but it should certainly be possible once in a while.


6 Answers 6


As a Canadian, here I go:

In Canada, we have 3 political parties that are considered "major", and an additional 3 that are considered "minor" (there's 1 party (the Bloc Quebecois) that's in the middle of those 2, but that's mostly irrelevant to the discussion; I've labelled them as "minor" for various reasons that aren't important). So, when we vote, we vote between 6 parties, rather than 2.

Our voting system works more or less the same way as America's, in broad strokes: one person, one vote, whoever gets the most votes wins the regional vote, and whoever wins the most regional votes wins the government (in the US this is done by the "electoral college", in Canada it's a somewhat less arcane system but you can still think of it as "regional" in a similar way as the electoral college, where the popular vote does not determine the winner of the election directly). In all other respects, it's the same as America, except instead of having 2 names on the ballot we have 6 (or sometimes more in the case of third-party candidates).

The rule in Canada is that, in order to form a government (that is, pick the prime minister and cabinet members), the party forming the government has to win 50% or more "election points" (this gets complicated, I'm throwing a lot under the mat here when I say "election points"; this is where our system is more complex than your Electoral College, but you can more or less consider it in a similar way). There are various reasons why we don't do simple majority, and that gets into the complicated part mentioned above that I'm brushing under the rug, so just trust me on this one. However, since we have 6 parties and not 2, it's not guaranteed that someone will win 50% of the points.

The way we deal with the situation in which no party gets 50% of the points is we allow a "minority government". A "minority government" is when one party says to another, something like this: "Hey, you have 30% of the points, I have 25% of the points, together we have 55% of the points. How about we work together and make a government between the 2 of us?". This is the type of government that Trudeau currently has, where the Liberal party is partnered with the New Democratic Party (NDP), and together they have over 50% of the points so they get to be the leader, together. Since the Liberals have more points than the NDP, that means Trudeau (the Liberal leader) gets to be to Prime Minister and not Singh (the NDP leader).

The way minority governments tend to work is that, because the second party's consent is needed (they don't give their points once, but they need to continue giving their points forever in perpetuity until the next election), the second party has a large stake in the government. At any point, the second party can say "nah, I don't like you anymore" and they can collapse the government which would cause an election. This is actually a fairly common occurrence, which is why Canada tends to have more elections (at all levels of government) than the US and minority governments almost never make it the entire 5 year term (which is our legal statute for a Federal government).

That said, the Liberal party is (billed as; various opinions of how the party is seen by individuals may vary) Canada's moderate-left party and the NDP is Canada's far-left party. Canada is, similar to the US, increasingly politically divided in recent years, and therefore the NDP may see that continuing to prop up the Liberal minority government in perpetuity to be a better alternative to having an election where the Conservatives (our moderate-right party) might win (the other 2 right-wing parties are in the "minor party" category and so their possibility of winning an election outright is vanishingly small; the Conservatives are the main threat to the Liberal/NDP alliance). As a result, this minority government seems (as to your article from Politico) to be one of the more stable minority governments and an election soon is not particularly likely.

  • 6
    I like it, but this is 7-year-old level, I'd say. Arithmetics, subordinate clauses...
    – Zeus
    Mar 23, 2022 at 1:03
  • 10
    Do you think it's worth noting that this kind of outcome isn't specific to Canada, and in fact occurs in many representative democracies? Mar 23, 2022 at 8:45
  • 1
    FWIW U.S. ballots typically have more than two options for President, as well (4 is common, but it varies from one election to the next and from one state to another.) It's just that only two of them usually have enough support to actually win a state, so the others rarely get any electoral votes (though half a dozen or so people did get electoral votes in 2016... some of whom weren't running. - haha) Republican, Democratic, Green, and Libertarian are usually on the ballot in every or nearly every state. Some smaller party or independent ones show up sometimes, too, though.
    – reirab
    Mar 23, 2022 at 15:37
  • 2
    I think calling the NDP far-left is pretty hyperbolic
    – llama
    Mar 23, 2022 at 17:29
  • 4
    If you're talking to an American, you could probably replace a lot of the second and third paragraphs by saying "Imagine if the party that got a majority in the House of Representatives automatically got to form the government, with their leader as Prime Minister." Mar 23, 2022 at 19:44

Trying to keep it in language a 5-year old might understand.

In elections, you vote for someone. Whoever gets the most votes, wins. In a place like Canada, the country is divided into districts (in Canada, named Ridings), and you vote for a representative (or Member of Parliament) for your district. Each district has about the same number of people. A big city might have one or more small districts while a farming area will have very large districts (since people don't live so close to each other). This is very similar to how Americans vote for their representatives in Congress.

But, in a Parliamentary system, like Canada, there is no president. When you vote, the only person you vote for is your local representative. If, during an election, one party wins more than half of all of the district elections, it has a majority of the votes in Parliament and can form the government. The government makes all the rules and all the laws.

Unlike a US President, the Prime Minister is another Member of Parliament, but one who has been chosen by the party to be the leader. He or she is part of the legislature and is not the head of state.

It's very important for the government to be able to win nearly every vote in Parliament. If it loses a significant vote in Parliament, it may need to resign and another election will take place.

Since there are more than two parties in Canada, it's possible that no party will win the majority of districts. In that case, it's difficult to govern unless you can get another party to cooperate and vote with the government.

In some Parliamentary systems, they have coalition governments, where the government includes representatives from more than one party. That's not the way it's traditionally done in Canada. Instead, one party pledges to support another party (the one forming the government). In return, it gets a lot of influence in the government, helping it decide which rules and laws it should make.

So, in this case, the Liberal Party has more representatives than any other party in Parliament, so it gets to try to govern. However, it doesn't have a majority of the representatives, so it can't do it on it's own. The deal that was announced says that another party (known as the New Democratic Party (which has nothing to do with the Democratic Party in the US)) will help the Liberals govern. In return, the Liberals will listen to suggestions from the New Democrats about what laws and rules it will make.

  • 1
    Upvoted this specifically because it covers all the important points without really assuming proper knowledge of how the US political system works (as an American, it amazes me how many of my fellow Americans seem to have no idea how our own political system works), as well as touching on parliamentary systems in general and how Canada differs from the norm in that respect. Mar 24, 2022 at 12:57

Note: this answer will use some footnotes, because I'm not sure exactly how much an average 5 year old knows. Depending on how much they now the footnotes might be helpful, or not.

What's going on here is that there are multiple political parties working together to have most of the vote. For example, think of the political parties1 as people. Three people are voting on who becomes the leader, and two people decide to work together and vote for the same person. Here, each political party is one of those people. Liberals and New Democrats are the name of those two parties.

1 What a political party actually is is a group of people who all have the same beliefs working together, and agreeing to nearly always vote on the same thing, which their leader decides upon. The amount of power a political party has is based on how many votes they get in an election, which is where everybody who wants to vote do so. The amount of power a party gets is based on the amount of votes the party gets. This means that 2 parties can each have less power than another party, but if they work together, they will have more power.


To the five-year-old in Kindergarten class...

You are in a class of 30 kids. There are six kids running for class president. If one of those kids gets 16 votes (50.1%) they get to be president. But that didn't happen. Here are the votes per kid.

  • Alex: 1
  • Blake: 8
  • Pat: 10
  • Jordan: 1
  • Taylor: 9
  • Kennedy: 1

Even though Pat received the most individual votes it did not equal 16 or higher. But, if Blake and Taylor agree to work together, their combined votes equals 17 which is more than 16. And, since Taylor received more votes than Blake, Taylor gets to be President as long as they continue to work together.

  • A president and a prime minister are not the same thing. Conflating the two leads to the confusion that prompted the question.
    – T.J.L.
    Mar 24, 2022 at 18:14
  • @T.J.L. The question asked to explain a power-sharing agreement, and not the difference between a President and Prime Minister. What title is used for the leader is mostly inconsequential to the question. Though, for a 5-year old American, using the term "Prime Minister" is probably more confusing than not.
    – Luck
    Mar 24, 2022 at 20:39

The agreement (alliance between the Liberal and the NDP parties) gives the Liberal party the majority of the votes in parliament.

It's a marriage of reason, both the Liberal and the NDP parties are left-leaning (NDP more than the Liberal)

This means that any votes on a Motion of no confidence (votes on the budget are considered as such) will fail.

"If a vote of no confidence passes, the prime minister is required to either resign or request the governor general to dissolve Parliament and call a general election."

The alliance means that all those Motion of no confidence will fail and that the current government will not fail and that the next election will be, as planned, in 2025.

  • 1
    So either share power until 2025 or risk losing the seats now. Mar 22, 2022 at 19:18
  • 3
    Maybe it's just me, but I feel like this is more difficult to understand than the question. (I didn't downvote though) Mar 22, 2022 at 19:29
  • 1
    @uhoh I guess it's just a difference in background then. For you, it might be a big aha moment, but for me, the only reason I have the slightest idea what that term means is because of star wars :). It's interesting to know that that's apparently a pretty popular term though. Mar 22, 2022 at 20:08
  • 2
    I really don't think this is appropriate to a five year old, although it's better than some answers. There's far too much jargon.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 23, 2022 at 12:27
  • 1
    I feel this leaves too much information out. It says nothing about why such an agreement would be necessary. The average American knows nothing about Parliament, and tends to assume all governments work like their own.
    – trlkly
    Mar 23, 2022 at 12:50

In a representative democracy, people elect one or more people to represent them and vote for them on day-to-day government issues. Often these people form a legislative body, like the US Congress or the Canadian parliament. The political party who has more representatives than all the others combined is said to have a majority, and is essentially in charge. This is because, in theory, they represent what more than 50% of the people want.

In democracies with only two parties who tend to receive all the votes, the majority is whoever gets the most votes. It's simple. But if you have more than two such parties, you can wind up with a situation where each party takes up less than 50% of the deliberative body. That means no one party represents what most Americans want. In many such democracies, this is resolved by something called a coalition government or sharing agreement. This is where one of the parties with a lot of members will agree to share power with one (or more) of the parties with fewer members, to get the total over 50%.

In Canada's case, the Liberal party was unable to get a majority of the vote, and thus had fewer than 50% of members or seats. They decided to make a deal with the New Democrat Party, who had won enough additional seats to bring them over 50%. This allows them to elect a leader (in this case, a Prime Minister) and thus the election can be over, with a clear winner.

The Prime Minister is similar to the US president, but is elected entirely by Parliament, rather than through an Electoral College system. The equivalent in the US would be if Congress voted for president, and all of the Republicans voted for the Republican presidential candidate and the Democrats for the Democrat candidate. In a shared government, both parties in the agreement will need to choose the Prime Minister they want. Usually this is one chosen by the larger party, but the smaller party can also negotiate for someone else to lead instead, saying they won't join the agreement otherwise.

  • 3
    Is a five year old expected to understand the Electoral College or know words like "deliberative"?
    – Stuart F
    Mar 23, 2022 at 12:27
  • 1
    @StuartF The OP makes it quite clear they aren't talking about explaining to a literal five year old. We're just supposed to simplify things down to the knowledge of our intended audience. I do in fact expect the average American who is interested in Canadian politics to be aware of the Electoral College (if not the intricacies of how it works) and to be aware of the word "deliberative" given the context I used it. I actually wrote this because I thought the other Answers either assumed too much knowledge or got overly complicated.
    – trlkly
    Mar 23, 2022 at 12:48

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