Ian Waddell was an NDP MP and a B.C. cabinet minister, and is currently the president of the Educational Foundation of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians.
Canada is approaching election day, and the latest public opinion polls show the Liberals and the Conservatives running neck-and-neck – but it does not seem either party will have enough support to form a clear-cut majority government. The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, the Greens’ Elizabeth May and even the Bloc Quebecois’ Yves-François Blanchet have mused about whether they would support a minority government, and with whom; some have even gone further when asked about the possibility of a coalition, which would mean a cabinet comprised of ministers from the parties involved.
Majority governments lead to the clearest result: The leader of that party has the confidence of the House, and will become prime minister. But they’re certainly not the only constitutionally acceptable options. I’ve witnessed two rarer alternatives firsthand: a Joe Clark-led Progressive Conservative minority in 1979, and a Pierre Trudeau-led Liberal majority in 1980 that featured no Grit seats west of Manitoba. Each leaders’ attempts to remedy their station had their pitfalls and strengths, and reflect a potential road map for the weeks ahead.
Mr. Clark, a fine parliamentarian, may have thought he could follow in the footsteps of John Diefenbaker who, in 1957, turned a minority government into a big majority in 1958, or even those of Mr. Trudeau, who took a minority government in 1972 to another majority in 1975. But Mr. Clark didn’t form any alliances with the opposition parties. He was defeated after eight months in office through a non-confidence vote. I suspect Mr. Clark had just wanted a new election.
In contrast, Mr. Trudeau returned to office in 1980 with a vow to repatriate the Constitution and bring in a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But without any Western representation, he decided to propose a coalition government with Ed Broadbent’s NDP, offering the party cabinet posts.
The NDP rejected that, and the Liberals went on to appoint Western senators to cabinet, instead. The NDP, however, did leverage its seat count into meaningful consultation for Mr. Trudeau’s charter, making it stronger and working to include women’s and Indigenous rights. To that latter point, the addition of Section 35 has featured in more than 300 legal cases since and is at the forefront of slowly realized power for Indigenous people in Canada dealing with issues around resource development.
Mr. Singh, for his part, has thus far rejected a coalition with the Liberals, but seems open to working with a Liberal minority. He laid out policies that would need to be addressed by any party the NDP would partner with in a minority government. This includes a national pharmacare plan, housing investments, waiving student loan interest, closing tax loopholes and reducing emissions. It should be noted that Mr. Singh didn’t mention pipelines.
A road map for the federal leaders can be found in the 2017 confidence-and-supply agreement between the B.C. Green caucus and the B.C. New Democrat caucus. Both parties agreed that they campaigned on some similar points, including making democracy work for people, creating jobs, acting on climate change and building a sustainable economy that works for everyone, fixing the services people count on, and making life more affordable for people.
The agreement even establishes a method of more formal consultation between both caucuses, and even has a dispute resolution process. The consultation is key and probably saved John Horgan’s B.C. NDP government from defeat over its support for liquefied natural gas projects and the completion of the Site C Dam, which the Greens opposed, but over which it declined to defeat the government.
The NDP and its predecessor, the CCF, are particularly proud of the role in enforcing a minority government to bring in old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, medicare, a national oil company and Indigenous rights. A minority supported by the Bloc, however, would be a different animal, and it’s not out of the question that the Bloc may make a deal with a Conservative minority.
After all, as former British prime minister Harold Wilson said, “A week is a long time in politics.” And the many options in play is partly what makes politics the art of the possible.
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