Ian Waddell is a former member of Parliament and B.C. cabinet minister, and the current president of the Educational Foundation of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians.
On a wintry December night in 1979, I was one of the members of Parliament who voted for NDP MP Bob Rae’s no-confidence motion against Progressive Conservative finance minister John Crosbie’s budget, an existential challenge to Joe Clark’s minority government. Mr. Clark had replaced Pierre Trudeau as prime minister in an election just months before; most of my young colleagues – the NDP caucus was very young at the time – didn’t even really think the motion would pass.
But it did.
Mr. Clark, a fine parliamentarian and a decent man, may have thought he could follow in the footsteps of John Diefenbaker – who in 1957 took a minority government into a big majority in 1958 – or even Mr. Trudeau himself, who turned his 1972 minority government to a majority 19 months later. But Mr. Clark’s fatal error was that he didn’t form any alliances with the opposition parties. One awkward election later, he and his PC Party were back on the opposition benches; like Lazarus, Pierre Trudeau returned to power, winning the Liberals a majority government with a vow to repatriate the constitution and bring in a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, despite his decisive victory, Mr. Trudeau failed to win seats west of Winnipeg, and so he offered cabinet posts to the NDP. And while we rejected that offer, we did leverage our position and built relationships to make his Charter stronger and to include women’s and Indigenous rights in the new Constitution.
These events add up to a cautionary tale for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was working on an ad-hoc basis with the other parties in a Liberal minority government before the prorogation of Parliament and a looming Speech from the Throne. Without closer relationships, the Liberals could blunder into a fall election that no one really wants.
Under Canadian constitutional practice, there are many ways to make relationships produce functioning minority governments. The governing party can receive support on an issue-to-issue basis; there can be a loose alliance to adopt some specific policies of another party; there can also be a more formal coalition. In such situations, the NDP, as well as its predecessor the CCF, has a long legacy in leveraging those relationships to get the government of the day to bring in old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, Medicare, a national oil company, and improvements on Indigenous rights.
After the latest federal election, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh followed in that tradition, laying out some policies “that would need to be addressed by any party the NDP would partner with in a minority government,” including a national pharmacare plan, housing investments, waiving student loan interest, closing tax loopholes, and reducing emissions. With a confidence vote expected on Sept. 23, Mr. Singh was essentially asked the same question again last week, and he pointed to improving employment insurance and child care. Mr. Trudeau, meanwhile, reportedly wants to pursue a progressive agenda. So, how about a deal?
A potential road map for Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals and Mr. Singh’s NDP could be found in the 2017 confidence-and-supply agreement between the B.C. Greens and the B.C. NDP. Both parties agreed that they campaigned on some similar points, including making democracy work for people, creating jobs, acting on climate change, building a sustainable economy that works for everyone, fixing the services people count on, and making life more affordable for people. The written agreement established a method of more formal consultation between both caucuses, and even has a dispute resolution process.
The consultation aspect is key, and probably saved B.C. Premier John Horgan’s NDP government from defeat over their support over Liquefied Natural Gas projects, and the completion of the Site C Dam. The Greens opposed the projects, but didn’t defeat the government. This allowed a progressive climate policy to take shape and be enacted.
Canadians do not want an election. We are in the middle of a huge crisis, and people are scared. They want politicians to be their better selves. A hasty election, at this time, would signal to Canadians that politicians might not understand what we’re going through. So the New Democratic Party and the Liberal government would be wise to consider some kind of formal agreement to avoid an election at a time where the threat of a second wave of the pandemic is very real.
Such an agreement might give us stable government for a couple of years. And in a world where democracy itself is being questioned, this kind of statesmanlike behaviour would surely be welcomed by the Canadian people.
Editor’s note: (Aug. 28, 2020): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Pierre Trudeau failed to win seats east of Winnipeg when it should have said west. Also, Mr. Trudeau won a majority government 19 months after winning a minority one, not three years.
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