Paul Wells is a journalist and author based in Ottawa.
Not everything can be an outrage. A confidence agreement between the Liberals and the NDP would be compatible with parliamentary rules. It would have precedent in Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia, and in several parliamentary systems abroad. Five of the last seven Canadian federal elections have returned minority governments. It was only a matter of time before this common method of managing minority governments got road-tested in Ottawa.
As a bonus, a Liberal-NDP deal calls a bluff. A bunch of Canadians spent 2021 complaining about an unnecessary early election. It would be a bit rich if we spent 2022 complaining about a mechanism for avoiding early elections.
Sure, aspects of the arrangement between Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh are unusual. The fact that it arrives six months after the election is one. Parties typically cut this sort of deal right after an election to break a tie among different parties’ competing claims to power. But promptness isn’t a requirement. A Liberal-NDP deal would still be valid, and would hold for as long as both parties kept their end of the bargain.
Who benefits? Justin Trudeau must be over the moon. He has governed through turbulent times, always wishing for an easier tomorrow. It’s why he was so sure the COVID-19 pandemic would somehow pave the way for an era of progressive opportunity. It’s why he launched last year’s election on a weekend when most other leaders were preoccupied with Afghanistan’s collapse. It’s why he cooked up this deal in the midst of a war in Europe. Crisis always gets this guy wishing for calm. He’s finally getting his majority, six months behind schedule.
Everyone will be saying Mr. Trudeau has arranged for an orderly transition to a new leader. Maybe. It’s simply impossible to know: Leaders who get to choose the date of their retirement don’t usually drop hints beforehand. It’s as easy to believe that, having bought time, Mr. Trudeau will just start shopping for more time. (He said in Tuesday’s news conference that he plans to run in the next election. Of course, any leader would say that, until he says something different. As I say, it’s impossible to know.) But in the meanwhile, a deal with the NDP will make it easier to govern the way he wants.
Even after two years of stratospheric budget deficits – the necessary cost of containing COVID-19 – the Trudeau government finds itself in a challenging but hardly catastrophic fiscal situation. Three weeks ago the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Yves Giroux, projected a deficit of $139.8-billion for the year just ending, 2021-22, falling to $47.9-billion in 2022-23. That’s a nice decline from 5.6 per cent of GDP to 1.8 per cent. In that scenario, the debt-to-GDP ratio would peak at 47.7 per cent this year before declining to 42.3 per cent in five years.
Of course, these medium-term numbers are fantasy. Mr. Giroux points out that implementing their election platform would take the Liberals off that path of gently declining deficits, and that “significantly more permanent spending than currently anticipated” would get the debt-to-GDP ratio growing again.
I’ll tell you who, based on his record in office to date, couldn’t care less if deficits balloon: Justin Trudeau is who. If he were required to spend the next few years parrying election threats from the Conservatives under a dogged Pierre Poilievre or, who knows, a wily Jean Charest, Mr. Trudeau would have to make a show of fiscal discipline. This would test muscles he hasn’t been exercising. But if he’s held to a deal with Mr. Singh that demands bounties of prescription drugs and dental care, Mr. Trudeau can stick with the sunny ways. Sure, there would be a fiscal reckoning some day. But it would come later, to some other prime minister.
What’s in it for the NDP? These deals are often risky for the junior partner. If the policies the government adopts are popular, the larger party benefits. If they aren’t, the smaller party gets blamed. But Mr. Singh needs to avoid another election that would end with NDP supporters fleeing to the Liberals, once again, at the first sign of Conservative gains. While he’s delaying that day, he can indulge a key article of contemporary NDP faith: that while other parties bicker, the NDP gets things done. Jack Layton liked to make this claim when the modern era of frequent minority governments began in 2004. It’s still popular in the party.
Mr. Trudeau gets to do what he likes best: distributing benefits. Mr. Singh avoids what he does worst: campaigning. The Conservatives, who never stopped complaining about last year’s election, won’t have another one to complain about for a while. Careful what you wish for.
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