Canadians woke up Tuesday to the news that a divisive and disruptive federal election campaign had produced little more than a sense of déjà vu.
The overall results are so similar to those of the 2019 election that it requires a magnifying glass to see the difference. As of Tuesday afternoon, with some votes still outstanding, no party had gained or lost more than two seats, and no seat-holding party other than the free-falling Greens saw a shift in their popular vote of more than two percentage points.
What’s also familiar about the result is that it has given Canada yet another minority government. Since 1962, 10 out of 20 federal elections have produced minorities; since 2004, the count is five out of seven.
Welcome to the age of the minority government. With the NDP, Greens and Liberals stealing votes from each other, the People’s Party stealing from the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois having stolen from everybody, it is more difficult than ever for any single party to win the magical 170 seats that confers a Parliamentary majority.
And yet the parties – especially the Liberals and Conservatives, the only two that under various evolving names and guises have ever formed government – continue to covet and strive for majority power, as if a minority were just an empty participation prize.
Stephen Harper twice concocted reasons to dissolve Parliaments in which he led a minority Conservative government, in 2008 and 2011, in his pursuit of the majority he finally won. Justin Trudeau did the same in triggering this election, when he thought he saw an opening to upgrade his minority to a majority.
He miscalculated, but it’s easy to understand why he went for it. There is almost no government in the democratic world that is more powerful, and less subject to the usual opposition checks, than a Canadian parliamentary majority.
A party holding more than half the seats in the House of Commons can control almost every aspect of Parliament, from the committees to the proceedings of the House. Government bills face little meaningful opposition on their journey from conception to royal assent. Add to that the power to name senators and Supreme Court judges, and being the prime minister of a majority government in Canada provides a level of (albeit temporary) omnipotence that can leave a PM feeling like Louis XIV.
But as much as prime ministers past, present and future would like you to believe otherwise, the truth is that the absence of a majority doesn’t mean things can’t get done.
Mr. Trudeau was hardly hamstrung by his previous government’s minority status. He was able to pass a budget, bring in hundreds of billions of dollars of COVID-19 relief, launch a program to provide low-cost child care for Canadians, and enshrine into law a commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The things Mr. Trudeau failed to do while he was in power during the pandemic, such as enforcing proper border controls, introducing a federal vaccine mandate or speedily creating a common federal vaccine passport, were not the result of his government’s minority status. He had the power; his government simply chose not to use it.
And yet he sold the need for a snap election on the grounds that Parliament had become too divisive to continue. Canadians weren’t buying it. By the time of his (sort of) victory speech in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, even Mr. Trudeau had entirely dropped that pretense.
The makeup of the new Parliament will be almost exactly the same as the old Parliament, in terms of the mix of seats, which means with a little effort the Liberals can govern, and produce and pass legislation.
There were interesting ideas introduced during the campaign that ended Monday: the Liberal climate change plan; the NDP’s pharmacare and dental care plans; the Conservatives’ tax credit for low-income workers. The government could find parliamentary support for any and all of them.
Co-operation is possible, if the will is there. Lester Pearson’s two Liberal minority governments from 1963 to 1968 made modern Canada, bringing in a new flag, the Canada Pension Plan and national medicare.
Mr. Trudeau should this time show more respect for the capacity of minority governments to advance the interests of Canadians, instead of waiting around for the moment to try to advance his own.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.