The Liberals and NDP have been talking a bit about making a deal to co-operate in Parliament. But the trickiest part about a parliamentary deal is in Parliament itself.
It’s not at all clear there will be an agreement, but the Liberals and NDP have been having informal talks about a deal that would see the NDP prop up Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberals for two to three years.
In theory, that would give Mr. Trudeau’s government some breathing room, and presumably give the NDP some kind of policy concession. But it is easier said than done.
The biggest problem isn’t the policy agenda, though the two parties have different ideas about creating a national pharmacare plan, for example.
And it is conceivable that both sides will see past the electoral risks – the NDP could get blamed for Mr. Trudeau’s record, or the Liberals might weaken their perennial campaign argument that voting for the NDP doesn’t do anything but help elect Conservatives.
But the real trick is agreeing on managing Parliament, particularly the things that opposition parties do to scrutinize – and needle – minority governments.
Those things can often seem like procedural games, but they can matter to a minority government’s survival. When push comes to shove, they lead to threats of non-confidence votes and elections.
Mr. Trudeau doesn’t want another three years of ministers’ aides being summoned to testify at parliamentary committees, or hearings into things like the WE Charity affair, or demands for thousands of documents. But it is hard to imagine the New Democrats could renounce such tactics completely.
New Democrat MP Don Davies has said that his party will rejoin the demand for the government to disclose documents related to the firing of two scientists from the high-security National Microbiology Lab, for example. Mr. Trudeau’s government, insisting it was a matter of national security, went to court to argue against disclosure – essentially contesting parliamentary supremacy. That case became moot when Parliament was dissolved for an election, but could resume in the new session.
A majority government can prevent those things, or have some control over them. In 2019, the Liberals had to accept hearings into the SNC-Lavalin affair for political reasons, but they shut them down after a while.
But minority governments don’t have the votes to control committees. If opposition parties band together, the government can’t stop Parliament from using its sweeping powers to summon witnesses and demand papers.
The Commons should have extensive powers to scrutinize the executive. Sometimes, however, the opposition uses them to put on a political show. And politicians’ view of which is which tends to shift depending on whether they are in opposition or government.
In power, Stephen Harper’s minority Conservatives argued it was improper to ask ministers’ aides to testify in the Commons. In opposition last year they insisted on calling Liberal staffers.
Minority-government parties usually respond to those things with filibusters and stonewalling. Both Mr. Harper’s Conservatives and Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals (sometimes) refused to allow staffers to testify at committee, essentially daring the opposition to escalate the dispute.
Sometimes, governments respond with election threats: When the Conservatives proposed the creation of a Commons “anti-corruption” committee last year, the Liberals’ then-House leader, Pablo Rodriguez, warned the government would consider that a non-confidence vote which would trigger an election.
So while the Liberals and NDP might be able to get their heads around the idea of co-operation, and come up with a legislative agenda, they would still have to work out those things – because they cut to the bottom line of a parliamentary deal.
Such an arrangement would typically require the NDP to pledge support on key confidence matters such as budgets, but if the New Democrats renounce all rights to vote non-confidence, the Liberals would be able to stymie many of Parliament’s demands.
The Liberals would want some assurances their prospective NDP partners won’t spend the next three years teaming up with the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois to demand their e-mails and tax returns.
The NDP would be loath to renounce the demand for the documents about the Winnipeg lab, or renounce the right to vote for parliamentary hearings on a government scandal. That would look like they were renouncing their duty to hold government to account.
Without a deal on those things, both parties would be counting on trust and good faith – and in politics, those things usually don’t last three years.
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