Liberals and NDP

Liberals + NDP = less politics + more governing

In 2012, I had a challenging task as an Ontario MPP in a minority Liberal government: chair the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs that gets an Ontario budget passed without triggering a general election. A Conservative party that had pulled to the ideological right was trying to find a way to bring down the government. An NDP party, including an MPP named Jagmeet Singh, was walking a fine line.

Here is how to think about the federal agreement between the governing Liberals and the third party NDP. Canadians have been here before. With or without a formal understanding, at the federal and provincial levels, there has been an understanding between two parties in a minority government to let the government govern, and to judge it on its outcomes rather than its processes.

This arrangement has plenty of precedent in Canada. It is not a coalition government. There will , for example, be no NDP cabinet ministers. The two parties will not caucus together. And the NDP, if it so chooses, can go back on its word before 2025. So how will this arrangement make a difference?

In Ontario in 1985, the David Peterson Liberals and the Bob Rae New Democrats had a formal understanding to end 42 years of Conservative government. That minority government worked for two years. In the 1960s at the federal level, Lester Pearson’s mid-decade minorities in 1963 and 1965 implemented some impressive – and lasting – measures with the tacit support of the Ralliement des Créditistes party in Quebec. The Canadian flag, medicare and the Canada Pension Plan were just some of the measures adopted during that period. After the 1972 federal election, Pierre Trudeau’s minority Liberal government adopted some core NDP policies to govern for two years.

What is a minority government really like?

The reality in a minority government is that it is not a collegial arrangement where parties place their best ideas on the table, and then try and make the optimal choices to benefit as many Canadians as possible. The truth is that from one confidence vote (money bills, election promises, and/or budgets) to the next, the government can’t be sure that they are a vote away from another trip to the polls. This arrangement enables the federal Liberals to actually govern for the next three years.

A party governing in a minority learns quickly that there will always be a crisis, the opposition will perpetually assert that there is a scandal, and the government will lose votes. Back to my time chairing the Ontario Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs (SCFEA) in 2012. The minority government’s first budget after the 2011 election could have been defeated in the House, and sent Ontarians to a July 2012 election. Indeed, entire sections of that proposed 2012-13 budget were defeated by the opposition in committee before what was left went to the Legislature, and ultimately passed, with some NDP support, even if by abstaining from voting against.

A minority government means a majority opposition. It’s tough to get things done. If the times demand policy and legislative boldness, and arguably they do today, you can either pragmatically make do with the Parliament the voters sent you, or you can throw the act of governing back to the voters with an election most people don’t want.

Voters to government: make it work!

Voters in 2019 and 2021 were clear: they sent their MPs to Ottawa to govern. That’s why little changed between the two elections, just as little changed after the two federal elections of 1963 and 1965, or after the two Ontario elections of 1975 and 1977. The voters have made their decision – twice! Now they need their government to get on with its job. The Bill Davis PC government in Ontario after 1977 lasted the full four years, even without a formal arrangement with either the Liberals or the NDP of the day.

Some lasting good is likely to come out of the current Parliament. Now we can all get on with life, and let our Parliamentarians dial back the self-serving politics, and ramp up the act of governing for us all.