Why Canada’s new Parliament might not be as progressive as advertised

Politics | by Gregory Beatty

When progressive-minded Canadians were discussing strategic voting in the campaign’s final days, with the Liberals and Conservatives deadlocked in the polls and the NDP rising, the best case scenario was a Liberal minority with progressive parties holding the balance of power.

And lo and behold, that’s pretty much what happened.

That should have them in good spirits, right? After all, when Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre, in an interesting historical quirk, was reduced to a minority in his second term in 1972, he formed a coalition with the NDP that produced some progressive legislation — including Petro-Canada to give Canadians a stake in the U.S.-dominated oil industry.

When Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan director for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, saw the results this election, he had similar hopes.

“But the fact Justin Trudeau’s first two promises were to build TMX [the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion project] and introduce tax cuts worries me,” says Enoch. “Then we have all this talk about conceding things to the west — whether that’s changes in equalization, or further changes to Bill C69 [which regulates energy and the environment]. So the posture the Liberals are taking right now doesn’t seem very progressive.”

With the 1972 election, the Liberals had a slim two-seat edge over the Progressive Conservatives that forced them to align with the NDP. Justin Trudeau’s minority is much stronger (36 seats), and he’s already ruled out a coalition with the NDP.

“I think the Liberals are going to try to emulate the Harper model and go issue by issue to cobble together the votes they need,” says Enoch. “On TMX, they know the Conservatives will probably vote with them. Same with tax cuts. Then maybe they pivot to a social program like Pharmacare and try to recruit the NDP, Greens and Bloc Quebecois.”

“All indications are that the Liberals intend to make small concessions to their political opponents in the hope that they can build back some support that they lost from 2015,” agrees University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith. “It will be interesting to see how that dynamic goes down.”

Minority Report

By forcing parties to work together to pass legislation, minority governments can often be productive — at least in the short term, says Enoch.

“The long-term danger is that eventually the other parties may feel they’re being taken for granted,” he says. “Right now, there’s no danger of it as I don’t think the other parties want another election. Most of the ‘war chests’ are empty, so the Liberals have a lot of room to maneuver. But once you get into year two, you might find the appetite to compromise a little less.”

Conservative spin on the election has focused on getting more votes than the Liberals and increasing their seat count.

But in reality, they grew very little, says Smith.

“Their vote went up in western Canada where they already had a lot of support, and they won a few more seats,” he says. “But they won almost no new seats in Ontario, Quebec or Atlantic Canada.

“The question was, had Trudeau fallen enough for other parties to take his place,” Smith says. “And the answer was no, especially in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. The real wildcard was the BQ, and they’re the reason we’re in a minority. Had the BQ continued to falter, the Liberals would’ve won a second majority.”

Andrew Scheer was dogged throughout the campaign by his waffling on social conservative issues such as abortion and LGBQT+ rights (as described by Peter MacKay, it hung around his neck like “a stinking albatross”).

But concerns about the Conservatives ran deeper than that, says Enoch, and it should prompt some soul-searching.

“I think there are real questions about their decision to be unapologetically pro-fossil fuel. As strategy, it seems they’ve played it as far as they can.

“As we move however many years toward the next election, and we see even more evidence of the devastating impacts of climate change, you’re going to see increasing urgency in the electorate to have a legitimate plan,” says Enoch. “And the Conservatives seem completely unwilling to do that.”

Climate change, while a vital issue, is only one of many policy areas where the Conservatives need to do an overhaul if they hope expand beyond their base of roughly 32 per cent of Canadian voters. Otherwise, they run the risk of reverting to their Reform Party roots — and level of support, says Enoch.

“Will the rest of Canada consider them a national party? That was always the knock on Reform, that they’re a bunch of western yahoos. And you have to wonder if the Conservatives aren’t putting themselves back in that box because their concerns seem almost exclusively western Canadian. That’s fine if you just want to win western Canada. But it’s not going to win you government.”

In deflecting questions about Scheer’s leadership, some Conservative pundits have asked why NDP leader Jagmeet Singh isn’t facing similar scrutiny after his party lost 15 seats from its 2015 total under Tom Mulcair.

Heading into that election, says Smith, the NDP had high hopes of forming government.

“Instead, Mulcair lost — spectacularly,” says Smith. “He went from leading the polls to being third. The NDP left so many openings for the Trudeau campaign in 2015. So Mulcair became a liability, and the party turfed him.”

This election, NDP expectations were much lower. Early polls suggested they might even lose official party status. But as the campaign wore on, Singh’s approval rating surged.

“I think he beat all expectations of the party when they elected him, which was to be a great campaigner and almost out-Trudeau Trudeau in his style, ability to connect with voters and his likeability,” says Smith. “No question they lost support, but that was mostly in Quebec, and I’m not sure if any leader could’ve saved the party there. But he saved them from absolute disaster.”

Enoch agrees with that assessment.

“Being the first person of colour as a national party leader, you’re going to have deal with incidents of racism. I think Singh acquitted himself really well. Maybe the result wasn’t what they thought, but strategic voting was quite high for the Liberals. So perhaps his star-power couldn’t overcome that. Who knows what will come next? But I think Singh set himself up to be a really interesting national leader.”

What Is Next?

Trudeau plans to name his cabinet on Nov. 20. He’s also setting up meetings with each party leader.

No date has been set for Parliament to open, though.

Typically in Canada, minority governments last between 18 and 24 months. In Pierre Trudeau’s case, the Liberal-NDP coalition lasted 20 months from October 1972 to July 1974. In the subsequent election, the Liberals won a decisive majority and held power until 1979.

“The reason minorities fall apart is within two years party numbers start to switch in the polls, and the party that’s moving upwards to 36 or 37 per cent support sees the opportunity and pulls the trigger,” says Smith.

“There’s a good likelihood we’ll be back at the polls in 2021 — or even sooner,” Smith says. “If, for instance, the Liberals bring in a budget and their polling numbers go up there’s a good possibility they’ll smell blood in the water, especially since the NDP are broke, and Scheer is weak with a lot of grumbling about his leadership.”

Enoch doesn’t disagree with Smith’s prediction, especially if, as he puts it, “Conservative knives come out for Scheer”. But he doesn’t rule out a longer minority government either.

“Like we saw during the Harper years, if you’re careful and calculated you can produce a pretty long-serving government. How long is anyone’s guess. But certainly two years isn’t out of the question — and maybe even longer.”

After the insane election we just endured, with its multitude of scandals, heated rhetoric and heavy-handed politicking by third party interests, Enoch thinks the main contending parties should be wary of voter backlash if they’re seen as putting their interests ahead of the country’s by forcing an early election.

“I don’t know how the average person reacted, but I was exhausted by the election,” says Enoch. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over. So I think there will be a lot of reticence by all the parties to pull the trigger too soon.”

Next issue: Justin Trudeau and western alienation.