2019 Federal Election – Week 6: Minority Government

There is a saying in political circles that ‘campaigns matter’. Sometimes that’s true, but mostly it’s more complicated. When you look at the polling numbers of the parties and leaders in this campaign, the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. At the beginning of the campaign, Trudeau and May were doing well. Then Scheer and Singh were. Now everyone is more or less where they started before War Rooms and journalists in search of a campaign narrative (some might even say ‘inventing’ a campaign narrative) got a hold of this campaign.

If this campaign has mattered at all, it has only mattered in making even more voters disillusioned about our electoral system. If that impacts the final turnout, this campaign will have mattered, but only in the worst of ways.

The pollsters suggest we’re headed for a minority government of one stripe or another. Many see that as a hopeful possibility given all that was achieved during Lester Pearson’s back-to-back minority governments. But that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario looks a lot more like Stephen Harper’s minority governments that were filled with cuts and more than one constitutional crisis.

So, if a minority is where we’re headed, what might that look like?

A Quick Primer on Minority Government

As TVO’s Steve Paikin said this week, “we don’t elect governments, we elect parliaments”. That means in each riding across the country, local voters determine which candidate to send as their representative to Ottawa and then all 338 riding representatives decide among themselves who will serve as the government.

Usually that decision is arrived at based on party lines ie. Liberals will want a Liberal government, Conservatives will want a conservative government, etc. If there are enough representatives from a single party elected to Parliament to fill a majority (170 out of 338) of all the representative seats available, that party will form the government. With a majority of seats, they have enough votes to push through their agenda without being voted down by the other representatives.

When no party gets a majority of seats, that’s when things get more interesting. All of the representatives have to come together and find out who is willing to work together to govern, either officially as a coalition government (as happened just once nationally in Canada in 1917) or more loosely on a case-by-case or time-specific basis in a cooperation agreement between two or more parties. A coalition government would see members of two or more parties sit in Cabinet and make decisions on behalf of the government. A cooperation agreement would see one party in government supported on key legislative votes by one or more other parties.

But regardless of how that discussion goes, the sitting government that was in place before the start of the most recent election gets the chance to try to form a coalition or cooperation agreement first. That’s because they do not stop being the government during the election. They simply go into caretaker mode where long-term decision-making is put off until they receive a new mandate from parliament or are replaced by another government.

So, if the Liberals do not elect a majority of MPs to Parliament on October 21, on October 22 they must begin working on either a formal coalition or an informal cooperation agreement with MPs elected from the other parties. If they believe they can form a workable arrangement, Prime Minister Trudeau would visit Governor General Julie Payette and ask to deliver a new Throne Speech in Parliament outlying his priorities under a new minority government. His government would then face a ‘confidence vote’ where MPs would vote on whether or not his government and his agenda has the support of Parliament as a whole.

Some have questioned whether Trudeau has the right to make this ask of the Governor General if he does not win a majority of seats and does not have a plurality of seats over all other parties. For example, Andrew Scheer has suggested if his party elects the most MPs, he should get first crack at forming a new government. Trudeau would have to resign first to allow for that, given he is still the sitting Prime Minister. Only if he resigns or attempts and fails to secure the support of a majority of MPs would the Governor General then look to other governing options from within Parliament. Complicating Scheer’s pitch is the fact that the Leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, has said he won’t work with Scheer. So Scheer would have to rely on the Bloc Quebecois and hope they are willing to work with him.

The Governor General could also call for a new election if she does not believe any party has enough coalition or cooperation support to form a stable government. But it is incredibly rare for a Governor General to make a decision like that so soon after an election. The sense is that the voters have spoken and the politicians should figure it out in Parliament.

So, in summary, unless another party wins an outright majority, the Liberals will have the first crack at forming the next government. This was true at the start of the election and is just as true now as it becomes a likely possibility. If the Liberals fail to win the confidence of a majority of newly-elected MPs, they will be voted down as the government and replaced by any group of MPs who can form a coalition or cooperation arrangement that is supported by the majority of MPs. The final mix of those MPs is up to Parliament.

The Priorities of the Next Parliament

If we do end up with a minority government, each of the party platforms become more important. For parties with policies who put forward policies that have been written off as fanciful and impractical because they never thought they would be called to implement, they would now have to figure out how to do so to satisfy those who voted for them.

So what are the core commitments of all of the parties? For most of the parties we would have to look to their platforms and make educated guesses. However the NDP under Leader Jagmeet Singh has laid out what points they would elevate if they had sway with the next government.

The NDP priorities in a minority parliament would focus on addressing climate change, introducing a wealth tax, creating a national pharmacare and dental care program, building 500,000 units of affordable housing, removing interest on student debt, and capping the cost of cell phones and internet.

The Liberals have a similar cell phone and internet commitment and this will be an easy point of agreement between them and the NDP.

To me, the most exciting proposal here is national pharmacare which both the Liberals and Greens are also campaigning on and the Liberals have already begun to lay the groundwork for in government. This is a pledge 50 years in the making that was originally made by Lester Pearson as a next step after the introduction of medicare.

And while 50 years may seem like a very long time for successive governments to fail to deliver, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives still have not committed to this policy.

On the environment, the Liberals, NDP, and Greens have different takes but all agree climate change is real, is an existential crisis, and must be addressed. They only differe in the ‘how’ which is a good enough starting point for progress on this issue. Scheer, again, will not commit to doing any more than leaving our survival as a species up to voluntary action by the same corporations and big polluters who have put us in this position in the first place.

On housing, the Liberals are already underway with a 10-year, $55 billion National Housing Strategy that aims to create 125,000 new homes while cutting chronic homelessness in half. Most of their campaign commitments are about making housing more affordable for the middle-class to attain and maintain. One of the more interesting proposal that I think is timely is the plan to create a national flood-insurance program. Even most conservatives acknowledge the reality of climate change when you remind them of their flooded basements.

Getting to Singh’s 500,000 number would be a tall order. However, there is a precedent. The King Liberal Government introduced The National Housing Act in 1938, a $400 billion commitment to building new housing and introducing low rental housing with 50,000 units promised once World War II was won.

On post-secondary, the Liberals have taken a page straight out of the former Ontario Liberal Government’s playbook by increasing grants, introducing an-interest free loan repayment period of two years, and giving those earning under $35,000 and new parents with kids under five a break from repaying their loans until they earn more/their kids are older.

Each of these policies gives a lot of former students a break but expanding to universal interest-free loans has a much higher cost. It’s a cost I’ve long argued government should take on because if we truly mean to invest in people we should be making money off that investment. And in the end, it will cost far less than universal free-tuition.

Finally, the wealth tax. The Liberal platform creates a luxury tax on luxury cars, boats, and planes but does not wade into taxing the rich much further than what they have already done in government. They are instead focuses on tax cuts for the middle class. The NDP proposal is to add a 1% tax on those with wealth totaling over $20 million, including assets like homes and investments.

I am personally a big fan of this idea and hope that if we do find ourselves in a minority government, we see some version of this come forward. Canada is expected to be home to nearly 2 million millionaires by 2023, the natural end of the next government if it is not dissolved earlier. Even by the rules of the NDP proposal, most of these millionaires would see their wealth untouched. Those more likely to be impacted are Canada’s billionaires – the Thomsons, the Westons, the Irvings, the Saputos, and many more. They can afford to make sure the rest of Canada gets by. In fact, they need us to.

Who Will Win the Election

An election like this is very hard to predict. You have an angry but static base of conservatives who will deliver Andrew Scheer at least 30% at the polls. You also have a Liberal machine that, while it has less broader support than in 2015, is still the best ground game out there. And you have popular NDP and Bloc leaders who have their personalities going for them but also a political machine behind them that has seen better days.

The Bloc will likely take around half the seats in Quebec because of how productive their vote is. The NDP has a deeply unproductive vote and in many cases will likely turn what was a Liberal seat in 2015 into a conservative seat in 2019. If a riding is already Liberal, it would take a national collapse to turn that seat over to a surging NDP. That collapse isn’t happening and the so-called surge is not nearly big enough to flip those seats to anyone but the conservatives as a result of vote-splitting.

Andrew Scheer seems very confident he will win outright on Monday. Time will tell if he’s right, if this is just bluster, or if he truly believes it but is just dead wrong. I think his base will come out in full-force. And he may gain some support beyond that from people who were never big Trudeau fans in the first place. But there is no wave of support behind him.

A Liberal, and with it a progressive, victory will depend on good turnout by the Liberals. They can easily lose this election and even hand Scheer a majority if they haven’t convinced enough of their 2015 backers to come out and vote again. There is a very real danger of this for them – they have focused their campaign on excellent work done by their war room but that has drowned out any forward-looking message from their leader. We saw a similar campaign put on by the same party in 2006. It didn’t work out very well for them.

But if you’re a progressive voter, consider what could be achieved by supporting whoever has the best chance ton win in your community out of all the progressive options available: national pharmacare, action on climate change, more investment in housing for home-owners and those trying to become home-owners, more support for students and their families, lower taxes for the middle class, and maybe even higher taxes for the wealthy to help finally change who bears the brunt of the cost of nation-building.

The result of this election will depend on you actually showing up at your polling station and casting your vote. If you’re a millennial, you have double the reason to go and vote – for the first time we make up a majority of voters and can truly decide how this election turns out. But only if we actually show up. Complaining from the couch after the fact has never changed anything and never will.

So who will win this election? That depends on you. Find your polling station and ID requirements by visiting elections.ca.

2019 Federal Election – Week 5: Strategic Voting

It should come as no surprise in an election where the parties have refused to engage on the actual issues that they are all now asking for your strategic vote against someone else rather than making their own case for support.

Strategic voting is really hard to do in Canada. When you cast a strategic vote, you usually base it on national polling numbers that have little to do with the reality on the ground in your own riding. You’re also betting you have a good handle on the voting intentions of the 100,000 or so other voters in your community. And you’re assuming that everyone else trying to vote strategically won’t create a wave that ends up going in a much different direction than anyone planned.

There are many good-faith arguments for strategic voting, but most of what you see online is being spun by political operatives and partisan supporters with little regard for truth or good intentions. Their goal is simply to elect their candidate, leader, and party – at all costs.

Blue Door vs. Red Door

In 2011, Michael Ignatieff kicked off his election pitch to voters by saying they only had two choices – a blue door or a red door. He argued that the only parties likely to form government were the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, or the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff. But what politicos forget (despite the province of Quebec proving it every single election) is that you can’t tell a voter what their options are. They will show you at the ballot box just how wrong you are. And in 2011 (led by Quebec), they did.

Partisans from both NDP and Liberal circles use the 2011 election, and the 2018 Ontario Election that resulted in ‘Premier’ Ford, as examples of strategic voting gone wrong as a result of partisan selfishness. NDP supporters tend to argue that in both cases we could have had a progressive government if Liberals had just fallen in line and voted NDP. Liberal supporters point out that in both cases not a single NDP member was elected by taking over a previously conservative seat.

Both parties have made the ‘lend me your vote’ argument and both have been angered when many voters refuse to switch after this ask has been made. The request ignores the fact that the biggest partisans are unlikely to ever switch (and that’s the case in both parties) and that many supporters of both parties do not necessarily swing the same way during close elections. There are many in both parties who actually switch to conservatives when presented with the likely election of a candidate from the opposing ‘progressive’ party.

Failed Democratic Reform

One big thing being talked about in all this progressive infighting is the failure of the Trudeau Liberals to introduce electoral reform after stating that the 2015 election would be the last conducted under First-Past-the-Post. I’ve never been a fan of proportional representation, which many of the activists wanted, because I believe local representation matters and list-based election of a politician is unlikely to hold them to account.

One argument trotted out in favour of PR is that it improves voter turnout. Countries like New Zealand and Germany are cited against Canada as having higher turnout. But turnout in these countries in more recent elections versus those of decades past show that turnout is actually down around the world, and, actually declining faster in PR-based countries.

My own view is that the combative nature of our politics and growing disinterest or disillusionment in our electorate is why people are not rushing to the polls anywhere around the world. And the solution may not require a constitutional answer – it may be possible to address these problems with a simple design change to the ballot.

Approval voting – a system where you mark an X or check mark next to any candidate you approve of and leave blank the box next to any candidate you don’t approve of – encourages campaigns to try to attract more voters from other sides. It also has the benefit of being simple to tally (the candidate with the most votes wins) and provides clear understanding to voters of how the vote they cast helped reach the final result.

Most candidates who win under this model are supported by a majority of local voters and yet the campaign often remains competitive and not a forgone conclusion, two elements voters routinely say they wish were present in more elections. You still have the power to hire and fire your local representative and you don’t need to open up the constitution to put it in place.

We should continue to have a conversation about democratic reform after this election, however my advice to any government pursuing it is that they first ask a clear question about whether Canadians want reform and then ask a clear question on what that reform should look like. I think there is greater appetite for reform than we saw in votes taken in some provinces but the failure to separate the question of reform from the question of what kind of reform undermined those debates.

How to Vote

Given we have the voting system we have right now, it’s fairly useless to talk about how great it would be if we had a different one right now. Voters have to make a choice in the system that we have right now.

I won’t tell anyone who to vote for. Ultimately it’s up to each of us to weigh our options and make our decision based on what choice we think has the best shot of creating the Canada we want to live in. In 2018, I voted for my local Liberal candidate because I knew her, was deeply impressed by her, and thought she would do a great job. I thought she might be one of only a handful of Liberals to win in that election. And given my riding votes overwhelmingly Liberal, she was also my best shot at preventing a conservative being elected as my new MPP. In the end the vote did split but the NDP won. I can live with that.

I wasn’t always so sure who I might vote for in this federal election. I had worked on the housing file in Ontario and was unimpressed with the federal Liberal response on that file and the health care file for a long time (they ended up stepping up on the former). I thought the government was too centrist for my liking and that it was taking an incrementalist approach to nearly every crucial issue facing our country.

But given how close this election is, and given the type of person Andrew Scheer has proven himself to be, I was also reminded of the day I spent in 2016 in front of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia while the roll call of Hillary Clinton’s nomination was broadcast live from the lawn.

As they called out numbers state by state, a Bernie Sanders supporter walked up and down the street shouting that she would now vote for Donald Trump in the general election. Others ended up joining her at the polls while still others, who couldn’t stomach another Clinton, chose a third-party candidate on Election Day.

No matter what, my overarching values are more important to me than the specifics of how to reach them or the party that will deliver on them. It’s why I decided I couldn’t be a Jill Stein type of voter and needed to really weigh the best option in my riding and across the country for a more progressive Canada.

That’s the choice facing all progressive voters and it will lead to different conclusions in ridings throughout Canada. So as you’re making your own choice, tune out the partisan voices, learn about the party platforms, take a look at past results in your riding, and check out any available information you have about how things might turn out locally. Some progressives are furiously checking sites like http://338canada.com/ and https://votewell.ca/ to help inform their choice.

Just remember, no matter how you vote, cast your ballot in a way that you can feel good about your choice no matter what the outcome ends up being. Four years is a long time to live with regret.

2019 Federal Election – Week 4: Political Tribalism

Earlier this year I painted all but one room of my apartment over five or so days. It seemed to go by in an instant because I listened to some podcasts and some audiobooks.

One of those podcasts made a sociological argument that human beings are conditioned to be unable to cooperate in groups larger than 50 or so people. The reason being that in hunter-gatherer times, that was more or less the maximum amount of people that could work together and be fed by the fruits of the collective at a given time. The argument went on further to say that we’ve never grown out of this ‘tribal’ mindset and that our modern-day squabbles on twitter and elsewhere reflect this hardwiring.

Whether this is true or not, I think all of us watching this election certainly feel like it could be. The polls are so frozen that journalists are frantically tweeting slight changes in numbers as if they aren’t still within the margin of error (and therefore no real indication of anything).

Meanwhile, partisans from all parties continue dunking on each other and each other’s leaders as if any of the insults they trade are giving Canadians reason to vote for them. We’ve long been warned about what would happen when the social media generation ran for office. The result is a campaign driven entirely by dueling war-rooms whose only goal is to suppress the other side’s votes. Prospective first-time voters have little reason to show up and mark an X.

So, how did we get here?

When the Loudest Voice Wins

The first audiobook I played during the week I spent painting was Political Tribes by Amy Chua. The most striking part of the book focused on why the Americans lost the Vietnam war so badly despite having some of the ‘smartest brains in America’ making decisions about the war effort.

Chua maintained that despite their individual and collective brilliance, none of them understood the tribal loyalties in place on the ground. They presumed the people they were supposedly liberating would cheer their arrival. They were simply wrong.

But how do groups become so uniform in the first place? The simple answer is that once in-group values are set, they are very hard to break. And that’s because the loudest voices keep anyone wavering in line. In my time in politics I’ve seen this first hand but it is not exclusive to political parties.

Within the political discussion about our energy future, the oil and gas sector has been very good at sticking to the theme that expansion is the only answer and any attempt to diversify or plan for the day when the market dries up is strictly prohibited. None of those arguments are about the workers, they are about the CEOs and shareholders.

The workers themselves aren’t so much attached to their sector as they are to getting a cheque that allows them to put food on the table. But in order to keep putting that food on the table for the time being, they fall into line by not biting the hand that is currently feeding them. It’s a reasonable response to a tough situation. And they aren’t alone in being boxed in by their tribe.

Last week I attended the Catholic Vote Debate in Toronto that was broadcast across Canada. Here again is a group that is kept in line by its loudest voices. I grew up in a social-justice parish and know countless Catholics who recognize if Jesus was a voter in this election his top issue would not be abortion.

And yet in the crowd of 1200, a few loud voices pretended the Conservatives would reopen the abortion debate simply because Garnett Genuis, MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, said Andrew Scheer would allow MPs to bring Private Member’s Bills to the floor of Parliament.

What he wouldn’t tell them was that, for the vote to move forward, the government of the day (regardless of party) would have to send it to committee. Scheer has committed to not doing so. Whether the commitment is real or not, Genuis knew how to pander to the group – by going through the loudest voices in the room.

His strategy was amplified by the poor moderating job done by Don Newman who proclaimed, as the neutral moderator, that the voting decisions of those in the room would be exclusively decided by the topic of abortion.

The same loud voices that both men amplified booed a candidate for making an Indigenous land acknowledgement, hissed at the far-right being called out, laughed at any mention of climate change, and (like toddlers) used flashing lights and loud coughing to disrupt Liberal, NDP, and Green candidates while they spoke.

These voices didn’t speak for all in the room but they did egg each other on to ignore the values they supposedly hold, namely the Golden Rule. When groups close ranks like this, there is no room for free-thought or debate. The only action left is to follow the mob. And that’s what we’re seeing across our political system as a whole.

Going Against the Grain

The last audiobook I listened to while painting was The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke about Bobby Kennedy’s 82 day campaign for the presidency before his assassination. Read side by side with Chua’s book, it provided interesting insight into what happens when the most famous member of a political tribe sets out firmly against the tribe’s popular expression of its own identity.

Throughout his campaign, Kennedy challenged sacred cows and disappointed Democrats who assumed he’d share their biases. When he visited college campuses he would tell the (largely white) students they should not be receiving education-based deferments from the Vietnam War just because they could afford college unlike their poorer (largely of colour) fellow citizens. He toured Republican strongholds like South Dakota when other Democrats wouldn’t bother and visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation instead of hobnobbing with local democrats ahead of a primary.

We seldom see this in modern politics. Mostly we see more of the same tribalism that demands supporters defend their leaders even when they know they are wrong. Sometimes people take this so far that they won’t call out racism, sexism, or homophobia and other transgressions in their own ranks. When a rabid response is the norm, few are willing to stick their necks out for fear of damaging the brand and, more importantly, of being cast out of the group. But our system is stronger when more people do.

You only have to look at the Republican Party in America right now to see what putting party before people looks like in practice. It isn’t pretty and we aren’t as far off as we’d like to hope.

In his Capetown address (much better known for a different line), Bobby Kennedy provided some important advice for all of us during these tribal times:

Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change.  – Bobby Kennedy, 1966

What to Do Now

The times we live in seem incredibly bleak and are reflected by a common saying in politics that voting is about choosing the best of bad options. Absent a debate on some truly big ideas, it certainly feels that way.

But voting in this campaign, as always, is an act of hope with an outcome that has yet to be written. In contrast, we already know the outcome of not voting: more of the same. As Bobby Kennedy went on to say in the same speech:

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.

Drawing change from this election will be painful. But it is crucial for our future that we try. And the only way to do that is to vote.

2019 Federal Election – Week 3: Changing Climate

Thanks to global climate strikes around the world and here in Canada, week three of the federal election campaign was all about the environment and solving climate change. At least for voters.

Thousands joined together to form what might be the largest protest rallies we’ve seen in Canadian streets in decades. All week, it really felt like we’ve finally hit the tipping point where older generations are finally accepting that something is happening and young people are tiring of inaction from government and business when it comes to their future.

Most of the party leaders joined in and made promises throughout the week about how they were going to respond to this moment in a serious way. The Liberals said they’d work to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. The NDP said they’d cut emissions 37% between now and 2030. And the Greens went even further by saying they’d cut emissions by 60% by 2030.

The Conservatives, like their leader at the climate strikes, are missing in action. Their plan ignores Canada’s existing commitments to the rest of the world and sets no new targets in their place.

It’s hard for the voters who stormed Canadian streets in protest to feel much hope in any of these plans.

The Greens have the loftiest goals but failed in every category of responsible fiscal management set by the former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. Their plans simply aren’t worth the recycled paper they’re written on.

The NDP plan for a 37% reduction in emissions by 2030 begins from a 2017 baseline, even though the commitments Canada made under the recent Paris Agreement require us to reduce emissions by 30% from 1990-levels by 2030Giving ourselves a 27-year handicap in our own grading just isn’t good enough.

The Liberals have a great track record on committing to environmental agreements but a mixed record on delivering. Kyoto was signed and ignored (then cancelled by Stephen Harper) while Copenhagen was signed by Stephen Harper (and ignored by the Liberals). The Liberals then signed on to the Paris Agreement and a commitment to reduce emissions to 80% below 2005-levels by 2050. Now they want to get to net-zero by the same year. But commitments are easier made than delivered on.

Andrew Scheer has spent much of the campaign recycling old ideas from Harper’s losing 2015 election platform but has somehow failed to latch on to the words his mentor once used to describe climate change when he called it “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.” Scheer’s plan would see big corporations offset their pollution addiction by investing in green technology rather than, say, actually reducing pollution. Don’t be fooled, this is no longer the party of Brian Mulroney.

Canadians will end up paying for this lack of ambition one way or another: either through our wallets or with our lives. Either way, we all lose.

Turning in Harper’s Homework

Beyond climate change, the other big trend this week was Andrew’s Scheer’s continued inability to present any new ideas in this campaign. The parties and the media love to suggest that we see more or less the same platforms each election year. But this is rarely actually the case. Sure, progressives will endlessly promise childcare but the specifics usually change from one four-year cycle to the next. And sure, the conservatives will always promise tax cuts that have a tendency to skew to the already well-off, but the specifics often differ here, too.

Not so with Andrew Scheer. So far he has campaigned to bring back the following Harper policies:

  • A tax credit for transit pass users
  • A tax credit for parents with kids enrolled in sports
  • A tax credit for parents with kids enrolled in arts programming
  • Removing the GST (this time on heating instead of percentage points)
  • Re-opening an Office of Religious Freedom
  • Removing stress tests on mortgages
  • Increasing insured mortgages to 30 years

And those are just the ones that have been in the news. It’s clear from the last week that Scheer’s conservatives are only willing to offer a return to the Harper years that Canadians soundly rejected four years ago. The only difference might be that Scheer wants to do even less to address the climate crisis.