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.