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Events at Queen's Park over the last week tell us two things.
First, that it is not easy for a government to try to pursue three different strategies simultaneously in a minority legislature. And second, that the NDP's toolbox in a minority legislature continues to represent a challenge to opponents.
Let's begin with the "three strategies" thing. Broadly speaking, there are three ways for a government to survive life in a minority legislature.
First, a minority government can seek to survive by blackmailing opposition parties with constant threats of elections. Stephen Harper did this (Michael Ignatieff let him get away with it).
Second, a minority government can work, more or less amicably, through case-by-case arrangements with reasonably like-minded opposition parties. Bill Davis did this (generally in partnership with Stephen Lewis) and so did Lester Pearson (generally in partnership with Tommy Douglas).
Or, third, a minority government can buy itself a reasonably stable term by negotiating a formal agreement with an opposition party. David Peterson did this with Bob Rae (an accord under which the NDP supported the Liberals while remaining outside of government). Roy Romanow did this with Jim Melenchuk (a coalition, with Liberal ministers in an NDP cabinet).
Premier Dalton McGuinty's minority government in Ontario has tried to survive by pursuing versions of all of these strategies simultaneously. It is blustering and threatening elections. It is trying to do informal, verbal, case-by-case handshake deals. And it is trying to achieve the kind of stability that comes from a written accord, without paying the price required to actually negotiate one.
The incoherence of this approach has made for a disjointed ride in Queen's Park since the last Ontario election. And it has made for a nasty confrontation in recent days.
Ontario Liberals might do better to pick one plan and to stick to it. Govern without regard to the opposition, and accept the risk of having the bluff called. Govern case-by-case, and accept that this will mean ongoing horse-trading on every piece of legislative business at every stage -- particularly with regard to over-weighed omnibus budget bills. Or buy two to four years of stability through a formal accord, which would mean that another party will get to crystalize their contribution to this minority legislature -- not an unreasonable trade-off.
That the Ontario government seems unsure which strategy to follow tells us something about the challenge the post-Layton NDP toolbox poses to other parties during minority parliaments.
Voters like the idea that legislators show up for work planning to get things done. In offering to support the government on terms, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is therefore doing exactly what voters want her to do, without being a pushover. Ms. Horwath has earned herself a role as a leading Ontario politician by deftly playing her cards in this minority legislature.
Having witnessed what this meant for their federal cousins, the Ontario Liberals can be forgiven for not wanting to play along. But this week's mess at Queen's Park would suggest the government of Ontario is going to have to pick their legislative and political poison a little more clearly.
This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.
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