Trudeau could -- and should -- govern even if Scheer wins more seats

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Image: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

We are heading for an election result that could look a lot like that of 1972. 

That was Pierre Trudeau's second election. Like his son, Trudeau-père had won a big majority the first-time round, in 1968. His slogan in 1972 was "the land is strong" but his result was not strong. The Liberal prime minister lost his majority and ended up just two seats ahead of Robert Stanfield's Progressive Conservatives. The NDP held the balance of power with 31 seats.

Now, in 2019, the slogan for Canadians who consider themselves to be progressive could be: "the land is apprehensive." 

Talk to friends and neighbours and look at social media and you will find many fretting about the electoral prospects created by the twin surges of the NDP and the Bloc. Liberals are playing on that anxiety. Daily, Justin Trudeau makes a connection between the NDP and Bloc doing well and the Conservatives winning.

Polls, for whatever their worth, generally show that both Conservatives and Liberals have dropped in support since the beginning of the campaign, and no poll or seat projection shows anyone winning anywhere near the 170 seats required for a majority. 

But the worry persists. 

Friends have told this writer they decided to abandon the NDP (or Greens), in favour of the Liberals they don't really love, because they are worried Andrew Scheer could end up winning more seats than Trudeau. Mainstream media have climbed on board by speculating about Scheer as prime minister.

Take a recent headline in Maclean's magazine: "Prime Minister Andrew Scheer?" That's enough to scare the pants off a good many voters who situate themselves on the left and might otherwise be tempted to vote for Jagmeet Singh's hope-filled vision rather than Trudeau's tainted record. 

A hung Parliament, not a Scheer 'minority' victory

The story was based on a seat projection, based on opinion polls, by regular Maclean's contributor Philippe J. Fournier, an astrophysicist by trade. Fournier's actual numbers hardly justify the headline. 

He projects 136 seats for the Conservatives and 135 for the Liberals. He gives the Bloc 33, the NDP 30 and the Greens 3, and adds that Scheer could become prime minister "should he manage to win the confidence of the House, which would be no small feat."

Therein lies the rub. 

The other three parties -- the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc -- have all, in one way or another, stated vehement disagreement with most Conservative policies. Some have flatly declared they will never support a Conservative government.

More to the point, the day after an election which yielded the result Fournier forecasts, we would not have a Conservative minority government. We would have -- to use the British phrase -- a hung Parliament

It will be up to Parliament to decide who gets to form government -- and, more important, the precedents and rules of that institution give the incumbent prime minister first crack at testing the House.

In other words, following an election in which no party won a majority, Justin Trudeau would remain the prime minister and would have the full right to recall the House and present a throne speech, laying out his government's plans for the coming session. If he were to win a vote on that speech he would remain in power.

That is what prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King did in 1925, after Arthur Meighen's Conservatives had won 15 more seats than King's Liberals. The agrarian, populist Progressive party had 22 seats, and King knew they preferred his party to the Conservatives. When the Liberals presented their throne speech to the House, the Progressives supported them and King stayed in power.

Governing from second-place position is not common in our history, but there is nothing untoward or abnormal about it. 

The current NDP government of British Columbia has fewer seats than the Liberals, but has provided stable government, with the support of the Greens, since 2017. The same situation prevailed in Ontario from 1985 to 1987. The Liberals did not have as many seats as the Progressive Conservatives, but formed an effective government with the support of the NDP.

If Trudeau were somewhat behind Scheer in seats, he might decide that it would give his government greater strength and legitimacy in the public mind if he formed a coalition -- a governing partnership -- with the NDP, and perhaps even the Greens. That would mean sharing cabinet positions and a governing program. 

A minority government, of which we have had many in Canada, is a different kettle of fish from a coalition. When a party governs as a minority it depends on MPs from the opposition side for support. 

B.C.'s John Horgan has an agreement with the Greens for their ongoing support, as did Ontario's David Peterson with the New Democrats back in the 1980s. Federally, minority governing parties have not tended to seek that kind of formal agreement. Instead they have sought support for each piece of legislation on a case-by-case basis.  

Nothing wrong or abnormal about coalition government

To date we have not had a formal federal coalition government in Canada. 

Robert Borden's First-World-War government was a formal union of dissident, pro-war Liberals and his own Conservatives. They all ran and got elected under the Unionist banner, however, so the government was not really a coalition of two or more separate and distinct parties, each elected in its own right. 

Britain, which gave birth to our parliamentary system, has had a number of coalition governments, the most celebrated being Winston Churchill's, during the Second World War. The most recent case was the Conservative/Liberal-Democratic coalition that David Cameron forged following the 2010 election, which had produced a hung parliament. 

It would be helpful if the Canadian news media adopted the British phrase, hung parliament -- which translates as parlement sans majorité in French -- to describe the likely outcome of Monday's vote. 

If Andrew Scheer's party wins more seats than Trudeau's, but nobody has a majority, it will be wrong for news media to say the Conservatives have won a minority or will form a minority government.

Parliament, not the news media (or even the Governor General), will decide who gets to govern. It is worth noting that voters for the Greens, New Democrats and Bloc have indicated to pollsters, in all cases, that they would far prefer Trudeau as Prime Minister to Scheer. 

Following the election, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal colleagues should be mindful of the will of the public -- expressed not merely in the vote for them, but in the votes for all parties -- and heed that will. 

If we do have a hung Parliament, and Trudeau has fewer seats than Scheer, the current prime minister should not resign.

One of the Liberal leader's options would be to hold talks with the opposition parties whose support he would need and, as soon as possible, present a throne speech -- a plan for governing that would address at least some of those parties' priorities.

Alternatively, Trudeau could choose to enter into a formal coalition with one of more of the other parties. 

In a coalition, all participating parties would normally have seats at the cabinet table. As well, the parties in the coalition would jointly draft the throne speech to kick off the new session of Parliament. 

A lot of Canadians are now yearning for a return to the kind of non-majority governments that once gave us universal health care, expanded pensions and our first ministry of the environment. 

The coming election might just provide the ingredients for that sort of government, regardless of who is in first place in seats.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

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