Liberals and Conservatives conspire to cut short a minority government that works

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, February 16, 2021. Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

Canada currently has a minority government and there's nothing unusual about that. We have had many minority governments in our history, especially during the six decades from 1960 to the present.

A number of those governments could boast long lists of lasting achievements. Those include the national health-care system, Canada's pension system, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. To gain NDP support in 2005, the Paul Martin-led Liberal minority boosted social spending and targeted transfers to the provinces by a cool $4.6 billion.

Sometimes a minority government is notable less for what it does than for what it does not do -- for what a Parliament it did not fully control would not let it do.

When Conservative Stephen Harper led minority governments from 2006 to 2011, he was constrained from enacting many of the toxic, anti-environmental and anti-democratic measures he favoured.

Harper got the majority he coveted in 2011. He could then pursue his agenda unimpeded, and with a vengeance. That's when we got the oxymoronically named Fair Elections Act, deep cuts to corporate taxes, and the rollback of decades of environmental regulation.

Arguably, the current Liberal minority has been working quite well, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal response to the current crisis, in the form of financial support for individuals, businesses, organizations and other orders of government, has been robust, and, for the most part, strategically targeted.

Having said that, we know from the evidence that had the Liberals won a majority in 2019 a lot of their pandemic-related measures would have been far weaker.

Aid for the disabled, an enhanced wage subsidy, and support for small business

One case in point -- last June the Liberals proposed a bill to relax the rules for the disability tax credit and make a modest investment in employment-related services for disabled Canadians. But that same bill would have also tightened and limited access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and imposed criminal sanctions on people who had supposedly claimed the CERB fraudulently.

The opposition, especially the 24 New Democrats, resisted the CERB measures in the bill, which, they argued, had nothing to do with enhanced aid to disabled people. Since they were in a minority situation, the Liberals had no choice but to back down. They presented the initiatives aimed at disabled Canadians as stand-alone legislation.

The rollout of the federal government's wage subsidy, the purpose of which is to maintain the connection between employer and employee during the forced economic slowdown, is another example of this minority government working for Canadians.

In this case, the Liberals had originally wanted the government to subsidize wages up to 10 per cent. New Democrats looked at that paltry number in comparison to the far more generous and effective subsidies in countries that pioneered the subsidy, such as Denmark, and made the case that the percentage the Liberals proposed would never do the trick.

In the end, the government listened and decided to boost the subsidy to 75 per cent.

Similarly, this past spring, B.C. New Democrats Gord Johns and Peter Julian noted with alarm that a great many small businesses in their part of the country were in such dire straits they could not pay their rent. They expressed the fear that a good part of a vital economic sector in B.C. could be wiped out.

The MPs' concern led to a federal government program of loans to landlords for a period of three months, which the government would forgive if the landlords reduced their tenants' rent by 75 per cent during that period.

There have been a number of other similar examples during this most recent period of minority government. Parliament, in this time, has behaved like a true legislative and deliberative body, one in which all MPs and political parties have their roles to play.

Because they had no other choice, the governing Liberals have been willing to work constructively with the opposition. On numerous occasions, they have agreed to heed opposition suggestions and significantly modified legislation, generally to make the government's measures more effective, and often more generous.

The result is that the Liberal government has, overall, taken a strong approach to mitigating the economic and social devastation of the pandemic. But without pressure from the opposition, that approach would almost certainly have been far more cautious.

The challenges of COVID-19 have been unlike any we have faced in a century. Despite that, there is a natural tendency in entrenched institutions such as governments and long-established political parties to stick with the tried-and-true and tilt toward prudence and small-c conservatism -- even in a crisis.

Having to get at least one opposition party onside to pass any legislation has encouraged the Liberals, who are not natural radicals, to be far braver and bolder than they would have been had they a majority.

Reckless election sabre rattling

And yet, despite the success of this minority, both the Liberals and the official Opposition Conservatives now seem to be itching for an election, less than two years since the last one.

In the House of Commons, the Conservatives have been using procedural tactics to delay the government's legislation.

On one occasion, Conservatives insisted on devoting three hours of the House's time to discuss the competence of the newly appointed head of the Canadian Tourism Commission. On another, Conservatives forced a time-consuming debate on a committee report which recommended a national day of awareness for human trafficking -- a report that all parties agreed with, unanimously.

This Conservative pettiness is annoying, although, in truth, it has not paralyzed Parliament. Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez's reaction has, however, bordered on the apoplectic. His characterizations of what the official Opposition is doing are wildly exaggerated. One gets the impression the governing party has been seeking precisely this sort of pretext to call a spring election.

The Liberals seem to believe recent public opinion polls, some of which, it seems, tell them they could win a majority if we had a vote now.

For the Conservatives' part, they are quite happy to goad the government and play parliamentary chicken.

If Prime Minister Trudeau calls their bluff, Conservative strategists reckon political campaigns are unpredictable and dynamic affairs. When the parties hit the hustings, and the voters start paying closer attention, Conservatives are convinced the political winds could easily shift in their direction.

Underlying these partisan considerations, on both sides, is a sentiment shared by much of Canada's political elite -- and media -- namely, that minority governments are inherently unstable and can never be more than temporary. It is not a logical belief, but it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unlike the U.S., Canada does not have a two-party system. We have had three or more viable federal parties for more than a century. That means every time we go to the polls there is a good chance no party will win 50 per cent plus one of the seats in the House.

In many other countries where similar results are the rule, they simply deal with it. And in most of those cases, we don't get the off-the-charts results of contemporary Israel, where there is extreme political fractionalization, and where, these days, they hold national elections more often than the CFL has football games.

A great many other countries with multiple party systems not all that different from Canada's tend to produce stable, long-lasting governments.

The prime ministers of Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the chancellor of Germany -- to cite just a handful of possible examples -- do not spend a good part of their valuable time looking to trigger elections, simply because their parties do not have more than half the seats in their parliaments. 

They get on with the business of governing, working with other parties -- as the Liberals have been doing in Canada -- and, as a rule, providing stable, consensual government.

Maybe it's time we changed our mindset about cooperative government here in Canada.

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

Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

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