Prime Minister Trudeau attends question period in September 2020. Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

Here we are, a mere year and a quarter from the last federal election — and in the midst of a frightful and deadly pandemic — yet, believe it or not, Ottawa is full of election talk.

The conversation is not, mostly, about whether or not we will go to the polls this year. Ottawa insiders seem pretty much unanimous on that one. There will be a federal election in 2021. The only point of contention is whether it will be in the spring or the fall.

Prime Minister Trudeau says he is not actively seeking an election, even if his party currently leads in the opinion polls. However, Trudeau did indicate in year-end interviews that he expects opposition intransigence could, ahem, “force” him to go to the people sooner rather than later.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s reaction is unalloyed bafflement. As the year came to an end, Singh told various journalists he believed the prime minister was trying to engineer an election, even though there is much that the Liberals have promised his New Democrats could support.

The NDP is all for such Liberal pledges as national childcare, national pharmacare, increased health funding, and national standards for long-term care. Singh’s biggest concern is not with the government’s potentially ambitious agenda; it is with the Liberals’ habit of not following through on their promises.

Political cooperation has worked

Singh’s party has been providing the Liberal minority government with all the support it needs since the October 2019 election. New Democratic MPs have dutifully voted aye on every confidence bill to come before the House.

Of course, that support has not come without its price.

In exchange for his MPs’ votes, the New Democratic leader has, on a number of occasions, demanded a more fulsome and generous response to the pandemic. The Liberals, in turn, have only been too happy to oblige. And they have been even happier to take credit for popular measures the NDP proposed, among them the enhancement of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (the CERB), greater support for students, and an increase to the wage subsidy from 10 per cent to 75 per cent.

In October, the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois pushed matters in Parliament to the brink.

It started when the Conservatives proposed a motion to set up a special House committee to look into real and imagined corruption related to the WE charity and its dealings with government. Trudeau countered that he would consider the creation of such a committee to be a matter of confidence. If the House voted yes to the Conservative motion, the prime minister said he would call an election.

The NDP did not like the overly broad scope of the inquiry the Conservatives were proposing. For instance, probing the activities of ministers’ relatives, which was part of the Conservative plan, seemed, to New Democrats, to be over the top. But the Liberals’ insistence that a vote to form a committee could legitimately be construed as one of confidence caught the NDP, and, indeed, all of the opposition parties, off guard.

Normally, only the throne speech and government legislative proposals that entail spending — in other words, money bills — are deemed to be to be matters of confidence. When Parliament votes those down, the government invariably falls, and an election normally follows.

The Conservatives’ motion to form a committee was not a money bill, but Trudeau and his colleagues found the very notion to be so anathema they were willing to push matters to the edge.

Liberals believed the committee, were it formed, would become an endless distraction, even something of a media circus, at a time when the government should be focusing on the pandemic. And they probably had a point.

The New Democrats were not exactly on board with the Conservatives, but they expected the governing party might want to bargain with the opposition for, say, a committee with a more limited mandate. And NDPers thought they could play a helpful role in brokering such a compromise.

No such luck. Trudeau was not looking for compromise; he wanted the opposition to blink.

When push came to shove, it was the New Democrats who blinked. They decided to vote with the government, thus avoiding an election just as the pandemic’s second wave was gaining momentum.

Liberal operatives believe they can now win a majority

Now, it seems the Liberals are growing tired of having to make the accommodations and compromises necessary to govern as a minority. Also, they have seen that in several provinces it was possible to hold elections during the pandemic without too much trouble.

Liberal strategists find the case of British Columbia to be particularly encouraging. This past fall, B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan pulled the plug on his own minority government and went to the people, seeking a majority — which is exactly what he got, and quite a comfortable one, to boot.

At the beginning of the B.C. campaign there had been some grumbling about holding a vote while COVID-19 still stalked the land. But it did not last. The election went smoothly, even though the province had to make unprecedented use of mail-in ballots.

When all the votes were counted, Horgan became British Columbia’s first NDP premier to be elected to a second term. 

If they could do it on the West Coast, the federal Liberals reason, why not nationally?

It’s true that the NDP has been constructive and cooperative, and has done its best to make minority government work. But there is something in the Canadian political psyche that cannot accept as normal a situation where political parties have to share power and cooperate, where one party does not have 100 per cent of the power.

The general Ottawa insider view is that minority governments are, essentially, unstable and transitional. They must inevitably give way to either a new party taking over or a majority.

In fact, many countries where majorities for one party are extremely rare nonetheless have long lasting and stable minority, or, more often, coalition governments. Those include the Netherlands, Finland, the Scandinavian countries (notwithstanding the entirely fictional Danish version of the TV series Borgen), and Germany.

Sharing power and seeking consensus is considered normal in those places, and the results, overall, have been reasonable and responsive governments.

When the topic of electoral reform comes up, those who favour the status quo in Canada often point to such unstable examples as Israel, which is about to have its fourth election in two years.

But Canada does not have Israel’s conflictual, fractionalized and polarized political culture, which makes cooperation among parties extremely difficult.

Canada’s politics more closely resemble those of northern Europe or New Zealand. We all have fairly broad consensus on many major issues, such as (in Canada) maintaining and reinforcing our public, universal health insurance system. And Canadian opposition parties have not adopted the intransigent, rigid, take-no-prisoners approach of, say, the U.S. Republican Party.

In October 2019, Canadians elected a parliament in which no party had full control. The voters’ message to the politicians was: work together, make compromises, find common ground.

At the time, Justin Trudeau recognized that fact. He even argued there was, in effect, a progressive majority, when you add together the combined votes for and seats won by his Liberals, the New Democrats and the Greens.

Less than two years and the onset of an unprecedented crisis later, the political equation has not changed. Trudeau can still call on his progressive majority to get significant legislation passed, and he knows it.

The prime minister also knows that some of the most effective and active governments in Canadian history were minorities. Those include the Pearson governments of 1963 and 1965 and Pierre Trudeau’s government of 1972.

Among the accomplishments of those governments were: the Canada and Quebec pension plans, an agency to deliver development assistance, universal health insurance, an increased federal contribution for social services and higher education, the first ministry of the environment, a system for reviewing foreign investment, and much more.

Trudeau and the opposition leader most willing to collaborate with him, Jagmeet Singh, have made the current minority situation work during the extreme stress of the pandemic, up to this point.

We do not need an election to clear the air.

Canadians are not yearning to vote; they are yearning to see concrete results, such as a successful rollout of vaccines and much improved conditions in long-term care.

Liberal political operatives would be well advised to focus on providing good government during a crisis the likes of which none of us have ever experienced, rather than looking for excuses to trigger a premature election.

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

Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...