Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in November 2019. Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

Here is a what-could-have-been story.

In the spring of 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s coalition cabinet met to consider measures to deal with the severe economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At the table, together with 26 Liberal cabinet ministers, were: Environment Minister Elizabeth May of the Green party, and, from the NDP, Justice Minister Jagmeet Singh, Communities and Infrastructure Minister Peter Julian, Immigration Minister Jenny Kwan, and Indigenous Services Minister Niki Ashton.

Among the many measures to come before that cabinet was a $900-million program to encourage and foster youth volunteerism. The plan included a no-bid deal with one non-governmental organization (NGO), which would distribute the cash on behalf of the government — and get paid upwards of $40 million for its trouble. 

The name of that NGO was WE.

Senior cabinet members, including the prime minister and minister of finance, explained to their colleagues that, given the need to get the $900 million out the door almost immediately, the sole-sourced agreement with WE was the best way to proceed. 

The government must engage outside help, they explained, because the federal bureaucracy was overwhelmed with the demands of implementing other COVID-related programs, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit. 

And even if they had the time and resources, federal bureaucrats present at the meeting told the cabinet they were too far removed from the grassroots voluntary sector to do a quick and effective job on the youth volunteering program. 

WE, the bureaucrats said, possessed all the necessary connections to youth and youth-focused organizations, in every part of Canada, to get this huge program off the ground in time for the summer vacation period. 

Dissent only from non-Liberal ministers

The Liberal cabinet ministers in the room nodded quiet assent, especially since, officially, the recommendation came from the professional public service. 

But the five non-Liberals in cabinet expressed doubt. 

Elizabeth May referred to her own vast experience in the voluntary sector, as head of Sierra Club Canada. The Green leader said she had seen research on WE that indicated the organization had governance issues, that it tended to blur the lines between its business and charitable activities.

Peter Julian wondered aloud about the fact that this was a sole source agreement. Public servants explained to him it would normally take months to undertake a competition. Julian then asked if they could not use their collective imagination to make that competitive process quicker. The most senior civil servant present, the clerk of the Privy Council, recognized that the NDP minister had a point. Given all the other unprecedented procedures the pandemic had necessitated, the clerk said, Julian’s suggestion was, indeed, feasible.

For his part, Jagmeet Singh politely but firmly asked Justin Trudeau about the prime minister’s well-known ties to WE. Just recently, the NDP leader noted, the prime minister’s wife had contracted the coronavirus while attending a WE event in the U.K. On that trip, he added, the prime minister’s mother accompanied Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.

All of those questions from non-Liberals gave the government leadership pause. In the end, the cabinet decided to ask the public service to go back to the drawing board and come up with other options, within 72 hours. 

Thus was a scandal-in-the-making averted.

That is all a fantasy, of course. What happened, in fact, was that a cabinet composed entirely of Liberals, all of them beholden to their leader for their jobs, agreed quickly and quietly to the sole-source arrangement with WE. If any of them expressed any reservations, privately, they have kept them to themselves. 

We cannot be sure that cabinet ministers from other parties would have blown the whistle on the ill-advised youth volunteering scheme. 

Still, had we a coalition cabinet and had the non-Liberal ministers gone along with the WE proposal, it would have looked much better for the Liberals when the media and public started asking questions. The prime minister would have been able to say, justifiably: “This was not just a Liberal idea. The other parties in our coalition supported this decision.”

We lack political imagination in Canada

Canada does not have any tradition of power-sharing among parties at the executive level. 

We have lots of experience, thanks to many minority governments, of de facto power-sharing at the legislative level. The current Liberal minority is a good example of that. Since the onset of the pandemic, and all the huge needs it has created, the Liberals have accepted multiple ideas and suggestions from the opposition, most notably from the NDP. 

But here in Canada, parties do not form coalitions with other parties when they fail to win a majority of seats. They keep all of the executive power and privileges — in cabinet — to themselves, and only engage with the other parties when they have bills to pass.

It might be time to take another approach, and borrow a leaf from other countries, such as Germany, which, since the Second World War, has always had stable, long-lasting coalitions. 

Over the decades there have been various permutations and combinations in German coalition governments — from a (small-c conservative) Christian Democrat / (free-market-oriented) Free Democrat partnership, to a Social-Democrat/Green coalition, to a grand coalition of the two biggest parties, the Christian and Social Democrats. Those coalition governments have all been stable, and, on the whole, achieved significant success.

After the WE scandal broke, Fair Vote Canada, which advocates for electoral reform, came out with a statement arguing that our first-past-the-post voting system, which frequently translates a mere plurality of the votes into a majority of seats, was the real culprit. If we had a proportional system in 2019, Fair Vote said, we would have elected a Parliament in which parties had no choice but to work together.

The problem with that argument is that, in fact, the most recent election produced a roughly proportional result. The Greens and New Democrats are underrepresented relative to their popular vote, while the Bloc Québécois is overrepresented. And the Liberals came first in seats, but were second to the Conservatives in votes. 

The most important outcome of the 2019 vote, however, is that no party won a majority. In other countries that would have almost automatically resulted in a coalition government, such as the fictitious one we describe above. 

Not in Canada. 

Here, even when a party wins only 30 per cent of the vote, and would seem to have scant moral authority to claim 100 per cent of executive power and control, it will still form a cabinet composed only of its own members, leaving out the representatives of 70 per cent of the electorate.

To pass bills, such a party will need other parties’ support, of course, and will have to negotiate and compromise with them. But when government decisions are forged around the cabinet table, the other parties have to wait outside the door. 

It is an arrogant, top-down approach to democratic governance, which only seems reasonable to Canadians because we have never tried anything else. 

And there are times when a single-party cabinet can come up with a genuinely ill-advised decision, as our current cabinet did on the WE matter.

Too bad for Justin Trudeau that he lacked the creativity and boldness to think outside the box when he formed a new government after last October’s near-death experience for his party. He’d probably be in a far stronger position right now. 

Maybe next time. 

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 news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...