Beyond the Ballot: Lessons from a Current Minority Government
This is part of a series of regional updates by our cross-country team, who are in-jurisdiction experts regarding the on-the-ground dynamic of the Federal Election.
Image of the B.C. Legislature. Creative Commons.
Next week, Canadians will head to the polls to elect the country’s next government. If mainstream polling data is to be believed, Canadians will elect a minority government, leaving the tricky issue of structuring a workable governance framework while the opposition parties hold the balance of power.
Minority governments in Canada are rare given the country’s plurality voting system, and historically have only lasted on average around 18 months (see our recent Beyond the Ballot piece looking at minority vs. majority Parliaments). However, trends can always be bucked! There is one functional and stable minority government currently in Canada that has just passed its two-year anniversary and may provide some interesting insight and perspective as we approach the federal vote.
British Columbia’s minority government emerged nearly two months after the province’s 2017 general election, the closest election in B.C.’s history with the Liberals claiming 43 seats, the NDP 41, and the Greens three. Although the Liberals won the popular vote by some 1,566 votes, then-Liberal Leader Christy Clark and NDP Leader John Horgan entered negotiations with the Greens in earnest and a week later, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver announced his party would support a NDP minority government, sending the Liberals to the opposition benches for the first time in 16 years.
The stability of the NDP-Green alliance, which just passed its two-year anniversary this past May, has been largely attributed to the legally-binding Confidence and Supply Agreement (commonly referred to as ‘CASA’) that was signed by both parties at the conclusion of their negotiations. This agreement outlines the foundation of the two parties’ relationship, a dispute resolution process, consultation arrangements and a swath of shared policy priorities that the NDP and Greens agreed to work on together.
To enable CASA’s founding principle of “good faith and no surprises,” and to assist in mitigating issues of support, a Confidence and Supply Secretariat was established shortly after the minority government was formed. The Secretariat is housed inside the Legislature and is responsible for managing every piece of information shared between the government and the Greens, which is granted access to all public service documents including Cabinet briefing materials, senior bureaucrats’ situational analyses and information on decision-making processes. Despite this access, the Greens do not have decision-making power at the Cabinet table but are required to vote with the NDP on matters of confidence, which include budgets, to ensure the ongoing stability of government. The three Green MLAs, however, can vote freely on legislation brought forward by both the government and the Official Opposition. As expected, this aspect has forced the two parties to compromise on legislation, as seen with the provincial speculation tax, which the Greens amended before the government tabled its bill.
Another defining feature of B.C.’s functioning minority government is the continued practice of consultation. Thematically, both Premier John Horgan and Green Party leader Andrew Weaver have maintained an aggressive policy agenda, launching multiple, ambitious initiatives in parallel, many of which have involved in-depth public consultation. Although this consultative approach is intended to increase transparency between the NDP and Greens, as well as government and the public, it has led to a lengthy process prior to policy and regulation approval and implementation. While this method may improve trust with the public and perhaps better and more efficient public policy, the extent of consultations and the speed of policy changes have simultaneously created much uncertainty with broad swathes of the economy and industry looking to invest in the province, undermining investor confidence.
Despite the stability of the province’s power-sharing partnership, there have been times when the minority government has been tested. For example, the Greens vehemently opposed LNG Canada’s approval and walked out of the Legislature in symbolic protest as the NDP approved legislation that offered tax breaks for LNG projects earlier this year. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the project will make it much more difficult for the province to meet its legislated GHG emission targets, which is a key component of the NDP-Green agreement. The LNG project, along with the approval of Site C and even the by-election in Nanaimo in early 2019, have all contributed to significant tension between the two caucuses, and yet they still manage to surface collectively regardless of their differences. In fact, in Weaver’s announcement last week that he will not be seeking re-election, he reiterated his party’s intention to ensure the stability of the Horgan government remains until the next election.
While the basis of CASA plays a large role in this outcome, perhaps so does the personal dynamic and relationship between Horgan and Weaver behind closed doors.
Whomever forms the next federal government and in whatever machination, one should consider whether a similar dynamic between the federal party leaders will exist as it does in B.C.? If we are looking at a minority situation after October’s federal election, what will be the stabilizing structure between parties and how will they negotiate policy priorities? Will a minority support structure ultimately work and last, or will Canadians be heading back to the polls within the next 18 months as has previously been the case? How will this minority support structure navigate stormy waters like, for example, the hotly-contested Trans Mountain expansion pipeline (TMX) project? All important questions as the governance landscape in Ottawa develops and evolves in the coming days.