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Beyond the Ballot: Thoughts on the New 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.


Darrell Dexter, Vice Chair of Global Public Affairs,
former Premier of Nova Scotia (2009-13) and Chair
of the Council of the Federation (2012-13), offers his
insights on the new reality of a minority government in Ottawa.


The federal election of 2019 is behind us and what do we know? The Liberals have a minority government mandate, the Conservatives strengthened their representation, the NDP survived, the Greens grew (a little) and the Bloc Quebecois re-emerged as a political force in Quebec. Canadians chose to retain a certain amount of power for themselves in this Parliament and have placed that power in a democratic marketplace, to be bargained and traded. The hope is that the dynamics of marketplace will lead to hard work, innovation and solutions to pressing challenges concerning economic prosperity, income inequality, regional disparity, climate change and a miasma of other issues.

A minority government challenges the Members of the House of Commons, the parties and the machinery of government to act in a responsible, democratic fashion. The government can’t force bills through Parliament, it has to accommodate the priorities of the other parties and it loses control of the Committee system (where much of the important work is done).

Minority governments are often misunderstood. Perhaps most famously by Joe Clark and summed up by his often-quoted declaration – “We will govern as if we have a majority.” He ultimately was proven wrong.

Making minority governments work requires an acknowledgment that the leadership of the parties have two legitimate self-interests to manage – the priorities of their caucus, party and base and the priorities of the people of the country. There is a formula for success containing two essential elements in these circumstances that requires maturity on behalf of the potential partners.

First, the issues fall into three categories – those things on which they agree, those things on which there is a path to agreement and those things on which they disagree. In a working relationship, this third group of issues are put aside and become the points of differentiation in a future election.

The second essential element is trust – each party has to believe that the governing party will keep its word on issues of importance. The governing party has to trust that the minority party will support the program of the government even if they are not wholly in agreement. Budget bills are matters of confidence and the government must be supported. The stability of government is a commodity not to be trifled with – it impacts economic prospects and our standing in the world.

There are various options for the re-elected Prime Minister — the government could receive the support of either the NDP or the Bloc. If either the Bloc or the NDP were to abstain on a vote, it would pass. They could seek support from the Conservatives on energy issues or other matters of importance to Alberta and Saskatchewan where the Liberals have no members.

In the current House, none of the parties have a desire for a new election in the near future. They have exhausted their resources and have been handed a mandate that reflects the state of discontent that exists in the country. It is up to them to make it work among the competing interests that always exist in a country as large and diverse as Canada.

The Liberal Party won 33 per cent of the popular vote but 46 per cent of the seats. The three minor parties collectively won 30.1% of the vote but only 17.5% of the seats – such is the inequity of the parliamentary system. However, as a result, this Parliament will behave more like a representative democracy under a proportional system.

Canada is a country of regions, and balancing the interests of Alberta and Saskatchewan with those of Quebec, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada will be challenging. The climate change file and its social and economic impacts cannot be underestimated. While it is true that the parties with the most far-reaching environmental policy initiatives did not win the number of seats expected,  NDP, Green Party and Bloc voters were all driven by deep concern for climate change (which in part explains the flow of seats between the NDP and Bloc). This is an issue that will grow in both importance and impact as all parties assess their strategies in a minority House.

There is a lot at stake in the House of Commons following yesterday’s election – including the future of the leaders and perhaps the parties (at least as a relevant force in national politics). The challenge will be to find a national unifying vision that speaks to the aspirations of Canadians in all regions recognizing that their differences are what makes Canada Canada.


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