History shows how to make a minority government work

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October 21, 2019

History shows how to make a minority government work

Written by Robin Sears for The Star. Click here to read the original.

When Robert Stanfield and Pierre Trudeau went to bed on Oct. 30, 1972 neither knew who had a future as prime minister. In those days, B.C. polls stayed open until 11 p.m. Ottawa time and there were too many seats too close to give a final count. It was also the first election in which 18 to 21-year-olds were allowed to vote, two million of them.

The Liberals were stunned by their humiliation, losing more than seven per cent in popular vote and 38 seats. The Conservatives were enraged that they came in only three seats short of a winning plurality. Some Tory insiders estimated that fewer than 5,000 votes, in the right places nationwide, could have made Bob Stanfield prime minister. Until after midnight it had looked like they had done it. With the final tally Trudeau hung on, but it was an astonishing fall.

The happiest man that night was David Lewis, the veteran NDP leader, whose “corporate welfare bums” campaign had ignited the party and many voters. The NDP elected the largest caucus in its brief history with 31 MPs — and the balance of power. The Creditistes, the Bloc Québécois of its day, came back with the same 15 seats.

In the fever of Trudeaumania in the heady late ’60s, Justin’s father had been elected as Canada’s hippest politician with a large majority. The 1972 result was a surprising triumph for Stanfield, the slow-moving, slow-talking former premier of Nova Scotia, who was if anything the mirror image of hip. For Lewis, who within months was told he was going to have to fight a usually terminal form of cancer — news he kept a closely held secret for year — this election was a legacy victory in a long and often disappointing political career.

The minority government pact Lewis worked out with Trudeau — and it was very much a personal project between them — with only a few other MPs and staffers invited to offer a view, was a success. It led to the creation of Petro Canada, restrictions on price rises at a time of raging inflation, and Canada’s first election expenses legislation among many other legislative changes. Allan MacEachen, the Liberal sage of Cape Breton, and Stanley Knowles, the pension champion of many a parliament, were the two back-channel leaders who kept the often tense partnership afloat for almost two years.

It was a more civil time, cross-aisle friendships were common; late night, heated dialogue took place over double scotches at the National Press Club bar. Opponents were just that, rarely enemies. But even in that now-forgotten era, it was a tough and tense business balancing the partisan interests of each party.

New Democrat activists were grumpy about “sleeping with the Liberals,” as my haughty grandma would huff. Liberal partisans resented more and more deeply New Dems loud brags about the wins they had “dragged the Liberals into.” The House came crashing down in the spring of 1974 and Trudeau returned to power with a majority.

Subsequent mixed political marriages advanced the idea that better governments could be built out of two parties’ thinking. The Ontario Accord under David Peterson and Bob Rae delivered a raft of progressive changes. Today, the John Horgan New Democrat/Green partnership in B.C. has produced one of the most popular governments in many years.

Are we looking at déjà vu all over again?

Perhaps, but three principles can be gleaned from these earlier attempts. The first is that both an agenda and a time frame are essential. The legislative content needs to be agreed up front, and so does the delivery date — to fail to do so makes freelancing and backsliding inevitable.

Second, the project list must be short. A lengthy shopping list lets the bigger party do the easy bits first, and leave the harder important ones too late. The items need to offer some benefit to each partner, and they must matter to Canadians.

Finally, there needs to be a backroom process for managing the relationship, chaired by party elders with a small number of elected and staff members from each side. No partisan bomb throwers permitted. It was Ontario’s great statesman, Robert Nixon, who played that role in the Peterson/Rae accord. The bellowing was done over wine-soaked nights, not in front of reporters.

If voters declare they want a minority government, the party leaders had better be able to point a path to a stable government of at least two partisan flavours by the end of next week.

 

Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears