• Oct 08, 2019
  • Insights

How effective are federal minority governments?


By Geoff Norquay. Published in Policy Options.

A look at Canada’s seven minority governments over six decades shows a broad range of results that were not always so obvious at the time.

With the two leading contenders locked in a virtual tie and “fighting to the death within the margin of error,” as one observer recently put it, a minority government after the October 21 federal election is an increasing likelihood. How effective could a minority government be?

Some political observers claim that minorities are periods of legislative and policy accomplishment because they are accompanied by compromise, cooperation and conciliation among the political parties.

This view is only half right: minorities can indeed produce exemplary and even groundbreaking initiatives. But more often than not, these achievements are obscured at the time by a political climate of high drama, confrontation and heightened partisanship. That’s due to the tenuous nature of minorities: a defeat on a confidence vote produces a binary choice, either a new government or an immediate election. Since minorities usually have limited lifespans, parties remain on a permanent campaign footing. No party knows when the next election is going to be, so downing electoral tools would place them at brand and strategic disadvantages.

So how do minority governments perform? Do they produce real progress they can be proud of, or are they just marking time until the opportunity arises for one party or another to push the House down and go back to the people? Are their legislative and program achievements transformational or mundane, fundamental or fashionable, lasting or transitory? And how are personal relationships among the leaders managed? As minority governments are essentially driven by deals between leaders, their ability to put aside partisan interests and personalities is often the key to their success.

A look at Canada’s seven minority governments over the last six decades reveals a broad range of results.

The Pearson minorities (1963-65 and 1965-68)

The rose-coloured perspective on the productivity of minorities dates from Liberal Prime Minister Mike Pearson’s two minorities in the 1960s. With the passage of time, these years have come to be seen as a “golden age” of modern nation building. Supported by the NDP, Pearson’s Liberals put in place a bounty of progressive programs and initiatives, including universal coverage of hospitalization and medicare, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, the Canada Assistance Plan, the Canada Student Loans program, official bilingualism, the Maple Leaf flag and groundbreaking labour legislation that pioneered the 40-hour work week. Not only did these initiatives create much of the architecture of the modern Canadian state, but they also have had staying power, becoming part of the national fabric.

Little of this was apparent at the time. Despite these notable achievements, the politics of the period was uber-partisan and viciously personal. Pearson and the opposition leader, John Diefenbaker, regarded each other with undisguised contempt: each believed that the other was unworthy of high office. Pearson’s progressive modernization was anathema to Diefenbaker. And by this point in his career, Diefenbaker was at war with much of his own party and was imagining enemies and dastardly conspiracies at every turn. While Pearson and Diefenbaker hated each other, they did have lieutenants like George Hees for the Conservatives and Mitchell Sharp for the Liberals who could make deals.

The second Pearson minority also added an important new wrinkle to minority parliamentary practice and procedure. In the winter of 1968, the Liberals were defeated in a surprise vote on an Income Tax Act amendment. While the provision had already passed committee and two votes in the House, it was a defeat on a budget measure, and technically the government had lost confidence. Pearson then brought his own confidence motion to the House and won, averting an election. The “do-over” confidence vote became a precedent, in which the “accidental” defeat of a minority government can be reversed by a subsequent vote.

The Trudeau minority (1972-74)

Pierre Trudeau’s first government, formed in 1968, had a majority, but by 1972, the bloom was off the rose of Trudeaumania. That year’s election produced a minority, with the Liberals a mere two seats ahead of Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives. The NDP under David Lewis held the balance of power. While Trudeau and Lewis were patronizing to each other, thoughtful intermediaries on both sides kept the relationship working. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Jim Coutts, played a key role in calming the waters.

The early 1970s was a period of growing economic nationalism in Canada, fuelled by fears of American economic domination of our economy. Prompted and supported by the NDP, the Trudeau government in 1973 created the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) to ensure that the foreign acquisition and establishment of businesses in Canada would be beneficial to the country. The international oil crisis in fall 1973 gave impetus to NDP calls for Canada to have a publicly owned window on the energy sector, and the Liberals in response created Petro-Canada.

Also in 1973, the Trudeau government amended the Elections Act to regulate election expenses for the first time. This was landmark legislation that established most of the principles still at the heart of Canada’s party financing regulatory regime: a tax credit system for donations, disclosure of donations over $100 and reimbursement for political parties’ election expenses. Limits were also placed on the amounts that candidates and parties were allowed to spend on campaigns.

Of the three major Trudeau initiatives in the 1972-74 period, only the party financing and election expense regulations had staying power. Adjusted and improved many times over the years, they continue in force today. Within a few years, both FIRA and Petro-Canada fell victim to different times and changed public attitudes. In 1985, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives radically reduced FIRA’s mandate and turned it into Investment Canada, which actually blocked some proposed investments, unlike FIRA. In 1991, Mulroney privatized Petro-Canada and began to reduce the government’s majority control of the company. In 2004, the Chrétien government sold off the remaining 19-percent federal stake in the company.

The Clark minority (1979-80)

The Joe Clark minority government elected in 1979 is notable because it lost the popular vote to the Liberals (35.9 percent versus  40.1 percent) while clearly winning the seat count (136 seats to 114). Otherwise, the government was a short-lived disaster. Clark declared that he would “govern as if he had a majority,” failed to strike a deal with the six-member Ralliement créditiste caucus and was defeated on his first budget after only six months in office.

Despite its short time in power, the Clark government can claim at least partial credit for one significant policy advance, Canada’s first access-to-information legislation. Clark’s Bill C-15, to create the Freedom of Information Act, established a broad right of access to government records. It was debated at second reading at the end of November 1979 and referred to a standing committee but died on the order paper when the government fell. The re-elected Trudeau government based its Access to Information Act on the Clark legislation, and it was enacted in July 1983. With improvements, it remains in force today.

The Martin minority (2004-06)

The 2004 election returned the Liberals to office under Paul Martin, with 135 seats, 20 short of a majority, and with the same number for the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. The seats of the Liberals and NDP combined totalled 154, while the other 154 seats belonged to the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois and one independent, previously a Conservative.

The Martin government chose to govern through negotiations with the other parties on a case-by-case basis. With a tie between the government and the opposition forces and the endless Gomery Inquiry as backdrop, Martin’s minority proved to be a fraught and fractious period. While they didn’t always agree on tactics, the three opposition leaders — Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe — developed a close working relationship against the government, as did their senior staffs.

Early in the Martin government, the Prime Minister reached a 10-year deal with the provinces and territories to increase federal health care funding by $41 billion, to lower their cost pressures and reduce wait times for essential services. The federal commitment included a 6-percent annual increase in federal transfers. A divisive and years-long debate was concluded with the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005. Another significant accomplishment was to initiate the transfer of federal gas tax revenues to municipalities. Finally, in 2006, following 18 months of consultations and just four days before Parliament was dissolved, the Prime Minister and the premiers signed the Kelowna Accord. It promised $5 billion in federal funding to Indigenous communities over five years to meet improvement targets in education, housing and health care.

Of the Martin government’s accomplishments, both the legalization of same-sex marriage and the gas tax transfer had lasting impacts. In 2019, the Liberals under Justin Trudeau doubled the gas tax transfer, which moved $2.2 billion to municipalities. The Martin health care accord with the provinces and territories ran its 10 years, but it did not prove to be the transformational “deal for a generation” that Martin claimed it would be. At its conclusion, most analysts agreed that the accord had purchased little real change and had not appreciably reduced wait times. As for the Kelowna Accord, experts disagreed on whether the Martin government had actually funded its investments, and the subsequent Harper government allowed its commitments to lapse.

The Harper minorities (2006-08 and 2008-11)

The 2006 federal election gave Stephen Harper’s Conservatives 133 seats, placing them 30 seats ahead of the Liberals but 22 seats short of a majority. Paul Martin resigned, and Harper chose to govern through case-by-case negotiations with the opposition parties. Harper tried to obtain a majority again in 2008, but while the Conservatives increased their seat count, they again fell short of the 159 seats necessary for a majority.

Most of the Harper years were characterized by leadership turmoil in the Liberal Party, as it chose first Stéphane Dion and then Michael Ignatieff, who in turn was succeeded by Bob Rae on an interim basis. Both the 40th and 41st Parliaments were intensely partisan. Surprisingly, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper had a grudging respect for each other’s professionalism, which allowed them to do transactions.

When the government’s 2008 fall economic update failed to announce stimulus measures in the face of the rapidly developing world credit crisis and recession, the opposition leaders threatened to topple the government. The Liberals and the NDP proposed a coalition government supported by the Bloc Québécois. After several days of crisis, Harper secured a highly controversial prorogation from the Governor General. Dion resigned and Harper survived.

A notable Harper accomplishment was his eventual response to the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. Chastened by their recent near-death experience at the hands of the opposition and forced to play against their conservative fiscal instincts, Harper and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, embraced Keynes in the 2009 budget by including $40 billion in stimulus and $20 billion in personal income tax cuts, and taking the country sharply into deficit. The government’s aggressive response enabled the Canadian economy to recover more quickly and come out of the recession stronger than other G7 countries.

There had been earlier successes as well. For years, Canadian municipalities had complained about the growing national infrastructure deficit, estimated in 2007 by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at $123 billion. The Conservative budgets in 2006 and 2007 quadrupled federal infrastructure transfers from $8.2 billion in 2005-06 to $33 billion in 2007-08, increased the forward budget commitment period from four to seven years and focused infrastructure transfers through the new Building Canada Fund.

At the 2010 G8 Summit hosted by Canada, the Conservatives launched a signature commitment to the summit’s initiative on maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH). Starting with a leadership pledge of $2.85 billion for 2010-15, the government followed up with an additional $3.5-billion commitment for 2015-20.

The impact of Harper’s bump in infrastructure spending was significant because it sharply raised ongoing investments over a multi-year timeline. Extending that budget timeline to seven years enhanced predictability and facilitated provincial and municipal planning. The Trudeau Liberals have built on these initiatives in every budget they have presented. Harper’s MNCH investments placed Canada in the forefront of efforts to help women and children, and the Trudeau government has built further on the Conservative commitments.

Perhaps the largest lesson to be learned from evaluating the contributions of Canada’s minority governments is that it is best not to judge each one’s success until several years have passed. This perspective is essential, because in the moment, an individual government’s achievements can be easily drowned out by over-the-top partisanship, the scandal du jour, the damning report of a public inquiry or the poisonous relationships between political protagonists.

Far from being merely interim periods between “normal” majority governments, Canadian minorities have made significant contributions to this country’s development and progress.

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