New Brunswick·Opinion

Minority governments are not common in New Brunswick but they are elsewhere in Canada

This might be new territory for the province but it actually is quite common not only at the provincial and federal government level in Canada but throughout Westminster-style systems of democracy.

St. Thomas University professor says Higgs faces difficult governing situation

New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs answers questions from the media after defeating the Liberal Government at the New Brunswick Legislature in Fredericton on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (James West/Canadian Press)

Some of the uncertainty following the September 2018 election is finally over. On Friday, the throne speech introduced and amended by Brian Gallant and the Liberal Party, their final chance to win over opposition MLAs and perhaps hold on to power, was defeated. With that the lieutenant-governor has asked Blaine Higgs and the Progressive Conservative Party to attempt to form the government.

For New Brunswick, we have not seen an election that has produced a minority government since 1920. And we have not seen a government fall as a result of a confidence vote since 1883.

This might be new territory for the province but it actually is quite common not only at the provincial and federal government level in Canada but throughout Westminster-style systems of democracy. In fact, while only two provinces, New Brunswick and British Columbia, will have minority provincial governments at the moment, we often have at least two in Canada every decade.

Adapting to how minority governments operate and are able to maintain the confidence of the legislative assembly is the key to success.

Premier Brian Gallant (left) shakes the hand of Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs (right) after the minority Liberal government was defeated on Friday. (James West/Canadian Press)

The challenges facing the incoming premier will be about representation and governing, a delicate give and take among four political parties, two of which the Progressive Conservative government may need to rely on to stay in power.  

As a result of the unusual distribution of seats in New Brunswick, Blaine Higgs likely has three major challenges.

Co-operation across the floor

The first is the challenge presented by the actual outcome of the election. The Progressive Conservative caucus and government likely will have to try to negotiate either formal or informal agreements with at least one of the smaller parties. While the likely partner might be the People's Alliance and their caucus of three members, given their overtures to support the government on confidence votes through 18 months, that poses challenges for Higgs with respect to accommodating the People's Alliance agenda and on which parts of it they are unwilling to compromise.

Green Party Leader David Coon, left, and People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin, right, look on as Gallant delivered his speech on Friday. The Green Party supported the Liberal minority government, while the People's Alliance teamed up with the Tories to defeat the government. (James West/Canadian Press)

If, for example, language rights becomes an issue for Higgs, which most francophone and Acadian voters see as non-negotiable where constitutional or policy change is unacceptable, he may have to turn to the other smaller party to stay in power. Further, the optics challenge of backsliding on bilingualism and duality means that the Progressive Conservative Party could wind up owning an issue that was part of another party's platform. And that could become a tremendous liability in the next election campaign.

The Green Party likely also has policy areas on which they are unwilling to compromise as well, especially concerning issues such as lifting the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and on language rights.

So Higgs' first challenge then is to navigate the optics and fine line of having to accommodate these parties. It may mean that no formal agreements or coalitions are possible and the incoming premier may have to govern issue to issue and take his chances on confidence motions. It may also mean that some formal mechanism will present itself and he can govern through at least a budget cycle.

Picking the right platform planks

The second challenge is what parts of the Progressive Conservative platform he can attempt to pass. Overplaying a government's hand here is not advisable because there are some ideas that might fail to be supported by either of the smaller parties. Each part of the platform has to be revised and, as often the case in minority government situations, many platform planks are just left behind in order to focus on ones that will get the government through the year.

While it often makes for interesting policy debate and good political theatre, it is a frustrating position to be in as premier, where typically with a majority you can enact a fairly robust agenda. The key here is to listen to the potential minority government partners and select issues and enact legislation where there is broad consensus.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper held together a minority government by carefully policies to pass. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

One of the reasons Stephen Harper was able to last as prime minister through a long-term minority government situation is that he began with policies that he knew could survive votes because they already had some support with other parties. If Higgs leads with controversial and divisive policies, the government might not last long.

Unchartered territory

Finally, Higgs will be the first premier in modern Canadian provincial political history to have his party lose the popular vote in an election and receive less than 32 per cent of the overall popular vote. That is a challenge from the outset, when over two thirds of voters rejected the Progressive Conservatives in the election.

But there is an opportunity here for the incoming premier. Given that Higgs is following three consecutive one-term governments, the expectations are extremely low. So if he and the Progressive Conservative caucus somehow thread a series of needles, survive a throne speech and a full budget, carefully select policies that do not alienate, anger and frustrate voters, and convince more of the electorate that they are a competent government, he can take a difficult governing situation and turn it into an eventual electoral success.  

But Premier-designate Higgs must know that a minority government as precarious as his has historically not lasted very long.

Higgs' strengths

Creating the conditions for success following such a close election will require compromise, deftness to egos and other political agendas, and balancing his policies with the other more junior partners. Perhaps as a result of his career in the private sector and a history as a negotiator, he has the requisite skills to navigate these challenges.

One of the great strengths Higgs has is that he becomes premier with a fair amount of respect among his colleagues in the legislature on all sides and a reputation as a straight shooter who cares about dignity and character in political discourse. Do not underestimate the need for respectful political discourse in uncertain times. Further, a little transparency likely will go a long way in an executive political environment that has too often been perceived as secretive, unresponsive to the public and to journalists, and reliant on message track style communications without honest dialogue, a trend not just in New Brunswick but everywhere in Canada.

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs signals to the gallery prior to the closure of the throne speech debate. (James West/Canadian Press)

Another strength is that Higgs ran against populist and anti-bilingual impulses in this election. He and the Progressive Conservatives largely distanced themselves from divisive language rights rhetoric. Higgs may have an opportunity to use that as strength and temper populism's ugly tendencies.

In an era where populist and nationalist extremism are on the rise, often the best voices to stand up against this intolerance are establishment politicians who can call out policies and rhetoric that are too off-centre or discourse that is disrespectful. Govern effectively, take into account the concerns that the public has about political agendas that are too extreme, and Higgs can be a well-respected and successful premier.

Given the political uncertainty New Brunswick is mired in, it is contingent on us as citizens of the province to hope that  Higgs can succeed.

About the Author

Jamie Gillies

Political scientist

Jamie Gillies is associate professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

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