Sudbury

What history tells us about minority governments and what they mean for northern Ontario

Federal election 2019 is in the books, but the political games are far from over. Two veteran northern Ontario politicians look back on minority governments of the past and look ahead to how this one might turn out.
Voters decided who sits in which seats, but how the House of Commons will work under the new Liberal minority government is still uncertain. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

Jean-Jacques Blais remembers another prime minister named Trudeau swept into power on a wave of optimism, only to fall into a minority government four years later.

In 1972, Blais was elected MP for Nipissing in a Liberal government with two just more seats than the Progressive Conservatives. That was just four years after coming to power in a wave of "Trudeaumania" in 1968.

Blais remembers at the first caucus meeting, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau compared himself to Napoleon Bonaparte and the opposition parts to the three empires France defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. 

"He dealt with the issue of facing the opposition as a confrontation, a battle confrontation," says Blais, who served in the House of Commons from 1972 to 1984.  

"And that may be something that Trudeau's son may want to reflect upon."

Jean-Jacques Blais was Liberal MP for Nipissing from 1972 to 1984, including during two minority governments. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Blais, who was 32 when he was first elected to Ottawa, says minority governments are good for backbenchers because parties need every vote to stay in power. 

"The governing party needs all of its members and really cherishes each one of its members. And so it was very helpful to me as it turns out. But I didn't anticipate that at the time," he says. 

Blais predicts the Liberals may force an election in the next few years if they see a path back to a majority government. That's what Trudeau senior did after the setback in 1972, going on to win a majority two years later. 

He was also in the House in 1979 when the Progressive Conservative minority government of Prime Minister Joe Clark was toppled just nine months after being elected. 

Floyd Laughren served as MPP for Nickel Belt for 27 years. Nine of those years were under a minority government. 

The one he remembers most was in 1985, when the Ontario Progressive Conservatives were re-elected to a minority, continuing their 42-year reign over Queen's Park.

The opposition Liberals struck an "accord" with the New Democrats to work together for two years, which ended with a Liberal majority in 1987 and was then followed by an NDP majority in 1990. 

Floyd Laughren was Nickel Belt MPP for 27 years, 9 years of which the New Democrat served under a minority government. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

"I thought it worked very well quite frankly," says Laughren, who went on to be finance minister in that NDP government.

"And the deal was honoured on both sides."

In the upcoming federal parliament, Laughren says the NDP should tell the Liberals what they want for propping up the minority government, but be careful what they ask for. 

"They should keep the list very small. If you give them an extended list, they'll simply do the small things first and you won't get to the big things," he says. 

"And you have to keep that in mind going forward today as well. You can't make an outrageous demand because that would just be brushed aside."

Laughren predicts that the Liberals will shy away from making formal deals with any of the opposition parties, who aren't eager to go back out on the campaign trail and won't have much leverage with the Trudeau government. 

"I personally don't think that they will rely very much on another party," he says.

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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