How the Liberals and New Democrats made a deal to preserve the minority government
Both parties say they can make the agreement work — if they can avoid catching each other off-guard
The residence at 7 Rideau Gate — a 19th-century home nestled between Rideau Hall and 24 Sussex in Ottawa's New Edinburgh neighbourhood — is typically used as Canada's official guest house for visiting dignitaries and foreign leaders.
On March 14, an otherwise uneventful Monday in the nation's capital, it was also where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh came to a historic agreement between their parties during a three-hour meeting.
By the following Sunday, their officials had worked out the final wording of a tentative agreement. At 4 p.m. the next day, a note from the Privy Council Office alerted cabinet ministers to a cabinet meeting abruptly scheduled for that evening at 7:15 p.m. Liberal MPs were told of a virtual caucus meeting at 8:30 p.m., while NDP MPs were called to their own meeting for 8:45 p.m.
In those meetings, Liberals and New Democrats were let in on this week's big surprise, first reported by the CBC's Vassy Kapelos shortly after 9 p.m. on March 21: a confidence-and-supply agreement that would allow the Liberals to govern with NDP support until 2025, contingent on the implementation of a negotiated list of policies and priorities.
The key to making the deal work in practice might be found in the agreement's second sentence: "To ensure coordination on this arrangement, both Parties commit to a guiding principle of 'no surprises.'"
The deal itself should not have come as a complete surprise. Initial discussions between senior Liberals and New Democrats happened after last fall's election; Maclean's broke news of those conversations in October.
But those early talks did not deliver anything concrete and the conversation was more or less put aside.
'We just needed a little break'
"There was no animosity. We just needed a little break," a senior Liberal source with direct knowledge of the talks, speaking on condition they not be named, told the CBC this week.
Unlike similar confidence-and-supply agreements in Ontario, British Columbia and the Yukon — which came about very quickly after elections — there was no great urgency to the negotiations between Trudeau and Singh. The Liberal minority government was relatively secure and found the support it needed to pass several measures before the House of Commons adjourned in December.
Still, reports of possible collaboration were greeted enthusiastically in November by Erin O'Toole, who was still hanging on as Conservative leader. Faced with his own problems, O'Toole condemned what he described as a Liberal-NDP "coalition."
But unlike the negotiations between Jack Layton's NDP and Stephane Dion's Liberals in the feverish fall of 2008, these Liberal-NDP talks do not appear to have considered a coalition government at any point.
"We want to be independent enough to be able to be critical. We want to be able to oppose and to call for more," an NDP source, speaking on condition they not be named, said this week.
The discussions picked up again in the new year. As the Canadian Press reported this week, a phone call between Trudeau and Singh after the birth of Singh's daughter in January helped to get the ball rolling again.
Those discussions involved a small number of advisers — Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford and senior adviser Jeremy Broadhurst for the Liberals, Singh's chief of staff Jennifer Howard and NDP national director Anne McGrath for the New Democrats.
The NDP source said that maintaining a tight circle lowered the likelihood of further leaks. Due to the pandemic, most of the discussions happened by phone or video conference.
The bulk of the deal seems to have come together in the last two weeks. An NDP source said the party wanted to have an agreement in place in time to influence the government's spring budget.
A Liberal source said that, as the March 14 discussion was concluding, news was also breaking of a NATO leaders' summit scheduled for Brussels this week. That meant a deal needed to be completed quickly if it was to be announced before the prime minister departed.
According to the Liberal source, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was kept in the loop and other cabinet ministers were consulted about aspects that touched on their departments.
Agreeing on the 'blindingly obvious'
NDP officials reached out to people involved in the confidence-and-supply agreements signed in British Columbia in 2017 and Yukon in 2021. A Liberal source acknowledged that the B.C. deal was an important reference point. At least three of the primary negotiators also had firsthand experience — McGrath, Telford and Broadhurst were involved in the coalition talks in 2008.
The Liberal source argued that while the government was able to get its most important pieces of legislation through a divided House of Commons in the last Parliament, the process was so time-consuming that other bills — like those on conversion therapy and justice reform — fell by the wayside, even though the government knew it had the votes it needed.
"We don't have to see eye-to-eye on everything but can we at least find a way on the things that are blindingly obvious that we agree on?" the Liberal source said, explaining the motivation for a deal.
Then 2022 began and brought with it unforeseen events — an anti-vaccine mandate convoy protest occupying downtown Ottawa, followed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Those events consumed more of the government's time. But the Liberal source also suggested that global turmoil was increasing the pressure on progressive politicians to show they had answers to concerns about the cost of living.
While the convoy was bringing O'Toole's time as Conservative leader to an end, it apparently was showing the Liberals and New Democrats that they could work with each other. While the NDP offered qualified approval in public for the government's use of the Emergencies Act to end the convoy protest, the two sides were speaking behind the scenes about the law's deployment and the Liberals coordinated briefings with government officials to answer the NDP's questions.
An NDP source said the two parties worked together in a "very mature way" after the invocation of the Emergencies Act and were "honest and forthright" with each other.
"There was more contact between the leaders in discussions about how to deal with it," the source said in an interview. "And I think that helped build the relationships at the leader and staff level that helped us have these discussions [about an accord]."
While Trudeau and Singh clashed directly and sometimes fiercely during last fall's election, there was significant overlap in the parties' broad priorities on affordable housing, health care, climate change and reconciliation.
WATCH: Singh accuses Trudeau of failing to act on Indigenous calls for justice
But the two parties couldn't agree on everything. Electoral reform was raised but dropped when it became clear the two sides weren't willing to abandon their preferred alternatives — proportional representation for the NDP, a ranked ballot for the Liberals. Instead, under the heading of "making democracy work for people," the Liberals and NDP agreed to revive a series of proposals for making it easier to vote.
Singh's NDP proposed expanding dental care in the 2019 and 2021 elections and the Trudeau government referred to dental care in its throne speech after the 2019 election, but the pandemic soon consumed all attention. The new accord became an opportunity to get something done.
Giving something, getting something
The accord's commitments to subsidized dental care and progress on pharmacare have been held out as the NDP's primary victories, but the agreement also includes two other elements that weren't in the Liberal platform last fall: a one-time top-up to the Canada Housing Benefit and changes to a federal program for building rental properties.
"We want to be in a situation where we have power and where we are seen as an equal in the relationship," said the NDP source. "We are giving some things, we are getting some things. There are consequences for us if we withdraw, there are consequences for them if they withdraw."
The Liberal source said the deal's duration is due in part to how long it may take to implement all of the commitments.
Two NDP sources said there were different reactions within the party caucus — many MPs were enthusiastic, some were skeptical of the Liberals and some wished the NDP had gotten more. But no NDP MP was apparently willing to walk away from the deal or the party.
How the deal will work in practice, and for how long, remains to be seen.
An accord between the Ontario Liberals and NDP in 1985 lasted for two years. The 2017 agreement between the B.C. NDP and Greens endured for a little over three years — but Premier John Horgan walked away from the deal when he decided he wanted an early election.
The line in this week's deal about "no surprises" borrows from a similar sentence in the B.C. deal, which is also repeated verbatim in the Yukon agreement. It also echoes what one top official has said about the 1985 agreement in Ontario.
"We never tried to do anything that was a surprise. This was no drama," Hershell Ezrin, chief of staff to former Ontario premier David Peterson, said in 2015. "There was a lot of time expended on maintenance."
In any serious relationship, trust and communication are paramount. One side or the other might want to say or do something that the other doesn't agree with, and unforeseen issues will inevitably arise — but neither side wants to be caught by surprise.
"So much of this deal is… going to be on the back end. Like are we talking enough, are we sharing the information, are we avoiding [crises]?" said the Liberal source.
"A lot of this is really a framework to communicate," said the NDP source.
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