Bargain or 'blackmail'? Why the Liberals might want to do a deal with the NDP

Federal parties rarely make formal deals with each other — even when faced with the uncertainty of a minority Parliament. But if minority governments are becoming more common — and if voters are getting impatient with back-to-back elections — now might be a good time to negotiate.

Is anyone ready to trade the constant threat of an election call for actual accomplishments in government?

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh shake hands following the federal leaders' French language debate in Gatineau, Que., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

After the Ontario election of 1985, Bob Rae went looking for a way to avoid what he called the "day-to-day blackmail bullshit" of minority government.

The result was a unique accord between David Peterson's Liberals and Rae's NDP which saw the New Democrats (with 25 seats) formally agree to support a Liberal government (with 48 seats) on a series of specific initiatives for a period of two years.

Such arrangements remain rare in Canadian politics. For the most part, whenever an election fails to produce a majority government, the governing party and the opposition parties proceed to engage in the "day-to-day roulette of minority government," as Rae described it in his autobiography, From Protest to Power. Each new measure put before Parliament becomes a game of chicken fought on the basis of whether anyone is willing to force an election.

But if — at the federal level, at least — minority Parliaments are now likely to be the rule rather than the exception, it might be time for the major parties to agree with Rae's contention that there are better and less exhausting ways to run a democracy.

After the 1985 election, the NDP's Bob Rae signed a two-year accord with Liberal Leader David Peterson under which the Liberals would form government with the NDP's support in exchange for implementing a number of NDP policies. (Canadian Press)

And perhaps the Peterson and Rae accord could serve as inspiration for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

In 1985, shared priorities gave the Liberals and NDP a solid basis for working together. "When we came to negotiate between the two parties, we had enough to fill up several legislative agendas that we could agree on," Herschel Ezrin, Peterson's chief of staff, told me in 2015.

The resulting agreement covered a range of progressive priorities, including employment for young people, housing, elder care, child care and pensions.

'No surprises'

But the parties also made a deliberate effort to communicate with each other over those two years.

"We were careful not to give them any view that we were somehow trying to do something that had not been agreed to. We introduced other pieces of legislation that hadn't been on the list, but the point was we never tried to do anything that was a surprise," Ezrin said. "This was no drama. There was a lot of time expended on maintenance."

In terms of both policy and process, there are echoes of the 1985 accord in the 2017 agreement in British Columbia between the province's NDP and Greens. That 2017 deal stated that it would establish "a new relationship between the two parties, founded on the principle of 'good faith and no surprises.'"

In both cases, those deals might have seemed more necessary because the parties with the second-most seats in the legislature (the Ontario Liberals in 1985 and the B.C. NDP in 2017) were looking to defeat and replace incumbent governments after an election. Practically, the need to guarantee the support of the third party was obvious. Politically, it was important to project stability.

Those same conditions won't be present in the House of Commons that convenes in Ottawa on November 22. The Liberals are relatively ensconced in government, they have more than one potential bargaining partner and the other parties aren't manoeuvring to replace them immediately.

Canadians want a Parliament that works

But one of the messages of last month's election was that Canadians aren't particularly interested in seeing politicians campaign right now. What they seem to want instead is for MPs to get things done.

And however much the Liberals and NDP disagree about methods, they agree broadly when it comes to which issues the federal government should focus on: inequality, climate change, reconciliation and improving public support programs like child care and long term care.

For the Liberals, the benefit of such an agreement could be a chance to get more things done over the next two or four years than they could by negotiating issue-to-issue. In addition to establishing a clear agenda, an accord might make it easier for the government to get around the sorts of opposition stalling tactics that are more easily employed in a minority Parliament.

If such an accord were to succeed, New Democrats could eventually claim some credit for a particularly activist period in federal government. They also would want to come away with a few accomplishments they could point to as having happened only because they were involved.

Naysayers on the NDP side might point out that Peterson's Ontario Liberals won a huge majority after the accord concluded in 1987. But Rae's NDP went on to win its own majority in 1990 — the one and only time the party has formed a government in Ontario.

For now, this all seems to be entirely hypothetical. The Prime Minister's Office said Friday that Trudeau will speak with the other party leaders next week, but an NDP source says they haven't yet heard from the government about any plans for how Parliament will work. The same source says the party thinks the last Parliament worked well without a formal accord.

New Democrats did come away from the last Parliament claiming they had moved the Liberals on several fronts (the Liberals might debate the details of some of those claims). They might be content to let the new Parliament play out again as a rolling series of battles and bargains.

The Liberals might be happy to do likewise. On any given issue — and for the next while — they might find that most MPs are unwilling to trigger an election by defeating government legislation on a confidence vote.

But perhaps there's a better way to get things done in a parliamentary democracy — one that involves less of the "day-to-day blackmail bullshit."


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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