The Liberal-NDP accord could give this Parliament the time it needs to work

Six months ago, Justin Trudeau was roundly pilloried for triggering an "unnecessary" election less than two years after the previous vote. After he announced a deal with the NDP to forestall an election until 2025, Trudeau found himself roundly pilloried again — at least by the Conservatives.

Canadians sent a message last fall: less politicking, more governing. This deal could deliver.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh take part in the federal election English-language leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Six months ago, Justin Trudeau was roundly pilloried for triggering an "unnecessary" election less than two years after the previous vote.

On Tuesday, the prime minister announced that his minority government had come to an agreement with the NDP caucus that should ensure this Parliament serves for a full four years.

For this, Trudeau is being roundly pilloried — at least by the Conservatives.

The confidence-and-supply agreement certainly represents a break with how federal minority governments have approached Parliament in the recent past. The novelty of this arrangement raises all sorts of interesting political and parliamentary questions. The contents of the deal and the stability it promises could also have important consequences for federal public policy.

But it's also an implicit reply to the message Canadians seemed to send politicians in the last election: more governing and legislating, please, and less electioneering. This deal could be one way to get to that place.

A governing party that lacks a majority of the seats in the House of Commons essentially has three options. It can attempt to form a coalition government with one or more of the other parties. In that case, the parties would share the responsibility of government, with ministers from each party sitting in cabinet.

Conversely, it can attempt to negotiate with the other parties on a case-by-case basis to pass individual pieces of legislation.

Somewhere in between those two options is what the Liberals and NDP have chosen to pursue. In a confidence-and-supply arrangement, one party agrees to vote to keep the other party in power for a certain amount of time. In return, the party in power agrees to pursue certain priorities and initiatives — typically with some concessions to the smaller party's desires.

The rules haven't changed

In past minority federal governments, governing parties have tended to opt for the case-by-case approach — the way Stephen Harper's Conservatives governed from 2006 to 2011, for instance. But confidence-and-supply agreements have emerged in British Columbia, Ontario and the Yukon, as well as in the United Kingdom.

In all of these cases, the basic rules of Canadian democracy have remained the same. Voters elect 338 MPs. For a government to remain in power and pass legislation, more than half of those MPs need to agree. One way or another, a prime minister has to figure out how to command and sustain a majority.

But Conservatives have been quick to suggest that something undemocratic is happening.

WATCH: Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen attacks Liberal-NDP accord

Bergen challenges Trudeau on Liberal-NDP confidence-and-supply agreement

1 year ago
Duration 1:24
Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen asks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when the Liberal-NDP confidence-and-supply agreement was struck.

Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said the prime minister had "hoodwinked" and "deceived" voters and argued that 82 per cent of voters in last fall's election did not vote for a "Liberal-NDP government."

That figure seems to be based on the fact that just 18 per cent of voters cast a ballot for the NDP. But ballots in Canada don't offer voters a choice of government configurations.

Dangerous messages

Two of the candidates vying for the Conservative leadership went even further. Jean Charest said the Liberals were ignoring the results of the election and accused them of embracing an "anti-democratic" ideology.

Patrick Brown called the deal a "subversion of our democracy" and claimed that "the will of Canadians has been subverted."

Patrick Brown called the deal a "subversion" of Canada's democracy. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Such statements would earn a failing grade from any high school civics teacher — and it's passing strange that anyone running for federal office in Canada fails to understand how democracy works in this country.

But at a time when liberal democracy is struggling to defend itself globally against populism and authoritarianism — and just weeks after a protest convoy came to Ottawa demanding the undemocratic overthrow of the government — such statements are also dangerous.

But this is not just a lesson about parliamentary democracy. There are real implications to this deal — for Parliament, for federal policy and for the next election.

For the Conservatives, a gift of time

While the Conservatives fret that parliamentary accountability will suffer, it remains to be seen how NDP MPs will comport themselves. They remain members of an opposition party, even if they intend to agree with the government on a number of issues.

The Conservatives may howl at everything to do with the Liberal-NDP agreement, but their next leader might also now have a couple of years to get ready for an election — a gift of time rarely granted to new party leaders in a minority Parliament.

WATCH: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh discusses agreement with Liberals

Singh says he's entering Liberal agreement with 'eyes wide open'

1 year ago
Duration 2:48
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says that in entering a new agreement with the federal Liberals, his party will hold the government accountable.

The NDP will want to establish that it made certain things happen — things like expanded dental care and the foundation for a pharmacare system. But the Liberals now have some assurance of stability and some reason to believe they will be able to go into the next election with a record of having done things.

Another three years in office also ensures that the big things the Liberals have been working on — climate policy, child care — will be more established by the time any other party gets a chance to make changes.

Tom Axworthy, a former adviser to Pierre Trudeau, has written that policy was front and centre during a well-regarded run of minority parliaments in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether you agree with the policy choices or not, policy is at the heart of this deal. The Liberals can't hope to sustain it if they don't make tangible progress on policy.

An alternative to 'day-to-day blackmail'

Could this Parliament have made it to 2025 without such a formal agreement? Maybe. But the odds weren't great.

There are advantages and disadvantages to any approach to a minority government. But in the absence of official agreements between parties, a minority Parliament can become a week-to-week game of chicken — with the government and opposition constantly daring each other to force an election and angling for a campaign that is always just one vote away.

Bob Rae, who negotiated a confidence-and-supply agreement as NDP leader in Ontario, once referred to it as the "day-to-day blackmail bullshit" of a minority Parliament.

Most minority parliaments, negotiated and contested on a case-by-case basis, have collapsed well short of the four-year mark.

That was less of a concern in the past because minority governments were relatively rare. But minority parliaments now seem to be the rule, not the exception. Five of the last seven elections produced minority governments. And because those minorities didn't last long, those seven federal elections occurred over just 17 years.

Such a state of affairs is probably not sustainable. Canadian voters also seemed to grasp last fall that this is a moment for getting down to the business of governing.

That doesn't mean that the Liberals and New Democrats necessarily found the best way to go about that. But some kind of new approach probably was necessary.


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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now