Politics·Analysis

Singh and the NDP may prop up the Liberals — but that doesn't mean we'll avoid a pandemic election

None of the federal party leaders say they want an election any time soon. But, as Aaron Wherry explains, that doesn't mean a pandemic election is out of the question.

NDP leader says his party wants to avoid an election during the COVID-19 crisis, but it's not all up to him

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are seen in a composite photo. Singh has said he wants to avoid a federal election during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he has asked Trudeau to make the same commitment. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

It's impossible to know when exactly a minority Parliament will fall apart, and no amount of speculation is ever going to make that any clearer.

But if you're the leader of a federal political party, it's never too early to start posturing about who will be to blame whenever that next election actually occurs.

That's presumably at least part of the explanation for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's recent declaration that he and his party won't "trigger" an election until a sufficient number of Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19 and the pandemic has been contained.

Strictly speaking, there is only one MP in the House of Commons who has the power to single-handedly trigger an election — the prime minister. On any given day, Justin Trudeau could walk over to Rideau Hall and ask the governor general, or the governor general's interim replacement, to dissolve Parliament and sign the writs for a new election. Since he currently commands the confidence of the House and it has been more than a year since the last election, the governor general or the official administrator would have no grounds to refuse such a request.

As the leader of the fourth party, Singh's influence over the timing of the next election is more limited. But his party's 24 MPs can provide the swing vote whenever the Conservatives or Bloc Québécois are unwilling to support the government — as the NDP did for last fall's throne speech and when the Liberals said they would regard a Conservative motion as a matter of confidence in October.

At the time of that motion, which would have established what was originally billed as an anti-corruption committee, Singh said Trudeau was "looking for an excuse" to call an election, but the NDP was not going to give him one. 

But how far is Singh willing to go to avoid an election? During a news conference this week, Singh said on "any confidence vote," the NDP will "vote to keep the government going." 

But an NDP spokesperson said on Friday the party is not promising to support government legislation, including the budget that is expected to be delivered this spring, which would certainly be considered a matter of confidence. So, however much the NDP thinks an election should be avoided — and whatever Singh says about not triggering an election — it very much remains to be seen what that will actually mean in practice.

Preparing for an election

Last week, Singh also challenged Trudeau to match his own commitment: "Will the prime minister commit today in this chamber that he will not call an election while we are fighting this pandemic, yes or no?"

But Trudeau was not willing to offer any such guarantee. "Mr. Speaker, we know well that in a minority Parliament, the government does not have the sole power to decide when we go into an election," he said. "The opposition members have a role to play not only in providing confidence for the House, but also by being able to function appropriately to deliver the help to Canadians that Canadians so seriously need."

WATCH | Singh asks Trudeau to pledge not to trigger an election during the pandemic:

Singh asks Trudeau if he will promise not to call a pandemic election

Politics News

3 months ago
1:19
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he will not trigger an election during the pandemic and asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during question period in the House of Commons to also commit to not triggering an election now. 1:19
 

It's not clear why any prime minister would take the possibility of an election off the table — at least not without a firm guarantee the government's entire agenda would be passed. In a minority Parliament, everything is a negotiation, and a threat to take a dispute to the voters is always a potential point of leverage.

Not that any government wants to be seen as obviously agitating for an election, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. After it was reported in January that Trudeau had told the Liberal Party's board of directors that a spring election looked likely, the Conservative Party charged that the prime minister was paying more attention to preparing for a re-election campaign than to dealing with the impacts of COVID-19.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, seen during a recent news conference, has been featured in television ads recently. (Sean Kilpatrick /The Canadian Press)
 

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said an election "should be at a time when the country is not in this acute state of crisis." But then Conservatives have also started nominating candidates and running television ads to promote O'Toole — the sorts of things a party does when it is thinking about the next election.

The pandemic undoubtedly adds a degree of complexity to any election calculation. Three provinces — British Columbia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan — got through campaigns without significant problems last year. But they may have been merely lucky, and the disarray in Newfoundland and Labrador is likely cause for any federal leader to think twice about precipitating an election.

Notwithstanding that concern, the battle to frame the exact moment of this Parliament's dissolution will now continue for however long it takes to get to another election. In 2011, the interests of the opposition parties aligned enough that they were willing to find Stephen Harper's government in contempt. In 1974, Pierre Trudeau's government managed to draft a budget it was willing to campaign on but fairly certain the NDP would be unable to support.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper basks in confetti after winning a second minority government on Oct. 14, 2008, in Calgary. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

But 2008 offers perhaps the most instructive example.

In that case, Harper's Conservatives wanted to go to an election. But the opposition wasn't willing to defeat them in the House and the Conservatives had passed legislation that was supposed to establish that elections would only occur on a fixed date every four years — though the law stopped short of preventing the governor general from dissolving Parliament on the advice of the prime minister. 

Choosing when to go

So Harper went looking for an excuse to call an election. He summoned each of the leaders of the opposition parties to meetings and asked them if they were willing to support the government's agenda until the fixed election date. Quite predictably, they scoffed at the suggestion. At which point, Harper claimed there was obviously no path forward and it was time for an election.

Somewhat similarly, a cynical observer might read Trudeau's allusion to Parliament "being able to function appropriately" as a hint of how he might find a reason to go to an election.

Harper's decision to ignore his fixed-date legislation was briefly a point of debate in 2008. But it was quickly overtaken by the actual issues and controversies of the election, including the stock market meltdown that occurred in the middle of the campaign.

A similar sequence played out in 2011. By the end of that campaign, the finding of contempt was a footnote.

The lessons here seem twofold. 

First, if the prime minister really wants to have an election, he'll probably be able to find an excuse to have one. And, second, there is a decent chance that all of the posturing that preceded the election will rapidly be forgotten as parties and voters turn to talking about what every election is ultimately about: the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

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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