Politics·Analysis

Which party would have the clout in a minority Parliament?

Current polls point toward the 2019 election delivering a minority government. How would that work? Which party would be in a position to dictate terms? And how far would Trudeau or Scheer go to secure the votes of NDP, Green or Bloc MPs?

May and Singh are talking like kingmakers - but they might not be invited to the table

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, left, and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh have been talking about how they would approach a minority Liberal or Conservative government. (Ben Nelms/Reuters, Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May have been taking turns declaring how uncompromising they would be if this fall's election doesn't result in a clear majority for any single party and post-election negotiations are required to decide who controls the House of Commons.

It's early yet — too early to predict with any confidence how the rest of this campaign will play out. But it's never too early to start looking ahead. And it's already fair to wonder whether any Liberal or Conservative minority government would be able to satisfy the New Democrats or Greens.

Then again, that question assumes the New Democrats or Greens would end up holding the balance of power in a minority Parliament.

The latest jockeying involves the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

Speaking to CBC News on Wednesday, May said she would not support a government that was committed to building the expansion. Though he wasn't quite as categorical as May, Singh later said he would remain opposed to the project.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he will continue to fight the Trans Mountain pipeline, even if there is a minority government. 2:13

The question of who would support what has become a significant subplot in the NDP-Green fight for third place.

It began in July, when May said she would support any government that was willing to take sufficient action against climate change. A month later, after the Liberals unearthed video of Andrew Scheer condemning same-sex marriage in 2005, Singh declared that he would never prop up a Conservative government.

Singh then tried to use his position to draw a distinction between his party and the Greens.

"We strongly believe that we should not be putting Mr. Scheer in the prime minister's seat, unlike Ms. May and the Green Party, who believe that's the right choice," Singh said at the first leaders' debate in September.

May called that claim "absurd" and clarified that she would not support any government that failed to present a climate plan in line with the goal of limiting further global warming to 1.5 C.

A Conservative minority in a tight corner

That line in the sand has now been extended to include the Trans Mountain expansion.

Andrew Scheer's available options for winning the confidence of the House in a minority scenario would thus seem to be limited — not only because the NDP has categorically ruled itself out, but also because May's conditions seem particularly unlikely to be met by a minority Conservative government.

As Chantal Hébert wrote this week in the Toronto Star, it appears the Conservatives will need their own majority to follow through on their promises to repeal existing climate policies.

But it's also fair to wonder whether Justin Trudeau would be at all willing to satisfy the conditions being thrown up by the NDP and the Greens.

Speaking in Montreal Thursday, Green Leader Elizabeth May says her party is prepared to defeat a government that priorities industry over the environment. 0:47

The Liberals might be persuaded to implement more aggressive climate policies — but would Trudeau walk away from the Trans Mountain expansion? After expending a lot of political capital and committing significant public funds to the project — and knowing how Albertans would react to its cancellation — it seems unlikely, at least.

Singh's words on Thursday might suggest some room to negotiate. Perhaps the NDP leader could remain opposed to the expansion without demanding that it be cancelled.

The electoral reform wild card

But Singh has laid out another condition already. Back in 2017, he told Fair Vote Canada that he would "consult with our caucus and advocate for the inclusion of proportional representation as a condition of any alliance or support for a minority government."

Given Trudeau's publicly stated objections to proportional representation (and his misgivings about referendums), he might be just as unwilling to meet a demand for electoral reform.

It would be somewhat curious if the two parties that are most loudly in favour of proportional representation — the NDP and Greens — turned out to be rather uncompromising in their demands on a minority government.

Part of the argument for moving to a system of proportional representation is that it typically would result in two or more parties having to work together to pass legislation. A campaign card recently distributed in the riding of Ottawa Centre by Fair Vote Canada, for instance, promises that proportional representation would mean "co-operative decision making."

In the current circumstances, the prospect of a minority government seems instead to be producing a contest to decide which of the smaller parties can make the hardest demands.

Absent some post-election compromises, someone would be left having to explain why another election was necessary.

But all of this pre-result posturing for post-election negotiations might ultimately be for nothing.

It's still possible that one party will end up with a majority in the House of Commons. But there is also the distinct possibility that neither the Greens nor the New Democrats will be in a position to deliver pivotal votes to a minority government.

Advantage: Bloc

Based on the latest polling, the Liberals would — if an election were held today — end up with 160 seats, 10 short of a bare majority. The Greens, with four seats, would be unable to offer a Liberal government a sufficient number of votes.

The New Democrats, with 16 seats, would be able to put the Liberals over the top. But so would the Bloc Québécois, currently projected to win 17 seats.

Indeed, while the Greens and New Democrats have been battling for position in British Columbia and Ontario, the BQ has quietly put itself in a position where it could have real influence in the next Parliament.

Singh and May are no doubt free to stake out their negotiating positions now. But they might not even get invited to the table.

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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