Minority rule means more foot-dragging on tough decisions
By all indications, Canada is about to sign up for another round of minority rule.
With less than a week to go until Monday’s vote, the Liberals and the Conservatives are tied in voting intentions.
Each has about one third of the electorate behind it — a percentage that is very close to their respective scores in the last election.
But that does not automatically make a repeat of the 2019 result a certain bet.
The distribution of the Conservative vote is less concentrated in the Prairies. That could make it more efficient. On the other hand, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party could be more of a wild card than it was two years ago.
Over on the Liberal side, there is cause for concern on the left. The demise of the Green party appears to have solidified support for the NDP.
In Quebec, a late campaign increase in Bloc support (mostly at the expense of the other opposition parties) could see Justin Trudeau lose some of the francophone seats he won narrowly in 2019. In oneon-one battles, the Bloc often has an edge on the Liberals.
Short of an unforeseen development, it is hard to see how either Erin O’Toole or Trudeau could generate enough momentum in the dying days of the campaign to decisively break the tie.
The result could come down to which party does best at getting its vote out.
If Monday’s result matches this week’s polls, it would be the fifth time in less than two decades that a federal election results in a minority Parliament.
Between 2004 and this year’s campaign, voters only twice handed a party a governing majority.
What the 2011 and 2015 elections had in common is that on both occasions, the Bloc Québécois disintegrated. There is nothing to suggest something of the kind happening on Monday.
Since the advent of a competitive sovereigntist party in the mid-1990s, it has only been in exceptional circumstances that one of the main federal parties has achieved a majority.
Jean Chrétien’s back-to-back majorities would not have been possible absent the schism that saw conservatives fight other conservatives for a decade.
There are those, including party founder Lucien Bouchard, who use to believe that as sovereignty faltered, the Bloc would lose its audience and its purpose.
The opposite has been happening.
The issue of Quebec’s political future has dropped from the province’s radar. The Parti Québécois has been reduced to a rump in the national assembly. And yet the Bloc is running relatively high.
If anything, the fact that a vote for the BQ brings Quebec no nearer to another referendum is making it easier for voters to support the party.
More than the famed split in the progressive vote nationally, the presence of a strong Quebec-based party has made minority rule at the federal level the new normal.
That has profound consequences on public policy.
Minority governments have a shorter attention span.
With an average life of 18 to 24 months, they are predisposed to be on the lookout for quick hits that can help them carve a path to a majority.
As a result, they spend as much or more time looking for new big ideas and potentially rewarding wedge issues than they do implementing the ambitious long-term projects they showcase on the hustings.
On files such as climate change, seven federal elections over the short span of 17 years have resulted in Canada going around in circles. Ditto on child care and Indigenous reconciliation.
On those defining issues, there is a consensus that crosses party lines. To varying degrees, it involves as many as four of the five parties in the House of Commons. In the partisan noise of an election campaign, it is easy to forget the existence of common ground.
And yet the latter was in evidence in the previous Parliament.
How that consensus would manifest itself in the event of a minority Conservative government is a question that the two parties most likely to hold the balance of power in the next Parliament have not been keen to answer.
Even the most diehard New Democrat must know by now that the party is not going to be forming the next government. And yet NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will not publicly entertain the idea that he is not set to become prime minister.
Would the Bloc do Premier François Legault’s bidding and give the Conservatives a pass on climate change and/or child-care funding?
Both third-party leaders are asking their supporters for a blank cheque.
A Liberal minority government would probably have an easier time implementing its platform than a Conservative one. But it would be similarly inclined to push off hard decisions until the morning after a majority victory. That does not seem to be in the cards for next week.