Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government in Ottawa entered into a supply and confidence agreement with Jagmeet Singh’s New Democratic Party in an effort to prolong the life of the current parliament until September 2024. Although such pacts are unusual in Canada, they are not entirely unprecedented. In 1985, Ontario’s Liberal leader David Peterson made a pact with provincial NDP leader Bob Rae that ended more than four decades of Conservative rule. However, neither of these agreements led to a genuine coalition government.
In a coalition government, the cabinet is composed of members of all of the participating parties, with the portfolios allocated according to the proportionate strength of each party in the chamber. Coalition governments are common in European countries, but our politicians typically brand them as unCanadian or even undemocratic. Nevertheless, coalitions are not foreign to our Westminster constitutions. In Australia, there is a permanent electoral alliance between the federal Liberal and National Parties, and together they are known as “the Coalition.” In the United Kingdom itself, the 2010 election resulted in what is conventionally called a hung parliament, with no single party winning an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons. This result produced a coalition government between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats lasting until 2015. So no one can argue that the new agreement is unprecedented in our system of government.
A democratic agreement
Predictably, not everyone is happy with this new alliance. Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen (no relation to the American actress) complains: “This is nothing more than a Justin Trudeau power grab. He is desperately clinging to power. He continues to put his personal pride before the interests of Canadians . . . . This deal means that Canadians have woken up to, in essence, an NDP-Liberal majority government. These Canadians have woken up to the fact that they have been hoodwinked.” Such partisan responses are not surprising, but they are misleading.
In reality, there is nothing undemocratic about the new agreement. Moreover, one might argue that the Trudeau government is more democratic than it has been up to now. After all, the federal Liberals garnered just under one-third of the popular vote last year, yet they formed a single-party government over the objections of more than two-thirds of voters. The Conservatives actually outpolled the Liberals, gaining 35.2 percent of the vote. Yet our current single-member-plurality electoral system – often labelled first-past-the-post (FPTP) – gave the Liberals a plurality of seats in the Commons. By bringing the NDP onside, the Liberals have actually increased the popular support for their government, which would in principle now be supported by 50.4 percent of Canadians. If so, this can scarcely be called undemocratic.
Would Canada fare better with a proportional representation system?
If Canada had some form of proportional representation (PR), seats in the Commons would be allocated to each party roughly according to the percentage of votes it received across the country. A national party list system would be highly inappropriate for a geographically large and diverse country such as Canada. However, there are other forms of PR, such as the mixed-member-proportional (MMP) and single-transferable-vote (STV) that preserve the valuable link between representative and local constituency while adding an element of proportionality by compensating parties whose support base is more territorially diffuse. Fewer votes would be wasted as they are under our current FPTP system.
If we had had PR in last year’s elections, the Conservatives would have come out ahead and would thus have the first opportunity to try to form a government. They could opt for a minority government, securing other parties’ support on a case-by-case basis. Or they could attempt an electoral alliance with another party without necessarily including its leaders in their government. Or they could try for a full coalition government with one or more other parties. Which parties? That’s not easy to answer, although theoretically they could seek a grand coalition government with the Liberals, something more familiar to Germans than to Westminster democracies. Were the Conservatives unable to find a willing partner, the second-place Liberals would be given the opportunity to form a government. Here the NDP would be a likely partner, given that the New Democrats are often referred to as “Liberals in a hurry.” The Bloc québécois (BQ) is another possibility, although its separatism is obviously a complicating factor.
Motivation to cooperate
Whether or not Canada adopts PR, Conservatives worry that the current supply and confidence agreement could set the stage for an enduring Liberal-NDP alliance which would keep them out of power indefinitely. This is not an unreasonable concern. Ruling parties lacking credible opposition tend to become corrupt and complacent. They pursue polices that may not adequately serve the public interest because they know they can get away with so doing. The decade of inadequately-opposed Liberal rule in the 1990s produced the Sponsorship Scandal, which tarnished the reputation of the Chrétien government and the federal Liberals.
However, the input of the junior partner in the alliance could suffice to keep the senior partner clean. A coalition lasts only as long as the parties are willing to work together. If things go wrong, the junior partner could always leave and put its weight behind the second major party, however unlikely that might be in the Canadian context. The threat of this might be enough to keep the larger party accountable.
Furthermore, the adoption of PR would change the psychology of voting. Many Canadians vote without enthusiasm for the party they believe will do the least harm to the public interest. FPTP virtually compels voters to take this approach because it literally wastes huge numbers of votes cast for losing candidates. PR would enable voters to opt for their preferred party rather than to vote strategically against a party they dislike. This would permit the formation of new parties with a better chance of gaining seats in the Commons than under our current system. It would even the playing field to a greater extent.
Finally, the Conservatives themselves would have to decide what they stand for and what their place is in the political landscape. The foot-dragging for which they are famous is insufficient over the long term to secure their continued existence, especially in a multiparty context. A needed internal soul-searching would have to be accompanied by considering possible coalition partners in a Conservative-led government. Electoral reform might actually help the Conservative Party by forcing it to engage in this reflection and to reach out to other parties with which they might co-operate.
So, no, the current supply and confidence agreement is not undemocratic or unconstitutional. The policies the newly-strengthened Trudeau government pursues for the remainder of its tenure may be unwise and ill-conceived, as some believe. But that’s a separate issue for another day.
This article originally appeared on Koyzis’ blog ‘Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist’ on March 28.