By Trevor Busch
Well, sports fans, now begin the days of minority. And while most usually begin in a saccharin atmosphere of professed brotherhood among parties rather than a retrenching of irreconcilable positions, most of us gifted with the curse of observation are aware that when the political playbook exhausts the vocabulary of conciliation and co-operation, minority Parliaments can devolve into a blood sport.
And short of selling cheap beer and soft pretzels from the public gallery, there’s little to distinguish the proceedings from a raucous Saturday night over at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre. So get ready for the thrills and spills of political pragmatism, the bare-knuckle, knock ‘em down prizefights for popular support, and pusillanimous petty pugilism as members jockey for position while trying to keep their necks out of the parliamentary guillotine’s gaping maw, known simply to us lowly commoners as a “Vote of Non-Confidence.”
Minority Parliaments have always held a certain malodorous charm for the average Canadian, and on occasion have transcended from the traditional nostril-wrestling putrefaction into a less pungent state of grudging co-operation. Lester B. Pearson’s twin minority Parliaments in the 1960s are often held up as an example of a House that managed to get things right. Viewed from ringside, minorities have one shining virtue that can help mollify a voter’s alienation over the 19th century anachronism we refer to as our ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system: they force people and parties to work together.
Keeping in mind that we live in an age that seems intent on exorcising bilateralism like some demonic prevarication of the past, the concept of “working together” is almost anathema in today’s multiparty democracies. Shaking hands with the devil across the floor in order to achieve one’s aims seems to carry with it a dirty, rotten taint that if played poorly can betray one’s base, send the party’s popularity into a tailspin, and shake the very foundations of a party leader’s reputation. It’s all a dance of backstabbing and blunder, rumination and revenge, triumph and trespass — and if the one leading their partners in this wearisome waltz manages to tread on the toes of their political enemies, retaliation is often swift and sure. Say whatever else you want of them, but minority Parliaments don’t tend to suffer fools easily, or for long.
Pearson’s Parliaments may have been a success, but there are far more in the moribund annals of Canadian electoral history that are more remembered for their stunning ineptitude and partisan gridlock. Although probably still a point of dispute among a few Western Canadians, Joe Clark’s 1979 PC minority government (which managed to last all of 200 days, the shortest in Canadian history) is usually considered a prime example of how not to go about achieving consensus and longevity in a minority position. Apologies in advance to the bouncing boy from High River, but his government would go down in flames over a cold reception to his budget and questions about Petro-Canada, gas taxes, and Clark’s stubborn refusal to work with the Social Credit caucus.
And an early gaff over his handling of a campaign commitment to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would deeply influence many Canadians’ perceptions of Clark as a competent figure on the world stage. Remarkably, we saw the latter promise rear its ugly head from beyond the grave in the 2019 federal election with the Conservatives’ Andrew Scheer making an identical commitment. But with Trump’s America pledging a similar move, such considerations may carry less weight in the region than they once did in 1979 in a charged atmosphere of Israeli-Arab hostility fueled by the Cold War.
The actual election results, on the face of them, should make for some interesting theatre in coming months. Minorities are always a different animal, but for the Liberals, capturing 157 seats is considered a strong position. The Conservatives have secured 121, followed by a resurgent Bloc Quebecois with 32, the NDP with 24, the Green Party with three, and one Independent in Jodi Wilson-Raybould, who returns in Shakespearean fashion like the ghost of Hamlet’s father after being unceremoniously turfed by Trudeau over SNC Lavalin. The real wildcards in Canada’s 43rd Parliament will be the third parties, as some combination must work together with the “big two” if they ever hope to get anything done. The left-leaning Greens and the NDP will naturally gravitate toward some sort of loose alliance with the Liberals, and handled well, this could mean a degree of stability for Trudeau. Most parties will abhor working together with the separatist Bloc, but those 32 seats will be a matter of some contention in early votes in the House — and the party may or may not tend to drift into the orbit of Scheer’s Conservatives. In that case, get ready for a showdown between the CPC-Bloc and the LPC-NDP-Greens.
For pipeline advocates, this is where things might get really bizarre. While the leftist third parties have as much as refused to countenance any further progress for Canada’s energy sector, the Liberals are slightly less intractable — especially if it helped them to win back some goodwill in Western Canada. The Conservatives, for their part, are committed to getting bitumen to tidewater. That opens up the possibility — shocking as it might seem on the surface — of ideological enemies working together to force the pipeline question through. Those laughing uproariously at that prediction should remember in a minority anything can be possible, and nothing’s off the table for those with a pragmatic instinct for survival.
No conclusion to the 2019 federal election would be complete without a retrospective analysis of the odd similarities between Pierre Trudeau’s 1972 election results and where we now stand as the present decade draws to a close. Coming off a majority victory in 1968, not at all dissimilar to his son’s majority in 2015, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals were in trouble heading into the 1972 election campaign, but would manage to pull a minority government out of the hat after measuring up against a lackluster offensive from underwear king Robert Stanfield in charge of the Progressive Conservatives. As post mortems continue for the 2019 campaign, parallels have been drawn between Stanfield’s uninspired performance in October 1972 and criticisms of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s recent campaign tactics. In an election where there appeared to be an opportunity to drive a wooden stake through the heart of the Liberal campaign — on more than one issue or occasion — questions are already on the rise, both inside and outside his party, about the leader who should have been wielding the hammer. How Scheer will match up as an minority opposition fighter remains to be seen (as does Trudeau’s minority scruples) but it’s probably an unlikely prospect we’ll see Scheer helming the Conservatives in another election campaign down the road.
Predicting the nature of a minority Parliament is a bit like claiming an elephant can cling to a cliff with his tail wrapped around a daffodil. So we’ll eschew the views of the political prognosticators, the parliamentary soothsayers, and the perfidious pundits, and make at least one winsome projection based on opinion, bias, and questionable evidence. On the leadership front, there is likely to be only one party leader who will survive this Parliament unscathed by their memberships. Elizabeth May has already signaled a desire to throw in the towel, Jagmeet Singh will probably get the axe based on a drop in seat totals alone, Andrew Scheer is facing mounting criticism, while the Bloc Quebecois is obviously an non-entity in Western Canada.
Only Trudeau is likely to survive, and that’s probably because he has the party bona fides of a previous majority win.
Trudeau, not unlike Donald Trump, will have to determine how far he can push before his own party membership and MPs begin to abandon him. That, ladies and gentlemen, may be one of the key casualties of this Parliament on the long road to the next election.
But there will be no lack of metaphorical shots across the bow, firing from the bell towers, and dastardly detonations along the way.
Let the games begin.