It’s a Liberal minority. So what happens now?

10.22.19

The Liberals are battered and bruised but not out. Despite taking a beating in the polls and attacks from all sides, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau fended off a challenge from Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives to hang onto the Prime Minister’s job — and the worst fears of US-style populist extremism.

However, he will be leading a much-reduced government. The Liberals lost 21 seats, and their majority in Parliament. To govern, they’ll now have to work with the opposition parties to get their agenda through the legislature.

So, what happens now?

A Liberal-NDP dream team? Not so fast.

For many people I’ve spoken to, at least progressive-minded voters, the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition is a dream come true. If the current seat projections hold, the parties together will have 181 seats, or enough for a majority in the House of Commons. On issues where the parties share common ground — and there are many — this could be a semi-stable governing coalition that helps the country move forward.

After all, some great things have been accomplished by Liberal-NDP minority governments. Journalists and pundits love to cite the example of the Pearson-led Liberal-NDP unofficial coalition government, which created universal healthcare and the Canada Pension Plan, among other things.

However, the case for a stable working coalition here is far less clear. Jagmeet Singh emerged battered from this election, too: The NDP was reduced from 42 to only 24 seats, and basically wiped off the political map in Quebec, where it lost all but one of its seats — mostly to the surging Bloc.

Singh has signalled that the NDP has a list of six key demands in order to agree to support the government. On some of them, including interest forgiveness for student debt, more progressive taxation, and expanded efforts to fight climate change, they may well be able to find common ground with the Liberals. But others, including a promise for universal pharmacare and dental care, will likely run into feasibility issues in terms of funding.

The problem the NDP faces is that their base of support is mostly young, idealistic and absolutist. The trouble with ideologues is that they rarely understand the sometimes difficult, cynical, pragmatic compromises necessary to govern. Politically, the NDP can’t afford to back down on any of its core promises, because its voter base would never forgive the party, and would abandon ship.

This could put Singh in an impossible situation of having to vote down a piece of good-but-less-than-perfect Liberal legislation, thus triggering an election early, just because his party’s base would howl in protest if he didn’t. Meanwhile, the Liberals have the far more difficult task of actually governing the entire country, not just the small percentage who voted for them, and, furthermore, negotiating our place in an increasingly hostile, right-wing world. That sometimes involves very difficult compromises. For instance, a tax on the uber-wealthy plays well in an NDP rally, where chants of “tax the rich!” can be heard loudly. But for all that the Liberals have introduced more progressive taxation than the Harper government, Trudeau has to balance a desire for fairer taxation with the need to keep Canada attractive to business, investment and trade. The uber-rich, of course, have uber-mobility for their money and for themselves; make Canada too hostile an environment for the wealthy, and the wealthy will leave. Trudeau knows this. Singh seemingly does not.

And then there’s the pipeline. The bane of Trudeau’s existence, some might say. If the theories are correct that Trudeau actually had very little choice in the the Trans Mountain Pipeline affair, then Trudeau is truly between a rock and a hard place. Even if it isn’t true, Trudeau has a balancing act to play when it comes to oil pipelines. Divesting overnight from all fossil fuels sounds like an attractive idea when you’re an urban, downtown core voter at an NDP or Green Party rally. It’s less obvious for oil patch workers in Alberta who are suffering job losses. Alberta and Saskatchewan voted almost entirely Tory blue, and the Liberals have to be concerned about how they can regain support in the west without listening to their concerns. Furthermore, while the Liberals have made — and I hope will continue to make — major investments in green, renewable energy, there’s no overnight solution to switching off the lights for half the country. The Liberal energy plan may not be as ambitious or catchphrase-friendly as the NDP’s, but it is far more pragmatic and feasible. But pragmatism and feasibility aren’t exactly words that NDP voters appreciate very much, if their attacks on Steven Guilbeault, my newly-elected local MP for the Liberals and the former head of Equiterre, are any indication.

So If the NDP sets out the abandonment of the project as a non-negotiable condition of its support, there may be no good answer for the Liberals. They will have to either scrap a project that they may not be willing or able to scrap, or they will likely see their fragile minority crumble quickly. After all, the Bloc and the Greens also oppose the pipeline. And the Tories have no incentive to prop up a Liberal government for any reason.

So my prediction is that a Liberal-NDP working coalition might last a little while, but will ultimately be short-lived.

The Tories will wait… and build.

The Conservatives failed to achieve their goal of coming to power last night, so ostensibly they lost the election after an underwhelming performance by an equally underwhelming Andrew Scheer. But they did make gains: They picked up 23 seats, technically “won” the popular vote, and reduced the Liberals to a minority.

So will Andrew Scheer step down? It’s unclear.

On the one hand, the Tories failed to expand much beyond their base. They galvanized their voters in the west, basically sweeping Alberta and Saskatchewan. And they won some suburban ridings in Ontario. But they haven’t made the inroads among more moderate centrist voters in Southern Ontario, Atlantic Canada, Quebec or BC that they would need in order to win a minority, let alone a majority government.

Scheer didn’t inspire Canadians to want to vote for him as Prime Minister. He won the Tory leadership as the second-choice candidate to higher-profile contenders, and was sort of a “meh” choice even among his party’s faithful. He ran a very negative campaign, heavy on attack ads and light on policy. He fumbled questions on choice, is seen as being anti-LGBT and anti-diversity, and was even exposed as having lied on his own resume. People view him as distasteful and not leadership material.

On the other hand, the Tories have the best financial position of all the parties, thanks to Harper having eliminated the per-vote subsidy credit during his previous mandate in 2011. This particularly hurts parties whose supporters are lower income (the NDP) or who have more support that doesn’t translate into seats or official status (Greens). But the Tories, with their wealthy donors, can comfortably afford to restock their war chest and go back to the polls anytime. The Tories may not want to risk another leadership contest so quickly, and may prefer a narrative that paints Scheer as having made steady gains towards the prize.

So my guess is he’ll stick around for at least this minority government. If he doesn’t win next time, though, he’ll likely be out on his American, anti-choice, lying, scheming derriere.

The Bloc wildcard.

The big story in this election is that everyone lost… except the Bloc, who resurged to 32 seats in Quebec, stomping to victory in the suburban and rural ridings that had been previously held mostly by the NDP.

Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet won his own seat and will join the House of Commons, after coasting on seemingly strong debate performances, as well as a platform that seemed stolen verbatim from the CAQ playbook. In fact, the electoral map of Quebec in this federal election strongly resembles that of the last provincial election, with the island of Montreal going Liberal red in a sea of Bloc/CAQ blue:

This will probably mean a tiresome return of talk of sovereignty, the issue that just refuses to go away. But not as much as people might think, since Blanchet hardly even mentioned the R-word (referendum) in the campaign.

Instead, it seems that the protest vote in Quebec that had gone to the NDP in the 2011 “Orange Crush” has returned to the Bloc. Voters who don’t feel like they identify with any of the major parties were riding the coattails of the party that promised to defend their “interests” in Ottawa. What are those interests? Well, it seems that the average Quebec voter cares so much about Quebec controlling its own immigration (so that non-francophones and non-white people can’t enter), controlling its own tax returns (because, I dunno, people don’t like filling out two tax returns?), and controlling its own discrimination against minorities (no challenges to Bill 21, please; attacking Quebecers rights to be racist is racism against Quebecers!)

Needless to say, I am not a fan of the Bloc. But what will realistically happen?

Right now, the Bloc is enjoying its victory and coasting on power. But there’s no upside to them in forcing another election early. They’ve gained as much ground as they could have in one election, and they obviously can’t grow outside of Quebec — and realistically probably not on the island of Montreal, either, where there’s just too much diversity for the taste of their brand of racism.

The promises that the Bloc might try to exact from the Liberals in exchange for support probably include no pipeline across Quebec, control over tax and immigration, and a promise not to intervene in Bill 21. All of those would be difficult if not impossible pills for the Liberals to swallow — especially the last one, given the Liberals’ principled stance on minority rights.

My best guess is that Blanchet will go to Ottawa prepared to be a thorn in Trudeau’s side, hoping to build support for nationalism back home and sow the seeds of discord at every turn. He’ll play the role of Official Troll, and do so with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink to the much-maligned Alberta. And then hope like hell for a Tory victory in the next election, so he can build more support for separation in Quebec.

The Liberals have nothing to gain and everything to lose (especially in the west, which already resents Quebec) from being seen to cooperate too much with the Bloc, so they probably won’t try too hard. They’ll be looking to keep their government propped up with NDP and perhaps Green support instead. But if there’s an issue where the NDP finds itself unable to support the government, it will be interesting to see what concessions Trudeau might try to make to gain Bloc support. Let’s hope not too many.

Electoral reform? Don’t count on it.

One of the big promises that voters haven’t forgiven Justin Trudeau for breaking was that of electoral reform. Those pushing for proportional representation will continue to argue that these results were unfair, and that First Past the Post needs to go.

But let’s take a look at the vote breakdown by popular vote versus number of seats:

The Liberals and, to some extent, the Bloc, were the winners under the FPTP system. The Conservatives actually won more of the popular vote but lost the election with fewer seats than the Liberals, because their vote was more inefficiently concentrated in Alberta and their western strongholds. The big losers under FPTP continue to be the NDP and the Greens.

But, let’s leave aside the fact that people probably would’ve voted somewhat differently under a different electoral system. The thing is, the Liberals have no incentive to implement a proportional system in this case, where that system actually would have awarded the election to the Conservatives.

And for those of you who are still mad about this, consider that this is probably a very good thing. Proportional representation, for all that it may “seem” fairer in theory, actually would be a very, very, very bad idea in practice.

First past the post systems give too much power to the political middle. But proportional systems actually give far too much power to the political fringes.

Yes, the Greens would have 6.5% of the seats under a proportional system. But they could conceivably hold 80 or 90% of the political power in a situation where they end up the kingmakers, able to offer or withdraw their support to a coalition government in exchange for exacting promises.

This might not seem so bad if you are pro-Green. Which, fine, let’s leave aside the more wackadoodle elements of their platform (have you actually read it? admit it, you haven’t.), but let’s say you’d be okay with that.

But would you be okay with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party getting 5 seats because they won 1.6% of the popular vote, instead of the 0 seats they currently hold? And then being able to use those 5 seats to extract promises of ending all refugee and immigration claims in Canada, or pushing through the rest of their extreme-right agenda?

(Side note: Bernier’s face when he learned he’d be losing his own seat was one of the highlights of a mostly meh evening last night.)

Look at countries with proportional systems to see what happens when a few fringe parties get to control the political agenda. Just look no further than the political mess currently underway in Israel to understand the pitfalls of a proportional system and why it would be a terrible idea here in Canada.

And beyond the disproportionate amount of power given to extremist parties on the fringes, proportionate systems have other key pitfalls. In a country as geographically large and diverse as Canada, having zero local representation wouldn’t work. How would you feel about a government where every MP was from Ontario? Or from Alberta? What happens when there’s nobody in Ottawa representing the interests of each region?

Also, in a proportional system, people don’t directly elect any MPs; instead, each party chooses and ranks its list of candidates in an order that it alone determines. The ranking system, and the way politicians curry favour to move up or down the list, leads to cronyism, backroom deals, and a lack of transparency that would make our current system look angelic in comparison.

That’s not to say we don’t need electoral reform in Canada badly. We do; it’s just that proportional isn’t the answer. Personally I’m in favour of some form of ranked-ballot or alternative vote system, which would maintain ridings and local representation and reduce the risk of fringe extremism taking over, while eliminating the spoiler effect and allowing people to vote their conscience:

But realistically, the public support for a proportional system — because it just “seems” fairer — is so strong that it would take so much effort to educate the electorate otherwise, and it would probably be a doomed uphill battle. Which is pretty much what the Liberals concluded when they abandoned the project the first time around. I wouldn’t expect them to do otherwise this time, especially in a shaky minority government situation where every opposition party wants a different outcome.

We’ll probably be back here in 18 months.

Most minority governments last around 18 months. There’s nothing magic about that number, other than the fact that it will take at least that long for most of the parties — especially the broke NDP — to start rebuilding their finances. It’s also long enough that the opposition can reasonably claim to the voters that they “gave them a chance”, and can expect that voters won’t punish them for bringing down the government too soon and sending us right back to the polls.

So yeah, I expect we’ll see a tumultuous 18 months, followed by another election. By then, the Conservatives may plausibly have picked a new leader — though don’t count on Scheer to go quietly — and the Liberals could decide to give someone other than Justin a chance, too.

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