It is amazing how the passage of time changes perceptions. For those of us coming of age and political awareness in the Canada of the 1960s, Canada’s 10 decade was a period of brutal and unsurpassed partisanship. Through a combination of mismanagement and hubris, between 1958 and 1962, John Diefenbaker squandered the largest majority ever seen to that point in Canadian history. His government finally collapsed of its own weight and because of his para- noid leadership style and a cabinet hopelessly divided over placing nuclear weapons on Canadian soil.

Diefenbaker was succeeded by Mike Pearson, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat, who never really got the hang of pol- itics, and who would keep Diefenbaker at bay but never win a majority of his own. The two loathed each other, and as the insults flew, the country was treated to a succession of tawdry scandals " Hal Banks, Lucien Rivard, the Munsinger affair, the Expo’ 67 construction fiasco " while Pearson lost four cabinet ministers to various forms of corruption and other misadven- tures. It seemed that national politics could fall no lower.

But 40 years’ perspective provides an entirely different view of what the Pearson minorities actually achieved in the mid to late 1960s. Today, they are widely regarded as the ”œgolden age” of modern nation building, the period when the architecture of durable and treasured national institu- tions was put in place. Despite all the partisanship of those years, Pearson’s minority governments of 1963-65 and 1965- 68 produced a bounty of landmark progressive legislation, including universal medicare, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, the Canada Assistance Plan, Canada Student Loans, the unified armed forces, official bilingualism and the Maple Leaf flag.

With or without the perspective of history, other mod- ern Canadian minority governments were not nearly as suc- cessful as Pearson’s:

  • The Trudeau minority ran from 1972 to 1974, sustained by an understanding between the Liberals and the NDP. The political flavour of the time was economic national- ism and the result was the creation of the Foreign Invest- ment Review Agency and Petro-Canada as a Crown corporation. Neither survives in its original form today, their original objectives long since overtaken by events and changing attitudes. The only other significant ini- tiative of that period was the indexation of old age pen- sions " a worthy initiative, but hardly groundbreaking.
  • The Clark minority never really took shape in substantive legisla- tive terms, and was famously defeated on the presentation of its first budget.

  • The Martin minority of 2004 to 2006 had but one crowning achieve- ment, the negotiation of a 10-year agreement with the provinces to improve health care and reduce wait times, but other initiatives were overshadowed by the sponsorship scandal. Neither the national early learning and child care program nor the Kelowna Accord survived the first year of the Harper government, and the Conservatives suffered neg- ligible political damage from wind- ing them down.

As we assess our current round of minority governments, there are some interesting lessons to be learned from Canada’s minority experiences over the last half century, and especially from the Pearson minorities of long ago.

The most important message is that it takes time for historical assess- ments to develop and mature, so it is best to let some years pass before exercising judgment on the achievements or failures of a particular government or parliament. What seems incredibly important today could be a minor foot- note a generation from now, and a decision that appears to be a sleeper today might turn out to be bril- liant with the perspective of 20 years.

The reason is that subsequent events can make or break major deci- sions taken years earlier, and endow them with the mantle of success or fail- ure. Back in the 1980s, on the day the Mulroney cabinet made the decision to fund the Hibernia project in offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, John Crosbie told his colleagues, ”œDepending on the price of oil 20 years from now, we will be seen as either visionaries or fools.” Today, no one would question the wisdom of that decision, but at the time, it was far from a sure thing. (There is, by the way, a potential sleeper issue today that with the passage of time could prove to be equally visionary. Many people believe that large public and private investments in carbon cap- ture and storage may well be the most effective single step Canada could take to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Those investments are about to happen, and we’ll know in about 20 years how that works out.)

Another important message from the Pearson minorities is that noisy par- tisanship and a productive parliament are not mutually exclusive, although in the moment, corrosive politics may serve to obscure the creative and impor- tant work that is getting done. Forgotten today in the glow of all the achievements of that period is that by the time Pierre Trudeau came along in 1968, most Canadians would have hap- pily offered up their first-born just to bring an end to the partisan bickering.

By far the most important influence of history’s judgment on the Pearson era is the lasting perception that minority governments do actually get good things done. In fact, the ”œsuccessful” Pearson parliaments have conditioned how

Canadians look at minority governments to this day. As a result, when we began our latest period of minority government in 2004, we were told by commentators and analysts that minorities were noth- ing to be feared; that, indeed, they are often more sensitive to public opinion, more collaborative among the parties and therefore more accountable to the electorate. Well, maybe not so much!

Minority governments in Canada are still the exception to the rule, but we actually have a fair amount of experience with them. Canada experienced its first minority in 1921, and in the succeeding 88 years, 12 separate minority governments have been in office for a cumu- lative total of 20 years and three months. That’s a little more than 22 percent of the time. The longest minor- ity lasted three years and seven months (Mackenzie King, 1922-25), and the shortest lasted five months (John Diefenbaker, 1957-58). The average duration of a minority government is one year, five months and nine days.

Writing on the Web site, Rhonda Lauret Parkinson and Jay Makarenko have pre- sented a useful taxonomy of minority governments in the Canadian context. They suggest that the strategies necessary for a minority government to survive result in three basic kinds of minorities:

  • Ad hoc minorities, in which the government negotiates support on a case-by-case basis. Such minorities are relatively unstable, because there are no durable alliances and no guid- ing principles to govern interparty relationships. Issue-by-issue compro- mise becomes the order of the day.

  • Loose alliance minorities, where ”œthe governing political party strikes an informal deal with other political parties to ensure majority support. Often this involves the governing party taking on certain policies that are central to the other parties’ platforms.”

  • Formal agreement minorities, in which two or more political par- ties that together hold a combined majority agree on a written docu- ment that details the specific obli- gations of the parties and sets a time frame in which the agree- ment will run.

Coalition government is the final step in the continuum, in which ”œtwo or more parties enter into a long-term agreement to form the government, to the exclusion of all other parties.” Cabinet includes representation from the members of the coalition.

It’s relatively easy to slot the recent Canadian minority govern- ments into these categories. Most have taken the ”œad hoc” approach, with the Pearson, Clark, Martin and Harper governments all falling into this cate- gory. None of these governments had a particular opposition party as a regular ”œdance partner,” although the Martin government made a one-off deal with the NDP to sweeten its budget and avoid defeat in the spring of 2005.

The 1972-74 Trudeau government was a ”œloose alliance” minority through its arrangement with the NDP, and the David Peterson Ontario government from 1985 to 1987 was a ”œformal agree- ment” minority, again with the NDP.

Interestingly, the only coalition gov- ernment in Canadian history occurred in a majority rather than minority situation. During the First World War, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden formed a ”œUnion Government” of pro-conscription Conservatives and Liberals. Coming back to the present, while it’s way too early for an informed assessment of what the past five years have produced in terms of landmark initiatives or groundbreaking legisla- tion, it’s an opportune time to ask what history tells us about the factors that create minority governments, what makes them stable or unstable and how the political ground rules differ between majorities and minorities. When a minority is elected in Canada, it’s obvious that it results from a divided electorate, and much is often read into the ”œpublic mind”: ”œVoters wanted to make a change, but they don’t yet trust the opposition with a majority,” or ”œVoters wanted to teach the govern- ment a lesson, but they weren’t ready to turn it over to the other guys.” Whether a rational and purposive collective ”œpub- lic mind” actually exists is highly doubt- ful, but the theory has some validity.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can often be seen that minorities are transi- tional " a halfway house in the move- ment from a government of one political stripe to another. This was certainly the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when the long-running King-St. Laurent govern- ment gave way to the Diefenbaker 1957 minority, quickly to be succeeded by the Conservative majority of 1958. Similarly, as the Diefenbaker majority lost favour, voters first reduced Diefenbaker to a minority, then elected the first of two Pearson minorities in 1962, and those minorities proved to be transitional to a long Liberal run in government under Pierre Trudeau. The same phenomenon occurred in the more recent transition from Liberal to Conservative. The Martin minority of 2004-06 proved to be transitional between the 12 years of Liberal rule under Chrétien and Martin and the Harper Conservatives.

There’s another kind of transition that fosters the creation of minori- ties, and it’s a transition within the polit- ical system, and particularly with the sudden advent of a third or fourth politi- cal party. It’s clear that the surprising rise of the Progressives in the 1920s (58 seats in 1921 and 22 seats in 1925) denied both the Liberals and the Conservatives the possibility of a majority throughout that period. Majorities did not return until the Progressives all but disappeared in 1930. Similarly, the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s ”œgrand coalition” between soft Quebec nationalists and western conservatives in 1993 led directly to the rise of both the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party. After the reunification of the PCs and the Alliance, the Conservatives regained the political mass to challenge the Liberals, but the persistence of the Bloc with its con- stant 50-odd seats has been the principal cause of Canada’s recent minorities.

If minorities are often transitional, then what strategies do the parties use to make the transition from minority to majority, or from opposition to government?

The parliamentary rules of the road for political parties in the Canadian sys- tem are simply summarized. The govern- ment seeks to implement its policies and programs through legislation, regulation and spending allocations. It positions its initiatives as an efficient and effective response to the issues of the day, the challenges facing the country and the interests of citizens. Meanwhile, the role of the opposition is to oppose the gov- ernment’s proposals, to critique them, to offer alternatives and to hold the majori- ty party to account for its management of government and the economy. In the case of the official opposition, these responsibilities extend to the preparation and presentation of a comprehensive plan for an alternative government at the next general election.

In a majority situation, these rules of the road play out in a fairly pre- dictable fashion. A majority sets a dependable three-to-five year lifespan for a government and the parties gov- ern themselves accordingly. The gov- ernment knows it has several years to implement its platform. It can take on unpopular, complex or time-consum- ing issues early in its mandate know- ing it will have the time to rebuild the political capital it needs to expend to make challenging reforms.

Majority realities impose themselves on the opposition parties as well. In the first couple of years of a majority man- date, they focus on laying down markers for future use. Blocking legislation or imposing policy alternatives is simply not on, so they play the long game, building a critical narrative of the gov- ernment record, advancing alternative policies and developing themes they will use later. Partisan attacks from the oppo- sition on the government in the early years of a majority tend to be pro forma.

All of these basic dynamics change in a minority situation.

Because a minority removes tempo- ral certainty from the picture, all of the essential political roles of government and opposition are speeded up, and the need for electoral readiness replaces cer- tainty and predictability. All parties are in play all the time, and politics and short-term positioning are in the ascen- dant, because no one knows how long the parliament will last. And virtually every issue " from the substantive to the minuscule " becomes an opportu- nity for short-term partisan advantage.

What also results is a confronta- tion between two basic principles of our system: the government’s ”œright to govern” and the official opposition’s ”œduty to oppose.” No one would deny the right of a minority government to govern; reality demands it. Similarly, no one would gainsay the need for the official opposition to develop its plan for an alternate government. But all three groups " the government, the official opposition and the other par- ties " are subject to another key con- sideration. That consideration is how to read the public’s take on when the next election ceases to be excessive and unnecessary and becomes an accept- able and logical outcome of a minority having run its course.

Hence we come to the need to ”œmake Parliament work,” which is a constant of minorities and also an essential. If the various parties never find ways to put some water in their wine, every minority would fall on the presentation of its first Throne Speech or first budget, and we would literally have an election every year until some- one scored a majority.

W hat is different about the cur- rent round of minority govern- ment is that under the leadership of Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals essentially ceded the ”œduty to oppose” aspect of their role as official opposition. They became the default saviours of the Harper government, and compounded their problem through a never-ending series of loud threats and abject back-downs. A number of conse- quences ensued. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois were absolved of all respon- sibility for ”œmaking Parliament work.” They had a completely free ride " free to vote against the government in virtu- ally all circumstances, and also free to ridicule the Liberals for their ”œlack of principle.” But a major comeuppance was just around the corner.

This came in the form of Michael Ignatieff’s early-September announce- ment that the days of Liberals automati- cally propping up the government were over. Ignatieff’s strategic objective was to get a large and painful monkey off his back, and at the same time to force the NDP and the Bloc to share in the pain of making Parliament work. As often hap- pens in politics, the general public didn’t see the strategic motivation for what Ignatieff was doing; they understandably assumed he was hell-bent to force an elec- tion. As a result, Ignatieff appears, in the short term at least, to have exchanged the monkey for a tiger " in the form of pub- lic anger at the prospect of another elec- tion less than a year since the last.

On the other hand, Ignatieff’s gam- bit seems to have worked, at least in its impact on the NDP and the Bloc. As of mid-September, the government’s ways and means motion has passed without problem, and the NDP has signalled its intent to support the government at least until its employment insurance reforms are through Parliament later this fall. Still, the Liberals need to be concerned about how they handle the next few weeks. If their ”œoppose-every- thing-the-government-proposes” approach is ironclad, they will gain marks for consistency. But in the mean- time, they will be making no contribu- tion to making Parliament work, while turning over the balance of power to Jack Layton and the NDP.

Whether this September’s events presage a change in the way the cur- rent minority Parliament is made to work remains to be seen. The next like- ly trigger point for a possible election is the federal budget, due to be deliv- ered next March after the Olympics. We’ll see then.