Not a day goes by in Washington that appeals to take a ”bipartisan” approach to America’s problems don’t flow like water down the Potomac River. Despite the deep tribal gridlock that currently afflicts Washington politics, bipartisanship still has a constituency and cachet in the United States. Washington even has a Bipartisan Policy Centre, founded by former Senate majority leaders Bob Dole (Republican), George Mitchell (Democrat), Howard Baker (Republican) and Tom Daschle (Democrat), which focuses on policy development in the areas of health care, energy, national and homeland security, transportation and the economy. The current fundamentalism among Republicans and Democrats in Congress has only stoked a greater longing for cooperation.
Bipartisanship is an American concept that has come about after 250 years of a two-party political tradition. In Canada, with our multi-party parliaments, we don’t talk about bipartisanship very much, but we should. The most recent Samara Democracy Report shows that barely half of the population is satisfied with how our democracy works, a decrease of 20 percentage points in just over a decade. Samara attributes this drop to the sense among Canadians that members of Parliament are interested only in advancing the partisan position of their party. Finding a way to increase bipartisanship in Parliament may be one way to address this dismal state of confidence in our democracy.
It also offers a possible way to make progress on policy problems that have bedevilled us for decades.
Consider the bipartisan success story on poverty reduction in New Brunswick. In 2008, the New Brunswick Minister of Social Development asked me and a colleague to present the Liberal government’s nascent plans to launch a provincial poverty reduction process to the Progressive Conservative opposition caucus. With the help of a veteran member of the opposition, Percy Mockler (who is now a senator), we got ourselves invited to its weekly caucus dinner (nothing fancy– it was pizza). Our instructions were to ask the opposition party to consider being a full partner in the development of the plan. We made our presentation, extended the invitation, responded to questions and waited for a response.
A few weeks later, an agreement was reached whereby a representative of the opposition caucus would participate actively in all three phases of the public engagement exercise and the Leader of the Opposition would join cabinet members, leaders of the business and community sectors and people who had lived in poverty for the final stages of adopting a provincial plan. In effect, the government and opposition had agreed, unusually, to the terms of a bipartisan initiative.
The handshake between New Brunswick’s two political parties in 2008 has already had huge and lasting impact on the poverty file. Welfare reform is under way, early learning initiatives have been strengthened, homelessness is shrinking, a vision and dental program for children in low-income families has been introduced, communities are actively engaged in local transportation, food and social enterprise programs, and much more. This has occurred despite a change in government in 2010.
Treating poverty reduction in a bipartisan way was arguably the key to allowing the plan to be developed without overt political interference and boosting its chances of being implemented for the long term.
Was the New Brunswick case a one-off; was it political lightning? Or does it reflect an underappreciated tradition of bipartisanship in Canadian history?
Confederation itself would appear to be an early example of Canadian bipartisanship. Although they were both of Scottish descent, Conservative John A. Macdonald and Liberal George Brown were neither friends nor allies. Brown once wrote in the Globe that ”a great deal of time has been wasted by John A. Macdonald in learning to walk, for the sword suspended to his waist has an awkward knack of getting between his legs, especially after dinner.” Macdonald responded that voters ”would rather have a drunken John A. Macdonald than a sober George Brown.”
Yet despite their personal animosity, Brown extended his hand to Macdonald and offered his support in 1863 to the great enterprise of creating a nation. His gesture led to a coalition government with les bleus in Lower Canada led by George-Étienne Cartier. The coalition had a single purpose: creating a union of the Canadian and Maritime colonies.
The main political parties agreed on a remarkable and audacious objective without knowing what the final contours of the deal might be. They toiled together for three years to achieve their common purpose. They did so through an intense process that fully engaged the resources of the main proponents across a wide spectrum of issues until they found a workable solution to their multiple challenges.
In 1917, Prime Minister Robert Borden proposed to the opposition Liberals under Sir Wilfrid Laurier a unity government aimed at successfully prosecuting the world war, including the enactment of conscription. Laurier refused the offer, but most of the Liberals eventually migrated to the Conservatives as ”Liberal Unionists.” Although Laurier and his loyal Quebec caucus held Quebec in the December 1917 election, the Unionists under Borden swept English Canada, and Borden built a cabinet consisting of a balance between members of the two parties. His Union government oversaw the management of the war and the country for the next three years.
The patriation of the Canadian Constitution in the early 1980s included a crucial bipartisan element. Against the wishes of four western MPs in his party and Saskatchewan NDP Premier Allan Blakeney, NDP Leader Ed Broadbent and the majority of his caucus locked arms with Pierre Trudeau’s government at a crucial time in its negotiations with the provinces. The NDP negotiated additional terms into the federal package, specifically on Aboriginal rights, women’s rights and provincial resource revenues. The NDP’s support gave Trudeau the credibility to take the package unilaterally to Britain for passage.
Through the litigation and negotiation that followed, the federal NDP stood with the government against the opposition of the Progressive Conservatives and many provinces, thereby preventing the isolation of the federal government in Parliament and in the country. This partnership between the government and the NDP transformed the patriation of the Constitution into a bipartisan initiative (though not a multiparty one).
Another example is the Liberal-NDP entente in 1985 that ended 42 years of Progressive Conservative government in Ontario and ushered in a general program of reforms, including pay equity, an end to extra billing by doctors and new campaign finance legislation. The Meech Lake and Charlottetown initiatives also had a bipartisan flavour, though they had far less successful outcomes.
Because bipartisanship is an exceptional form of political expression that defies the normal laws of oppositional politics, it is not a sword to be drawn often or lightly. It is probably best deployed when the everyday political process has run aground. Confederation, winning the First World War and bringing the Constitution home were seen, at the time, to require a new decision-making paradigm to break the stasis. Bipartisanship was the answer in each case, as it was in New Brunswick in addressing chronic poverty, a file that had been stalled for decades.
At the Canadian federal level, when we think of issues that are prime candidates for deploying this underused strategy, one issue stands out. It is imperative that we deal with Aboriginal issues, which have languished for decades, burdened by policy mediocrity and problems that grow more complex and urgent all the time. All political parties have as an objective to make progress where there has been so little, and at least two parties– if not three or four– should be able to agree to work toward a common plan that would lead to equipping Aboriginal people with the necessary tools to fully participate economically and socially in their communities and in Canadian society.
The Prime Minister should consider extending his hand to the opposition parties to design– in partnership with Aboriginal leaders, the provinces and territories– a structured process that leads to a consensus plan to achieve their common objective. It’s not easy to hand over control of a file to an extra parliamentary process or other public engagement undertaking and then live with uncertainty about the final outcome. The process may even fail to reach any consensus at all.
But a bipartisan approach– with the attendant political cover it offers the government of the day to take the risk– is preferable to the current stagnation, with its terrible human cost. If ever an issue presented the moral case for moving beyond partisan bickering and toward cooperation to get something done, it is the Aboriginal file. A concerted investment of top people, patience and appropriate resources may just result in better lives for people in Aboriginal communities and a lasting legacy for this generation of political leaders, to achieve what has eluded us throughout history. A bipartisan approach could get us there.