Is Canada poised for major public policy shifts? Eugene Lang’s insightful and provocative essay invites us to consider what changes the October 2015 federal election might usher in. Despite his plausible arguments, my own view is that large-scale policy change is unlikely under almost any conceivable election outcome.

I form this view on the basis of recent work looking at developments in health policy over the past six decades in four nations. I identified—four patterns of policy change that differed according to the magnitude and the speed of change — big-bang (large-scale, fast-paced change), blueprint (large-scale, slow-paced change), mosaic (multiple small-scale, simultaneous changes) and incremental (small-scale, slow-paced changes). Which of these patterns actually occurs depends on how politicians read and respond to the political circumstances that confront them at any given time. Similarly, the targets of policy change — the particular areas of social, economic or foreign policies in which governments choose to act — are selected in the service of a central partisan imperative. This framework has implications far beyond health care, and it can help us think about what to expect after next October.

Let’s consider first the prospect for big-bang shifts in one of more areas of policy — across-the-board changes to institutions or programs in a single comprehensive sweep of legislative activity, such as occurred with the adoption of Medicare or the Canada Pension Plan, the patriation of the Constitution or the approval of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Such strategies are feasible only under particular and fairly rare conditions, because proponents of change must be able to simultaneously overcome enough of the potential vetoes held by opponents to form a minimum winning coalition. One way to do this is simply to command obedience on the part of enough legislators to enact the proposed change, as prime ministers with centralized control of a majority government can do if their government has exclusive jurisdiction in the relevant field (the FTA would be an example). Another way to build a winning coalition is to take advantage of a coincidence of interests among players with independent power bases, as occurred in the 1960s in the era of province-building and “cooperative federalism,” in which the pillars of the Canadian welfare state were established through intergovernmental negotiations. (Another example is the coalescence of national unity concerns with provincial interests in securing jurisdiction over natural resources to create an opening for constitutional reform in the early 1980s. Tellingly, however, the big bang of constitutional reform could be accomplished only by obviating one key potential veto-holder, the premier of Quebec.) What is key about all of these moments is that they tend to be fleeting. In democratic systems, heads of government with centralized control have time-limited mandates and are always at best only a few years away from the next electoral contest. Similarly, the basis of accord in federal systems like Canada can easily shift as elections occur in the various jurisdictions.

Even these fleeting opportunities to make big-bang change are just that: opportunities. Politicians also need a motive. In spending political capital, politicians must choose a limited number of priorities. Their choices are circumscribed by what will best serve the fortunes of their party or their faction within their party: major change will not be undertaken unless it serves some partisan imperative. (A broad debate exists among political scientists as to how much politicians are driven by vote-seeking and how much they pursue policies because they believe in the merits of those policies. Without resolving that debate, we can acknowledge that politicians must attend to vote-getting as a precondition of making and preserving their preferred policy changes.)

So…What is the likelihood that one (or more) of the parties will be in a position and have the incentive to make large-scale, fast-paced big-bang change after the election? First, let’s recognize that on the basis of polling up to mid-summer 2015 it appears unlikely that any party will win a majority of seats. If any one of the parties forms a minority government, we can expect any policy initiatives to be incremental. Incrementalism results in two kinds of circumstances: a winning coalition of support for a direction of policy change cannot be built or a winning coalition for change but some supporters think they will be in a better position to shape and claim credit for the full sweep of change in the future.

A Conservative minority would face the first type of challenge — insufficient support for any important policy change — and would likely be unstable and brief. The NDP and the Liberals would be seeking to position themselves for the next contest, in the expectation that it would essentially be a run-off between the two as to which would replace the Conservatives with a majority. Much would then depend on the distribution of seats between the NDP and the Liberals. If it was relatively evenly balanced, we could expect that they would be eager to return to the polls for a run-off, and the government’s life would be brief. If one opposition party enjoys a considerable seat advantage, however, the Conservatives might be able to stay in power by doing a series of small deals with the smaller party while the latter seeks to build.

An NDP or Liberal minority government could be somewhat more stable, but it would be caught in the second type of incremental dynamic — jockeying for position within a consensus. The Liberals might be willing to support a minority NDP government on incremental initiatives that might provide platforms on which they themselves could build in the future, but they would be loath to support any major change for which the NDP could claim pride of authorship. Exactly the same calculus would apply for the NDP in the case of a Liberal minority. (I will come to a variation on these possibilities later.)

Now let’s consider the case of a majority government. Lang argues that swift, sweeping change is likely if any of the three contending parties wins a majority government. If Stephen Harper is returned to a fourth term with a second majority, Lang believes that he will have both the opportunity for such change and the incentive to use his last “legacy” term in this manner. I agree that a majority government and the endorsement of a fourth mandate would put a Harper government in a position to make big-bang policy changes — as Margaret Thatcher’s government did in Britain by embarking on across-the-board reorganization of the health care and education arenas after winning a third majority in 1987. But what a Harper government would not have is a partisan imperative to do so. In fact, the imperative that has driven the Harper Conservatives relates not to any particular policy agenda but rather to securing the position of the party itself — to use a base on the right to capture the centre ground of Canadian politics, and thereby to establish a centre-right party as Canada’s “natural governing party,” displacing the centre-left Liberals from that place. Winning a fourth mandate would in itself form part of this “legacy.” (This objective is captured in the classic phrase attributed to Harper by Paul Wells: “The longer I’m prime minister…the longer I’m prime minister.”) In effect the objective has been to occupy government while marginally reducing its fiscal footprint, not to enact a sweeping agenda of change. What we could expect from a fourth Harper government would hence be more of the same — incremental, targeted policies aimed at securing the base and attracting just enough other segments of the electorate to form a winning electoral coalition. Some of these changes could nonetheless have significant cumulative effects — notably, the continuation of a series of conservative appointments to the bench across Canada.

What about the case of an NDP majority? Winning its first ever majority at the federal level would be a dramatic achievement that would put the party in the position to pursue an agenda of big-bang redistributive policy change — as the Clement Attlee Labour government did after winning a landslide victory in postwar Britain in 1945, or the Gough Whitlam Labor government did in Australia after returning to power in 1972 after more than two decades out of office. There would be pressure within the NDP caucus to seize this historic opportunity to realize long-sought goals, as was the case when the party unexpectedly took power in Ontario under Bob Rae in 1990. But the bruising experience of the Rae government stands as a cautionary tale. And there is another, more recent, international example that may be more apposite — the massive win by British Labour under Tony Blair (surpassing even that of Attlee) in 1997. The partisan imperative driving the first Blair government was to consolidate power after a period in the political wilderness (marked by four successive electoral defeats), not to spend political capital in pursuit of a grand agenda. Blair also had to manage intraparty tensions between “old” and “new” Labour. The result was a pattern of incremental change under the ambiguous banner of finding a “third way” between state and market. Thomas Mulcair may find himself in a similar situation, whatever the size of his majority. Like Blair, he may find himself with a cautious eye on the next election as soon as the 2015 polls close. Like Blair, he will have to contend with the internal left-right tensions bedevilling other centre-left parties in the world. Unlike Blair, however, he will find himself with a cabinet that has no experience of governing at the federal level and that will need time to ascend a steep learning curve. The platform promise of a gradual expansion of child care spaces through province-by-province negotiations would serve these imperatives well, providing support for “working families” without establishing a broad new entitlement or incurring substantial upfront fiscal costs. But don’t expect many other signature initiatives.

A Liberal majority appears less likely from the vantage point of the summer political doldrums, but it is worth speculating about what such an eventuality would bring. The party would have a strong incentive to use its time in office to re-establish the Liberal brand after the severely chastening electoral experiences of the previous decade. This prospect invites comparison with another era of Liberal Party re-building in Canada — the 1960s. At that time, pursuing a broad social policy agenda was key to the party’s rebuilding strategy, a strategy that marked the ascendancy of “social Liberals” after the “business Liberal” wing had been discredited in the fall of the Louis St-Laurent government in 1957 and the ineffective election campaigns of 1957 and 1958. A Trudeau Liberal government in 2015 could similarly seek to rebuild the party’s social policy brand by resurrecting the child care agreements negotiated with the provinces by the last Liberal government under Paul Martin in 2005. Such a move would essentially adopt one of the signature platform planks of the NDP and take it further by requiring a commitment to universality from participating provinces. Another possibility would be to return to another agenda item from the Martin era — a national pharmaceutical strategy — by taking up the recent invitation of the premiers to enter into negotiations on a national pharmacare program.

As in the 1960s, a bold thrust in social policy would firm up the Liberal position on the centre-left ground contested by the NDP. But the buoyant fiscal climate of the 1960s is a dim memory in today’s more straitened circumstances. And the Liberal version of the left-right divide on the centre-left — the perennial tension between “business” and “social” Liberals — has not gone away, even if it was eclipsed for a time by personality-based factions. If the truce between those factions, hard-won by Bob Rae and maintained by Justin Trudeau, is rewarded by electoral success, the partisan imperative will be to suppress any new rupture by brokering agreement between the party’s left and right. What is more likely than big-bang social policy change from a Liberal majority government is therefore a “mosaic” of many rapidly accomplished small changes — some of them aimed at reversing a multiplicity of tax code and institutional changes introduced by Harper — to firmly occupy the political centre ground before the next election. Such mosaic strategies are common when parties want to present an image of wide-ranging change under pressure of time while having to negotiate internal divisions and fiscal trade-offs. (A preeminent example of mosaic policy change was the adoption in the United States of Obamacare.)

There is one more possibility for the formation of a majority government — the much speculated-upon prospect of an NDP-Liberal coalition led by whichever of those parties wins the most seats. The Globe and Mail election simulator estimates a 97 percent probability that these two parties will have a majority of seats between them, and we cannot write off the likelihood that they would form a formal coalition majority government, however much the idea is abjured before the election. This is the one scenario under which big-bang change is just conceivable, though still highly improbable. Consider the example of the coalition government formed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in Britain from 2010 to 2015, the first coalition government to be formed in Westminster in peacetime for three-quarters of a century. Both parties had underperformed relative to their expectations in the 2010 election, and both thus had a strong incentive to present their partnership as not a coalition of losers but an historic opportunity to embark on radical new policy directions blending their two ideological positions — for “era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform,” as their Programme for Government put it. If the parties could have identified principles in the area of ideological overlap between them that they could translate into action — what Paul Quirk in another context calls “principled centrism — they might have been able to live up to their slogan. But the Coalition partners were divided along not one but two ideological axes — not only right-left but also centralist-localist. Even though they had moved closer to each other on these axes under their current leaderships than at any time in history, the ideological distances across the full span encompassed by both parties proved in most cases to require a bridge too far. In the event the British coalition managed to find a few such areas of principled agreement, notably the introduction of a universal flat-rate public pension and the collapsing of a number of social benefits into a “universal credit” administered through the tax system. (All of them, while enacted in a single stroke, were nonetheless rolled out over time.) More typical of the coalition was what Quirk called “opportunistic centrism”: the identification of multiple opportunities for agreement on smaller changes. The result was a series of “mosaics” — multiple rapidly negotiated adjustments to policy frameworks in areas such as health care and education, some of which essentially accelerated incremental changes already underway under the previous Labour government.

An NDP-Liberal coalition, whichever party led it, would be under a similar imperative to justify this departure from Canadian practice as an historic opportunity to take policy initiatives that had not been possible in the past. And in this case the ideological distance to be bridged would not be as great as in the British case. It is possible that the parties could identify certain large-scale policy shifts on which they could agree, either because each perceived the measure to be in its own partisan interest (as possibly in the case of electoral reform) or because the measure embodied a principle in the area of ideological overlap between the two parties (as in the case of new universal programs in pharmacare or child care). But an interest-based agreement on electoral reform could well founder on calculation of the different prospects for the two parties under different alternatives to first-past-the-post. (In the British case, an agreement to hold a referendum on electoral reform, extracted by the Liberal Democrats as the price of joining the coalition, shook the government badly when the coalition partners campaigned on opposite sides of the referendum question.) As for areas of potential principled agreement, most would lie in areas of social policy that would require extensive negotiations with the provinces, either collectively or on a bilateral basis. It is possible that the coalition partners would be willing to embark on an ambitious round of intergovernmental negotiations, encouraged by the presence of partisan cousins in government in Alberta and Ontario and a federalist-minded premier in Quebec. This would be a risky strategy, however, that would confront the opposition of other provincial governments such as Saskatchewan, and it could easily fail to generate the big early wins that would serve the interest of the coalition partners in justifying their alliance. Rather, we might see a version of Quirk’s opportunistic centrism: seizing opportunities for agreement on numerous smaller changes in areas of federal jurisdiction. Tax reform recommends itself especially in this regard, allowing the two parties to undo a number of Conservative changes and to put their own stamp on tax policy by presenting changes to numerous aspects of the tax code as a comprehensive set. Such a mosaic strategy from a Canadian coalition government, like its British counterparts, would allow the coalition to present an image of wide-ranging, rapid change — without taking on big-bang changes that would require them to add intergovernmental negotiations to the already complex task of brokering agreement between and within the coalition partners themselves.

This speculation about the implications of a coalition government is very likely moot: the prospects for such an agreement in Canada, at least in 2015, are slim. Coalitions are very rare in first-past-the post Westminster systems. (The Westminster systems in which they are more common, such as Australia, New Zealand and Scotland, operate under various forms of preferential voting or proportional representation.) The incentives facing the Liberals and the NDP are quite different from those that confronted the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Britain. The Liberal Democrats were a third party with no realistic prospect of forming the government in the foreseeable future, but they could hope to be more competitive as a swing party (and hence a quasi-permanent member of centre-right or centre-left coalition governments), somewhat like the more rightist Liberals in the Netherlands. The British coalition offered an opportunity to demonstrate this role. For the Conservatives, meanwhile, the coalition offered the prospect of forming a stable government after more than a decade out of office. In contrast, the Liberals and NDP in Canada would each be vying for the dominant position. And the smaller of the two would now have before it another cautionary tale: that of the British coalition. The smaller Liberal Democrats wore much of the blame and little of the credit for coalition policies and suffered badly in the 2015 election, largely because the austerity agenda of the coalition ran strongly against the grain of the expectations of Liberal Democratic supporters while being quite consistent with expectations of the Conservatives. The smaller of the Liberals or New Democrats in Canada likely would not wish to risk a similar fate. (This calculus would change in the unlikely event that one party essentially collapsed and wished to maintain a toehold in government. Such a lopsided coalition government was formed by the NDP and the much smaller Liberals in Saskatchewan from 1999 to 2003.)

There is a variety of other possible modes of cooperation between the NDP and the Liberals, such as a “confidence and supply” arrangement, in which the smaller party would agree to support a minority government on votes of confidence and budget matters for a given period of time. The governing party would have to agree to be disciplined in its use of confidence votes and budgets, and not to use them as vehicles for forcing through its broader agenda. Such an arrangement could also include a formal agreement on an agenda of action, as occurred in the much-heralded and never-repeated Accord between the Liberals and the NDP in Ontario from 1985 to 1987. In that case, the two parties drew up and formally signed a list of legislative actions to be taken over the course of two years in areas such as legislative reform, rent control, labour relations, occupational health and safety, pay equity and human rights. The Accord did result in some significant changes, notably in areas affecting the workplace, but it was not fully implemented and the remaining controversies poisoned the well of cooperation between the parties. Each could be seen to have benefitted electorally; however, the Liberals won the 1987 election with a majority, and the NDP replaced them with a majority in 1990, forming the government in Ontario for the first time in history. The example of the Accord thus offers lessons of both promise and peril. Something like it at the federal level in 2015 would constitute yet another route to a “mosaic” of relatively small policy changes amounting to a spate of legislative activity.

Attentive readers will note that one type of strategy for large-scale change, a slow-paced blueprint, has not featured in my speculations. This is not surprising — blueprint strategies are rare in democratic systems. They involve reaching agreement up front on a comprehensive new policy framework, which is then enacted in stages as the necessary technology and infrastructure are developed. Because each step is not actually enacted into law until the conditions for implementation are in place, a blueprint strategy is a technocrat’s dream. It allows for both a rational overall framework and for policy learning and infrastructure development to progressively create the conditions for success in implementation, without the necessity of a detailed specification up-front or to a predetermined timeline. The political conditions necessary for blueprint strategies are very rare in democratic systems, however. After all, blueprints imply that governments can bind their successors or that they have the luxury of time to see the blueprint through themselves. Competition for power among parties with different values and agendas makes these conditions highly unlikely to emerge.

On occasion, however, blueprint strategies are possible — an example would be the agreement in the late 1980s by coalition of centre-right and left parties in the Netherlands on a framework for transforming the health insurance system, which had been bifurcated as social insurance and private insurance, into a single system of mandatory insurance under a common regulatory framework. Each party in the coalition, the Christian Democrats and Labour, had political and social bases strong enough to give them confidence that they could see the blueprint through. In the event, this process took much longer than anticipated (20 years as opposed to the anticipated 5) and stuttered along the way as political conditions changed. Nonetheless, it stands as an exception that proves the rule about the rarity and difficulty of this approach to policy change. There is no conceivable circumstance in which a party or set of parties at the federal level in Canada today could be sufficiently confident of its staying power to embark on a long-term blueprint for change.

In summary, then, expect small-scale changes in policy after October, either as a number of mosaic-style bursts of multiple small changes or in more modest incremental streams. The election may be the climax of a dramatic three-way contest. What follows it will be a less gripping policy denouement.

Carolyn Hughes Tuohy is professor emeritus of political science and senior fellow in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.