Canadian pundits of a certain age get misty-eyed recalling the minority governments of the 1960s and 1970s. They inveigh against the current generation of politicians for failing to recreate those great horsetrading days. Voters keep electing minorities and demanding of the politicians, “Just make it work! Do your job.” A hunger for the achievements of the minorities of the 1963-68 or 1972-74 era seems alive and well.

I have sad news to report: those days are gone and unlikely to return.

Minority governments in today’s political culture will remain the childish, high-volume, low-achievement exercises that have driven more and more Canadians to distraction and dismayed them about the state of Canadian politics, unless there are changes in the rules and the players.

A little reality check is in order about those halcyon days. The mists of history have placed a golden aura over parliaments that were, even then, often nasty, disputatious and short. The minorities in the 1960s were marked by some of the most insulting political rhetoric in a generation between Lester Pearson, Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker. In the memory of those then on the front lines, those were not always days of gentlemanly horse-trading.

As an internal memo on the risks of minority government from a senior NDP adviser to Ed Broadbent in the 1980s recalled, “Playing it day by day is extremely stressful, as 1972-74 showed. Caucus has to debate the existential question nearly every week.” As a young observer of those caucus debates on the NDP side, I can recall being stunned and somewhat horrified by the rage of some MPs, especially from the West, directed at leader David Lewis, as he reported on his daily juggling act.

Nonetheless, deals were made and bargains were struck, with concessions and benefits on each side. Depending on your partisan perspective, you could say these were productive governments: important advances were made in the welfare state, tax fairness and election law. Philosophic conservatives could also argue that these partnership governments are never a good thing, since the internal partisan pressures have almost always led to higher government spending, as one deal is balanced by a future program pledge. A longer-term commitment to political partnership in hard times might give the protective cover for tougher measures, but that is an experiment we have yet to see.

Two things distinguish that period from this: then, there were strong working relationships across party lines between senior figures in each party, and there was recognition that the most impressive legislative victories are always shared, the product of contributions from many quarters. The politicians and political culture of a generation ago are as different from today’s as are our star athletes and our celebrity business leaders. Whether you believe that the instant gratification, winner-take-all, win-at-any-cost culture of North America in the 21st century is an improvement or not, it is what has pushed minority governments into the ditch. We may be nostalgic for an era where professionals on either side of the table in law, in business and in politics respected each other and understood that today’s victory should not set up an embittered loser for humiliation, and that differences of philosophy and principle not need to mean personal enmity. But that is not the era we live in.

This has serious consequences for our political system, stuck as it appears to be in the rut of unstable and divided parliaments for the foreseeable future. How did we get to a place where annual federal elections are becoming the frustrating norm?

The roots of today’s parliamentary nightmare go back at least to 1984. That epochal victory by Brian Mulroney set in train a set of events and political behaviours that continue to whipsaw Canadian politics a generation later. In winning such an enormous landslide the Conservatives devastated both Liberals and New Democrats. Both parties decided that their only way back was to engage in an intensity and a ferocity of politics that Canadians had rarely seen. The attacks and counter-attacks of the Mulroney era were explosive. American politics, always a forerunner of trends to the north, had been on an increasingly rapid slide into the culture wars of today for some time. The left’s incendiary rhetoric in the 1960s begat the Nixonian response, which in turn set the stage for the Democrats’ successful demonization of Ronald Reagan to their base. The descent into the dark Rovian abyss that followed was sadly predictable.

That epochal victory by Brian Mulroney set in train a set of events and political behaviours that continue to whipsaw Canadian politics a generation later. In winning such an enormous landslide the Conservatives devastated both Liberals and New Democrats. Both parties decided that their only way back was to engage in an intensity and a ferocity of politics that Canadians had rarely seen.

A generation of political activists has grown up on both sides of the border schooled in a no-prisoners, shoot-the-wounded approach to politics that became a race to the bottom in tactics and personal attacks. Dimming memories have allowed Sheila Copps and others to buff the blood-stained edges off the infamous Rat Pack’s reputation. An examination of newspaper clippings from the era reveals a nasty, vicious, sometimes even slanderous rhetoric previously almost unthinkable in modern Canadian politics. Even the sainted Ed Broadbent was not innocent: there was a level of hyperbole in his attacks on the Conservatives about which he would probably blush today.

Nowhere is Newtonian physics more instantly visible than in political competition. The reaction of Conservatives was first to become ferocious in return, and then to begin to turn the same tactics on those inside their own party with whom they were in personal struggles for advancement. Following the bitterness of the 1988 free trade election, when accusations of treachery, traitorous conduct and personal corruption were hurled as freely as wedding rice, the rot set in on both sides.

Young Liberals and Conservatives added a new level of nasty internal factionalism to their mutual antipathy. For the Conservatives, the result was a decade-long civil war and the division of their political tribe. The Liberals held together, but the blood shed in the Chrétien/Martin wars seeped regularly under the party office doors.

The rupture in Conservative ranks gave birth to three parties, and it was this division that consigned Canadian politics to a series of unstable minorities two decades later. The reunification of Canadian conservatives outside Quebec permitted the election of a minority government, and the continuing success of the Bloc Québécois prevents anything more stable.

The residue of those battles is a new level of bitterness, distrust and paranoia in our system. Few Conservatives from the opposite side of their family split are unreservedly reconciled yet, and many use any trivial slight to rub new salt in the old wounds. Liberals are fragilely united around Michael Ignatieff’s leadership, but the sniping along old Chrétien/Martin lines still breaks out at the first downward poll flutter. In such a fraught partisan atmosphere, every interaction across party lines — of the sort essential to deal-making in a minority parliament — runs the risk of denunciation from your own tribe if you stumble; it has become a step that this generation of politicans are now too often loath to take. Minority government, after all, like its older cousin, coalition, is always built on what we claim as an essential Canadian virtue: compromise. Today, however, the compromise over legislative tactics and timing that is the foundation of any power sharing has, in the eyes of many younger politicians, the whiff of collaboration — of Munich, even.

Yet at the core of the genius of our great legislative masters — Sir John A., Allan MacEachen, Herb Gray, Stanley Knowles — and of those of the US Senate (Everett Dirksen, Lyndon Johnson and Ted Kennedy) lies precisely that same quality, polished into the fine art of political deal-making. It is the ability to look at irreconcilable needs, interests and beliefs to find the common threads that support an often risky compromise; the ability to look laterally at related but separate political challenges to find the glue that binds them into one larger bargain.

As the employment insurance file is under review, to cite a current exercise, Canadian Conservatives are appalled at the prospect of a return to the largely apocryphal days of taxpaid ski bums whiling away a winter on the slopes on the strength of a few weeks of EI-entitled summer work. Liberals are genuinely enraged at the unfairness of the qualifications for and application of EI support, a system that discriminates on the basis of both age and postal code. Given that the system was invented and imposed by the Chrétien Liberal government, it’s easy to see the Conservatives’ umbrage at being once again stereotyped as heartless about the poor and the disadvantaged. That the system is broken and needs a further reform is widely agreed; what the qualifications fix should be and whether regional differences are fair is not.

A more mature minority government, in a less poisoned atmosphere, might reach out to nearby policy files to find a workable compromise. We have serious deficiencies in skills training, in the commercialization of R&D, in private contributions to Old Age Security and in immigrant integration, especially for those with professional training. From one or two of these dossiers could come a matching piece of a political compromise for politicians more interested in legislative achievement than in knifing opponents. Our parliamentary system does not easily permit the kind of strange mix of unrelated ingredients that American legislative sausage making does. But a bargain on EI could have been built on public pledges on related files. It appears that neither the opposition nor the government bargained seriously with the other on the issues.

Recent minority experience has seen only one large deal that saved a government, briefly, and at the same time delivered significant change. It was the 2005 Goodale-Layton compromise over the Martin government’s budget. It has not helped Liberals’ enthusiasm for such risky rapprochement that they were defeated soon after, and that Jack Layton repeatedly claimed sole ownership of the compromise. David Lewis enraged Pierre Trudeau with his regular claim of sole paternity of Petro-Canada, one of the legislative legacies of the 1972-74 minority government. Toward the end, a similar shared irritation poisoned the Peterson-Rae accord in Ontario in 1985-87, when each side felt the other took excessive liberties with its contributions to that period of astonishing legislative compromise.

It was another legislative giant of Canadian politics, the former Ontario Liberal Party leader and the partnership government’s finance minister, Robert Nixon, who was not only his team’s captain in the daily stress of deal implementation that marked that unique minority government, but also the faux coalition’s chief coach and referee. Using a combination of personal grace, off-colour humour and a great deal of alcohol, he soothed bruised egos, punished below-the-belt hits from either side and fought brilliantly to keep the rickety partnership on track. As a participant in the long, loud, boozy nights in the private basement room of our favourite fine restaurant, where Nixon worked his magic, I would often wake up the next day wondering how he had finessed us all once again, and then smile at his legerdemain.

The tension that bedevils these political partnerships is the difference between the red meat expected by one’s own partisans and the cross-partisan statesmanship rewarded by the great middle swath of voters in every democracy. Few Conservative activists want to hear how Stephen Harper watered the party wine to buy a deal with the hated Grits, even if such a compromise would deliver chunks of soft Liberal or even NDP supporters.

Loosely engaged Canadian voters, with their variable partisan preferences, nonetheless often hold deep convictions on issues: taxes or health care or Afghanistan. Their ballot choice is typically the product of a subconscious combination of policy agreement with leadership style. Often they like a leader for his or her personal or political style, only to be frustrated by policy disagreement. (Ed Broadbent got very good at not visibly grinding his teeth when the umpteenth voter in a single day would cheerfully offer, “If only you were the leader of another party, Ed!”)

Equally common among these non-aligned — or, as party organizers would sneer, “flaky” — voters is a conviction concerning certain issues about which they feel none of the parties’ offerings is satisfactory. Environmental policy is probably the best example of this phenomenon today. Who hasn’t heard a sentiment such as the following: “If only the Greens were not a fringe party and more credible on the economy; if only the NDP were not so hypocritical about their support for the auto workers and the car companies and green policy; if only the Liberals were more believable about ever delivering what they promised; if only the Conservatives could be trusted not to put oil money before climate change — then I’d have someone to vote for?

Frustrating to many minority-seeking voters is the absence of compromise that would accommodate a broad consensus — even though a first year poli-sci student could draft the elements of a cross-party environmental omnibus that any serious group of politicians could then deliver in a functional minority government.

This my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics has as a backdrop a political equation that further aggravates the tensions. The four-way split in Canadian politics has crippled the ability of any one party to win at least half plus one of seats in the House of Common. The chunk of Mulroney-era Quebec seats now held by the Bloc is removed from play. Most Quebec pundits agree that the Bloc is unlikely to slip below 35 to 40 seats anytime soon. Less than a decade ago, the federal NDP looked like it was heading for extinction, but those days are now long gone as well. Even with a bad campaign, given its new strength in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec, few see the NDP slipping below 25 seats. Together, then, the Bloc and the NDP take nearly one out of five slices from the political pie. The magic threshold of 155 seats required for a razor-thin majority government is electorally daunting when it must be carved out of the remaining 240-odd seats.

What makes majority building even more frustrating — and that is absolutely both Stephen Harper’s and Michael Ignatieff’s only goal, no matter how publicly circumspect they may be about their ambition — is how high each leader’s own mountain remains. It may appear easy for the Tories to gain the measly dozen seats that rest between them and a secure four years in power; for a variety of reasons, it never was. Now it’s even tougher. The Tories are likely to lose seats in BC and Quebec, probably to the Liberals. Any seats the NDP loses are unlikely to drift to the right; they will go Liberal. And the Bloc’s losses will be to les rouges as well. The Tories could come achingly close to a majority, despite those losses, by winning one or two more seats in western and Atlantic Canada, and a dozen in Ontario. More than that is hard to envision.

For the Liberals, the mountain is even higher and steeper. They need to more than double the size of their caucus to win a paper-thin majority. Picking up a dozen seats from each of the Liberals, the Bloc and the NDP — an unlikely trifecta in itself — puts them only half the way there. Adding 30 seats each in Ontario and Quebec, probably a pipe dream, leaves them 20 seats shy of a majority.

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The next election could end the career of every one of the current party leaders. Harper and Ignatieff are unlikely to survive if they fail to win power securely. Layton needs to make significant gains to find a reason to stay, and Gilles Duceppe is clearly bored, not surprising after more than 12 years leading a party with a selfimposed glass ceiling and no chance at power. New leaders may permit a new political culture of dialogue and negotiation to be re-established. But I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

So this is the atmosphere in which pundits expect our politicians to behave with statesmanship and gravitas: fragile internal loyalty after bitter civil wars today, little chance of secure victory tomorrow and only one last roll of the dice for each of the leaders. Doubtful.

Two generations ago, Canadian politicians not only respected each other as professionals in a shared discipline, they also often extended each other private support on shared projects. They would drink and travel and share the pains of frequently unstable and often disappointing careers together. For every public collision between Diefenbaker and Pearson over flags or French, there were a dozen private kindnesses behind the lobby curtains between members. For all the Sturm und Drang of the partisan rhetoric that helped mobilize party members and sell newspapers, there were hours of jokes shared and dozens of small deals done.

Successful politics is the clichéd art of the possible: finding middle ground, respecting an adversary’s need to sell concessions to his or her supporters, and understanding that practising scorched-earth politics means it is your house that will be burned to the ground next time.

But in the last decade, the demonization that the Chrétienites indulged in about Reformers — along with their devastating depiction of Stockwell Day as someone who believed Barney the Dinosaur walked the earth with men — was complete. It was matched by the epithets hurled between increasingly embittered factions of Canadian conservatives. Those who claim that Macdonald and Laurier indulged in colourful abuse of each other of a similar scurillousness miss the point. Those men knew the difference between political theatre and reality. Many of today’s partisans have no sense of that important distinction.

Everyone in political life has heard Stephen Harper described privately by his enemies in terms previously reserved for totalitarian dictators. Equally, the visceral contempt that many in the Prime Minister’s circle display about “the effing Grits” is genuine and deeply rooted. This contempt leads to isolation. The isolation leads to ignorance. And ignorance of one’s political competitors allows one to believe in stereotypes. It certainly doesn’t encourage taking the risks that any cross-partisan deal-making requires.

We should not be sanguine about this vulgarization of our political culture. In less tolerant political societies, such an abuse of political rhetoric has had horrific consequences. The ethnic rage of Rwandan disc jockeys was the trigger for genocide. The demagogic description of Israelis as “lice and vermin” by Islamic politicians is matched by Israeli extremist insults about an Arab “culture of death.” A vocabulary of violence grants licence to violence. Canada has built a bastion of racial and cultural tolerance where such language is neither legally nor socially acceptable. Ironically, that society lives alongside a political culture where increasingly hateful political rhetoric is becoming the norm. Canadians are more likely to become quietly disgusted and disengaged than violent, but the damage this does to our democratic culture is not trivial.

Successful politics is the clichéd art of the possible: finding middle ground, respecting an adversary’s need to sell concessions to his or her supporters and understanding that practising scorched-earth politics means it is your house that will be burned to the ground next time.

If you denigrate the need to find common ground with the differing views in your own political family, it is inevitable you will sneer at the value of compromise across tribal boundaries. That is the root of the collapse of effective minority government today. If you believe that politics is necessarily a zero-sum game where your victory requires an adversary’s destruction, then your participation in negotiation will always be a sham designed only to deceive, delude or buy time. We have had no better example than the government and the opposition’s embarrassing “after you, Alphonse” behaviour on EI this past summer.

If the next election — this fall or early next year seems inevitable — delivers another unstable minority government, Canadians will not be pleased. Digging our way out of the deep fiscal hole that this recession has flung us into will require long-term planning and as little partisan brinkmanship as possible. Threatening to bring down the government at every fiscal update or budget is likely to enrage even normally quiescent Canadians. “So what is to be done?” as V.I. Lenin famously asked.

Leave aside the controversial idea of a coalition, pledged to a four-year platform of key deliverables. Though it seems to work for most of the world’s mature democracies, our current political dyspepsia may prevent it.

First, the role of the governor general needs to be addressed. We came close to a constitutional crisis last fall as a result of differences between the party leaders about the prerogatives of the Crown in choosing a first minister. Again, let us leave aside the competing views about what should have happened or was permissible, and consider the future. In an excellent volume of essays, Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, edited by Peter Russell and Lorne Sossin (University of Toronto Press, 2009), a spectrum of Canadian political scholars lay out a series of options concerning the reform of the current role of the governor general in such moments of potential constitutional impasse.

Two in their range of suggestions seem essential if we are to avoid the sort of collision that removed a sitting government in Australia in 1974 and set the people on the road to republicanism. The first is the need for greater transparency in how and on what basis GGs and their advisers make decisions about whom they ask to form a government. Secondly, the rulebook the governors general use to make their decisions about confidence needs updating. The rules are muddled, and there is no agreement about the power of some of them. As the authors point out, in the 19th century judges did not need to make the reasons for their decisions known. Now every judgment comes with accompanying public defence in law.

One constitutional expert’s precedent is another’s convention; one expert’s convention is merely occasional practice to another. Some Conservative defenders of prorogation claimed, for example, that there was no decision to be made by Governor General Michaëlle Jean as there had been no defeat in the House, and therefore no loss of confidence. They hammered this assertion for days despite

the written and public commitment by all three opposition leaders and their caucus members that they were determined to throw the government out. These constitutional authors are agreed that this signed declaration should have been tested by a vote.

But reference to the governor general is the nuclear weapon in a parliamentary democracy: a good deterrent to bad behaviour and overwhelmingly destructive if you are forced to use it. To avoid the years of political radioactivity that Australia endured when its governor general fired a prime minister requires the parties to discipline themselves.
Here are two suggestions for practical approaches to the current dilemma of a country apparently destined to minority government, with politicians incapable of making it work.

First, no dissolution for three years after an election.

Second, if the government falls, another is elected by the Commons in its place. This would provide some respite from the absurd annual election cycle we seem to have fallen into. If a government loses the confidence of the House, Rideau Hall would summon the leader of the opposition party, who would seek a vote of confidence in the House. If he or she failed to assemble to votes required in a stipulated period, the governing party would be given a second chance to find new allies. This is how voters are protected from their leaders’ temptation to foolish antics in many democracies. When politicians understand there really is no back-door exit from an impasse they will find a solution. The one legitimate exception might be war or another national emergency. Only after two attempts by each side have failed or three months has passed would an election be mandated.

The four-way split in Canadian politics has crippled the ability of any one party to win at least half plus one of seats in the House of Common. The chunk of Mulroney-era Quebec seats now held by the Bloc is removed from play. Most Quebec pundits agree that the Bloc is unlikely to slip below 35 to 40 seats anytime soon.

All confidence motions will require a second confirming vote to trigger the defeat of a government.

Ending the “I dare you! No, I double dare you!” childishness about confidence in the government is essential. In opposition, Harper even got Layton and Duceppe to agree that it was the opposition’s “right” to determine what was a confidence vote — a nonsense he has now, not surprisingly, abandoned. Governments are elected to manage the expenditures of the state. Their plans for it, and their demonstrated competence at it, should therefore be the only normal grounds for dismissal. But a gracious concession by Robert Stanfield to the Liberals when the Pearson government accidentally lost a vote of confidence — a mulligan, if you will — could form the basis of a new convention.

In the cool light of dawn, following a confidence defeat, or perhaps the following week, in the wake of howls of anger from the electorate, MPs should be required to vote again. Yea or nay, no amendments to the sub-amendment, thank you very much; just “Should this government be thrown out?” Opposition parties would need to have made real preparation for power or look like idiots for having literally brought the House down. Governments would understand that they could be replaced, and not play confidence games.

“Death to the enemy” politics is easy and powerful, in the short term. Nothing motivates your activist base to higher levels of financial and volunteer support than blood-curdling denunciation of the inequities of one’s opponents. Nothing guarantees more front-page media attention than scurrilous attack. And as every tribal leader since the dawn of organized human conflict knows, nothing secures your position and the tribe’s loyalty better than an enemy’s head on a stake. Pour encourager les autres internally and externally, a sharp delineation between what we “know to be true” and the apostasy of the enemy, combined with a policy of severe discipline and public retribution for disloyalty, is hard to beat. Except in a mature democracy where the threats and intimidation don’t work so well.

Nearly half of adult Canadians don’t vote. Listening to them express their reasons in focus groups, in bars and on talk radio, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that for many, failure to vote stems not from indolence or ignorance, but from a conscious smack at the political elites and their behaviour. These non-voters know that much of politics is about distinctions without any real difference, that the public smackdowns between opponents are the political equivalent of professional wrestling. Beyond the partisan hard core, there are probably few Canadians who see World Wrestling Entertainment as an ethical or leadership role model. They tune out the cage match and the synthetic rage between our array of political hysterics.

Imagine the surprise of this army of disillusioned Canadians at the sight of two party leaders emerging from a tough weekend bargaining session, not spitting on each other’s “stupid political games,” but rather announcing a comprehensive deal on an issue of policy that mattered. Consider their happy incredulity at those same leaders announcing their support for a three-year legislative agenda. Contrast such an epiphany with the Groundhog Day experience of recent years — the same lame script, the same dumb plot and the same wooden actors on an endless 12-month tape loop.
It might be an unexpected box-office hit, a return to the good ol’ days and the politics of effective governance, and a wonderful break from the mindless tedium of WWE in Ottawa.

Photo: Shutterstock

Robin V. Sears
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years.

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