Writing for a more heroic age, Joseph Addison in his 1705 poem, ”œThe Campaign,” described the leadership of the Duke of Marlborough as the cool-headed ability to shape cascading events:
So when an angel by divine command
With rising tempests shakes a guilty land,
Such as of late over pale Britannia past,
Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleas’d th’almighty’s orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm.
Paul Martin may have begun his prime ministership in December 2003 confident that, like Addison’s hero, he could respond to events with a central guiding intelligence and organize his policy battalions into a coherent whole, but that is not how recent history has unfolded. Martin took over a Liberal Party that had won three majority governments in a row, an economy that was performing at the top of the G8 league, with public support well over 50 percent. But amidst this political bounty there was also the poisoned chalice of the sponsorship scandal, and the release of the auditor general’s indictment in February 2004 put the new Martin government on the defensive, a stance from which it never really recovered until the last two weeks of the June election campaign when it finally persuaded a plurality of voters to look at the Conservative alternative instead of venting their anger about Liberal misdeeds.
The June 2004 election returned a minority Parliament " Canada’s first since 1979 " and with 135 seats Martin will have a second chance to make his mark. Minority gov- ernments, however, are very different entities from the majority governments Canadians have become accustomed to since 1980. Minority Parliaments produce whirlwinds of an altogether different intensity than normal political gusts. For starters, every member of Parliament knows that another election is just around the corner, so minority Parliaments are like permanent election campaigns. What happens in the next minority Parliament will largely depend on what lessons the parties draw from the election that just passed.
When a man is to be hanged in a fortnight, advised the redoubtable Dr. Johnson, like Addison another 18th century sage, ”œit concen- trates the mind wonderfully.” If this be so, Paul Martin must be concentrating fiercely. The prime minister has shuf- fled his Cabinet; next he must find at least $3 billion in spending cuts, restore the morale of the public service, reach out to his divided party, recon- nect with Quebec, renew hope in the West that things will be different, and regain the confidence of Canadians in general by showing he knows where he is going. This formidable work of reconstruction must be accomplished in a minority Parliament, which creates its own dynamic, in a political atmos- phere frenzied with the likelihood of another election within a year to eight- een months. Not the least of Martin’s worries is the very real possibility that the 2004 election heralds the passing of the age of easy Liberal majorities into a new era of competitive politics with the Conservative Party well positioned to take power. Rather than a temporary hiccup in the traditional electoral dom- inance of the Liberal Party, the 2004 election may be the tremor that fore- casts a political earthquake that is gath- ering force.
Harvard political scientist V.O. Key Jr., in his seminal 1955 article, ”œTheory of Critical Elections,” first pointed out that some elections have more important long-range conse- quences for the political system than others. ”œCritical” elections are those rare electoral upheavals that funda- mentally change voting patterns, lead- ing to the dominance of one particular party or public philosophy. Elections, Key wrote, follow cyclical patterns " alignment, which establishes a stable pattern of voting behaviour, de- alignment, when the pattern is bro- ken, and then realignment, when a new stable voting system reappears.
In the United States, for example, the 1800 election saw Thomas Jefferson’s Democrats victorious over the Federalist-Whigs, and the Democrat- Whig era lasted until the 1850s. Then de-alignment set in. Typically in de- alignment eras, there are high intensity issues, existing party systems cannot cope and third parties arise. By the 1850s, the issue of slavery convulsed the United States, a new Republican party arose, the Whigs disappeared and the Democrats split into Southern and National wings. Lincoln, a former Whig congressman was able to add the anti- slavery movement to the traditional Whig base, and his elections in 1860 and 1864 realigned American voters into a Republican majority, a pattern that endured until 1932. In that year, the Depression broke the backs of the Republicans and Franklin Roosevelt cre- ated a new realignment, the New Deal Coalition, which lasted until 1980. Ronald Reagan’s sweeps in 1980 and 1984, in turn, broke up the New Deal Coalition as he successfully attracted conservative-leaning workers, the Reagan Democrats.
Great Britain demonstrates a sim- ilar cyclical pattern of critical elec- tions: the 18th-century Whigs and Tories morphed into the 19th-century Liberals and Conservatives, but in 1918, the British Liberal Party split into two by being unable to cope with the pressures of the Great War and the Irish question. British politics de- aligned from its Liberal and Conservative base, and by the 1920s the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the progressive choice.
Canada, too, has had a cyclical pat- tern of critical elections similar to the American and British examples. The criti- cal question today is whether the 2004 election was critical. In 1878, Sir John A. Macdonald’s victo- ry on the National Policy set a pattern for Conservative supremacy for nearly a generation, until Sir Wilfrid Laurier won Quebec for the Liberal Party in 1896. For more than a hundred years Quebec was the bedrock of the Liberal Party. Like British poli- tics after the Great War, Canadian pol- itics began to be de-aligned with the rise of the Progressives in the 1920s, but Mackenzie King’s political genius ensured that the Canadian Liberal Party would not go the way of its British cousins. Moreover, in 1935, like the American New Deal, King maneu- vered his way through the woe of the Great Depression and won a victory so large that the Liberals became ”œthe Government Party.” The King realign- ment lasted for decades; in 1980, for example, in an election in which I played a role as an adviser to Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals and Conservatives split seats in Atlantic Canada, Trudeau swept Quebec with 74 out of 75 seats, the Conservatives were dominant in the West and Ontario decided the election with 53 Liberal seats to 38 for the Conservatives and 5 for the NDP.
The 1993 election was a critical de-aligning election; the results from which we are emerging only today. Like the 1850s in the United States, when the Whigs disintegrated over slavery, the Meech Lake debate and the 1992 constitutional referendum led to the rise of the Reform Party, the Bloc Québécois and the decimation of the Mulroney Conservative coalition. In the 1993 election the Conservatives fell from 43 percent of the vote and 169 seats in 1988 to 16 percent of the vote and 2 seats. The Bloc and Reform each won over 50 seats and Jean Chrétien’s Liberals coasted as the only national party left standing with 41 percent of the vote and 177 seats. As long as the Conservative base was divided between Reform-Alliance blocs and the remnants of the old Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals could sweep Ontario with 100 seats. The great Conservative meltdown of 1993 and Jean Chrétien’s success in exploiting it, gave the Liberal Party a wonderful ride throughout the 1990s.
In 2004, this de-alignment era is clearly passed and realignment is on the horizon. The country is reverting to a pattern that Mackenzie King would have recognized " save the existence of a separatist party in Quebec with 49 percent of the vote and 54 seats. The efforts by Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay to unite the Right have restored the Conservative Party to a competitive position in Ontario, while keeping the Reform/Alliance base in the West. The key to the 2004 election, in my opinion, was not last minute switches by the New Democratic Party to the Liberals to prevent a Harper vic- tory: the essential issue was where did the progressives in the Progressive Conservative Party go? In Ontario, in 2000, the combined Alliance-PC vote was 38 percent; in 2004, Harper cap- tured most of this with 31.5 percent, but 6 percent migrated to the Liberals. New Brunswick was a similar story. In 2000, the combined Alliance- Conservative share of the vote was 48 percent, but in 2004 the Conservatives won only 31 percent. In 1980, a typical Canadian election before the 1993 de- alignment, the Conservatives had 32.5 percent of the vote and 103 seats; in 2004, they won 32 percent of the vote and 99 seats. We have gone back to the future before the crack-up of 1993. De- alignment is over. Which way will realignment go?
Although Stephen Harper looked ashen-faced on election night, the Conservative Party is very close to making the leap to government. In Ontario in 2004, the Liberals persuad- ed many progressives that their fear of the conservative social agenda should trump their anger over the sponsorship scandal, but these are people who are used to voting Conservative, and could easily do so again. Over the next year, Harper can move either to assure Progressive Conservatives that Randy White will never be justice minister or he can leapfrog social issues entirely by developing a new economic agenda. From de-alignment to realignment usually takes two steps and Harper has successfully achieved phase one.
Paul Martin, in contrast to Stephen Harper, looked delighted on elec- tion night but his task is even more daunting in attempting to make the forces of realignment go his way. Harper, at least, can make a plausible case that there are another 20 Ontario seats that are real targets. With 20 more seats, he would have a Conservative minority government. Martin, in con- trast, has reached the normal historical Liberal plateau in Ontario and is above it in Atlantic Canada. With 8 seats, the Liberals made a beachhead in British Columbia in June 2004. History would argue that the only place where Martin’s Liberals can grow is in Quebec. But what conceivable strategy can make that come about? The prime minister tried a new tack of attracting soft nationalists by persuading Jean Lapierre, a founder of the Bloc Québécois, to lead the Martin team in Quebec. As a consequence, Stéphane Dion, Mr. Chrétien’s champion of federalism, was demoted from the Cabinet. But in the 2004 election, the Liberals fell 10 points, from 44.2 percent of the vote in 2000 to 34 percent in 2004. Lapierre won the traditional Liberal stronghold of Outremont seat by 3,000 votes; Dion won his seat by 21,000. In the July Cabinet shuffle following the election, Dion returned to Cabinet as minister of the envi- ronment and the Dion-Lapierre tandem will have to think through what to do in Quebec.
If the Martin government has to somehow reconcile the Lapierre-Dion version of federalism, the political task of Gilles Duceppe is considerably more straightforward. The goal for Duceppe in the upcoming minority Parliament will be to contribute to the downfall of Quebec Premier Jean Charest. There should be no doubt that the Bloc pri- marily has its eye on the 2007 provin- cial election in Quebec. Only if the Parti Québécois defeats Charest will Canada enjoy the delights of a third referendum. The Bloc now has 54 members of Parliament with riding officer and staffs dedicated to Charest’s demise, and Duceppe’s strategy will be to play up any policy disagreements between Martin and Charest while proclaiming that Quebec’s interests are once again being ignored. Jean Charest will be more of a presence in the minority Parliament opening in the fall of 2004 than he ever was in his time as minister of the environment in the Mulroney government or as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.
This much is clear. The critical elec- tion of 2004 ended de-alignment. The next election in 2005 or 2006 could realign the pattern of Canadian politics for years to come, and knowing this, each of the party leaders will be under enormous and constant pressure.
For the current generation, a minor- ity Parliament would be a strange and wondrous new beast that hasn’t been seen since 1979. But I come from a political generation in which minor- ity governments were the norm, the stability of a majority government, the rarity. The elections of 1962, 1963, 1965, 1972 and 1979 produced minor- ity governments, and with the Right now united again under the Conservative banner, Canada may be returning to its minority-era tradition. What lessons from the 1960s and 1970s might apply to a minority Parliament in 2004? Should we be enthralled or appalled?
I served as a very junior research assistant to Walter Gordon, then presi- dent of the Privy Council in the minority government of Lester Pearson; Keith Davey, Liberal organizer supreme, persuaded me to put my academic career on hold and work on urban policy for Pierre Trudeau’s minority gov- ernment of 1972-74; and in 1979, under the inspired lead- ership of Jim Coutts, then chief of staff to Trudeau, I was part of the Opposition team that brought down Joe Clark’s minority government. So I have seen minority govern- ments from both sides " the difficulties in propping one up, and the opportunities to bring one down. As Bruce Springsteen sings, Glory Days.
The first critical change in a transition from a majority gov- ernment to a minority is the centrality of Parliament itself. Martin has made much of the ”œdemocratic deficit” and the need to restore the influence of backbench members. Nothing will erase the democratic deficit faster than the election of a minority Parliament. The House of Commons becomes king " power slips away from the executive toward the legislature. In a majority govern- ment, Parliament is like a production line. How many bills can we get through, how do we organize the com- mittees, what information should we provide to MPs, how can the require- ments of Parliament be balanced against all the other tasks of government, etc? The demands of the executive almost always win out over the needs of the House.
Not so in a minority Parliament. Policy actually gets made on the floor of the Commons. The House leader and the chief whip, not the min- ister of Finance or the minister of Foreign Affairs, become the critical colleagues of the prime minister. The whole focus of Ottawa shifts from quiet discussions between deputy ministers to the public and noisy negotiations between politicians in the cockpit of Parliament. And the negotiations are not just between the representatives of the various parties " even more important are the negotiations within your own party. In a narrow minority, the vote of every MP is key and you have to work as hard to keep your own Atlantic caucus on board as you do to persuade the New Democratic Party.
If Parliament is king in a minority setting, political party organization is queen. The prime minister and MPs only have jobs because of political par- ties, but in majority governments the political party machine is ignored even more regularly than the MP. The presi- dent of the party may not even be known by all MPs.
Again, not so in minority Parliaments. Since the govern- ment may be defeated at any time, the party must be in a high state of readiness to go into an election at a moment’s notice. This very uncer- tainty also has a bracing impact on political ambition: existing leaders know their jobs are on the line, lead- ers in waiting and their supporters can grow giddy with hope. These competing ambitions must also be factored into the daily business of government.
Short-term public opinion and the role of the media, always crucial in politics, assume gale force during minority Parliaments. It’s like one long election campaign where seemingly trivial issues can spring up and domi- nate the day. Trudeau, for example, was not known for his love of profes- sional sport teams. Yet in 1974, John Bassett of Toronto wanted to start a professional football league that threatened the longstanding Canadian Football League. Trudeau was persuad- ed to introduce a bill banning the World Football League. I attended a policy meeting to discuss the Liberal Party’s proposed platform and several bold ideas were on the table. Trudeau was asked, ”œBut will you do it?” to which he replied, ”œIf I will do the World Football League, I’ll do any- thing!”
The centrality of Parliament, the party, and public opinion in minority Parliaments is usefully illustrated by recalling the Joe Clark government of 1979. In the 1979 election, after 16 years of Liberal governments, Clark had defeated Trudeau. In 1972, Trudeau had held only a knife-edged, two-seat plurality over Robert Stanfield’s Conservatives, but in 1979, Clark enjoyed a more comfortable lead: the Conservatives had 136 seats, the Liberals 114, NDP 26, and Créditistes 6. It would pretty much take a united opposition to defeat the government. Unlikely, most thought, but a surprise was in store.
In transiting from prime minis- ter to opposition leader, Trudeau’s most significant decision was to turn over House strategy to Allan MacEachen. He was an absolute genius at reading the mood of the House and using House rules for par- tisan advantage. In December 1979, energy prices were going through the roof but John Crosbie, then finance minister, chose to raise the federal gasoline tax by 18 cents. The NDP was first off the mark: Ed Broadbent opposed the budget and Bob Rae moved a motion of non- confidence. MacEachen then noticed that the small Creditiste bloc from Quebec also said it would oppose the budget unless the proceeds were used for projects in Quebec. Two par- ties down, and only the Liberal Party to go. MacEachen encouraged the Liberal caucus to oppose the budget and Liberal whips did yeoman work to get their MPs to attend the vote. Two Liberal MPs arrived in stretchers and when Maurice Dionne painfully walked to his seat aided by a cane, swathed in bandages, a frisson of fear swept the Conservative ranks. The Liberals were serious. And the Tory whips had allowed several MPs to be absent.
Meanwhile, Jim Coutts had Martin Goldfarb in the field testing public opinion (which was bitterly opposed to the Crosbie budget) and the Conservatives had not polled since August. On the evening of Dec. 13, 1979, the Clark Conservatives were defeated on the budget by a vote of 139-133. MacEachen and Coutts had succeeded where Diefenbaker and Stanfield had failed: they had brought down a minority government on an issue of their choosing. Trudeau won the subsequent 1980 election, and the referendum victory of 1980; reform of the Constitution, and the Charter of Rights followed. It is fair to say that the pivot of Canadian history changed because of that December night.
Could the minority Parliament in 2004 resemble the Parliament of 1979? One major difference is that the 54-seat Bloc Québécois contin- gent will use their power to promote separatism, as opposed to the Creditistes of the 1960s and 1970s, peculiar in many ways but still strong federalists. The Bloc will be the ful- crum around which a minority Parliament teeters. The Bloc is social democratic in orientation. Martin’s caucus has strong representation from Atlantic Canada and Toronto (both traditional supporters of activist government), and he will need support from the NDP. On social and economic policy he will also want carrots to entice the Bloc. A standpat budget like March 2004, which did little more than promise debt reduction, will be a thing of the past in the new Liberal minority; it will move much quicker on priorities like the national pharmacare pro- gram. Social policy will be the glue of a de facto Liberal-NDP alliance.
Minority governments have their advantages: they are edgy, reflect instantly public opinion, and often are creative and bold. But their demerits are the opposite of their attraction: there is little stability, no long-term planning, and every issue is subjected to a short-term political cal- culus. For more than a decade we have become used to the Chrétien majority government that did not get in your face, frequently put us to sleep and opted for safety first. A minority Parliament will be the reverse: exciting, but perhaps a little dangerous.
First, the most important figures, apart from the prime minister, are the House leader and whip. The premium will be on negotiating and listening skills, not executive management.
Second, in a minority Parliament, with the chance of an election ever present, parties cannot afford the lux- ury of internal feuds. Both Martin and Harper will work hard on party unity.
Third, the Department of Finance, which has pretty much run Ottawa since 1993, will now have to share power with caucus and House of Commons committees. Ministers and deputy ministers will suddenly take their attendance before House committees seriously.
Fourth, the governor of the Bank of Canada will be an even more impor- tant figure than he is today. As the one economic actor independent of Parliament, he will have the major role in ensuring that inflation does not explode and, in general, maintaining economic sanity.
Fifth, watch for measures to increase the power of backbenchers to go far beyond anything Martin has yet outlined. Whatever their political stripe, all MPs believe they should have more power. We may move much faster toward a US congressional sys- tem of government " a ”œWashmin- ster” mixture of US and British institutions.
In a minority Parliament like the one we have just elected, a govern- ment can be defeated at any time and, at most, such a Parliament only lasts about 18 months. Having just reshuf- fled his Cabinet, what policy priorities should the prime minister be concen- trating on?
When the House of Commons resumes its work in the fall of 2004, Martin faces the challenge of putting forward an agen- da that in the short term can command support in the House, in the medium term can win favour with the voters to ensure that any realignment breaks his way, and in the long term prepare Canada to meet the challenges of our 21st-cen- tury world. There is also the additional and all-important issue of promoting federalism in Quebec and helping Premier Charest recover politically in time for the 2007 Quebec election. Martin will have to deny the Bloc cred- it for positive initiatives while making the counter-argument that it is only through partnership that French- and English-speaking Canadians alike can achieve their dreams for a good life.
To fend off the challenge of Stephen Harper, Martin will also want to keep his reputation for fiscal pru- dence, so, unlike the minority Parliament of 1972-74, there will be no opening of the budgetary taps. This fiscal requirement will present the government with its first chal- lenge. A little-noticed feature of the March 2004 budget was that Ralph Goodale, the minister of Finance who returned to his position despite much speculation that he would become House leader, promised $3 billion in spending cuts to meet his existing projections, and this was before the ambitious Liberal platform of the campaign which promised pharma- care and daycare! In short, despite the expectations raised by the campaign, the Martin minority government must begin its work by cutting spend- ing in a host of areas. Revenue Minister John McCallum, Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Expenditure Review, will not have an easy time because cutting spending and disappointing interest groups only months away from the next campaign is a perilous political exer- cise. The communication ability of the government will be tested.
If an immediate x-budget exercise will be a surprise to many, the cen- trality of health care is a given for the immediate agenda. Here, too, the risks are high. Martin has a new Health Minister, former BC NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, experienced in federal-provincial relations but unaccustomed to the ways of both the House of Commons and the Liberal Party. Martin and Dosanjh will meet the premiers between September 13 and 15 in a high-risk televised federal-provincial confer- ence to fulfill Martin’s promise to fix health care for a generation. That can be done, but not without more feder- al money than is on the table. The premiers argue that even the addi- tional $9 billion Martin has promised will not sustain the existing system and certainly is not enough to under- take new programs in homecare and pharmacare. Simply put, there is a mismatch between the growth of healthcare costs and the growth of government revenues. Janice MacKinnon, a former finance minister from Saskatchewan, in ”œThe Arithmetic of Health Care,” an IRPP Policy Matters published in July 2004, writes that our $80 billion public health system is growing at a rate of 7 percent per year on average and gov- ernment revenues, including the fed- eral transfer of $65 billion in new health funding in the last five years, are only growing at 5 percent. At this rate, MacKinnon’s arithmetic shows that health care will eventually crowd out all other priorities. Jean Charest, whose political success is crucial for federalism, will be especially tena- cious in defending Quebec’s autono- my and in this he will be joined by Premier Ralph Klein of Alberta, fresh from announcing Alberta will soon pay off its provincial debt.
Klein may present a real challenge to Martin, the greatest since the Trudeau-Lévesque battles of the 1970s. When Martin as finance min- ister and Klein as premier were both reducing debt from their respective governments, they shared a common priority and by and large stayed out of each other’s hair. But with his debt abolished, Klein will be in reach of new monsters to slay. A federal gov- ernment that puts conditions on its health care transfers while costs are mushrooming, but still demands two new expansions in homecare and pharmacare, is an easy target for the Alberta populist. Since Martin has to deliver on health to fulfil his election promises in 2004 and prepare for the next election, the premiers are in the cat-bird seat, none more so than Ralph Klein. The September health conference will likely demand a much larger share of federal resources than Goodale’s forecast in his March 2004 budget or the projections of the Liberal election platform. It may be health and little else, unless taxes are raised, also no picnic when one is in a minority.
The surprise for ministers like John Godfrey, who is in charge of the cities agenda, and newcomer Ken Dryden, who is Social Development Minister, will be the emptiness of the fiscal cupboard after health care is subtracted. In the 2004 election, the Liberals promised $28 billion in new spending over five years, including $5 billion for cities and daycare/early learning priorities respectively. These hopes may be dashed by the September showdown over health. Articulate and well- informed about education, Ken Dryden is in an especially difficult position. He must learn about being a member of Parliament and a minis- ter, at the same time as he must deliv- er a major platform commitment. Pierre Trudeau once told me that one of the best things Lester Pearson had done for him was to give him time on the backbench before joining Cabinet. Trudeau had 18 months of anonymity as a backbench member of Parliament where he could watch and learn before being tested in the cockpit of Parliament debate. This will be a luxury denied Ken Dryden. It is a good thing that as a goalie he was used to defending and taking shots to the body, because in Ottawa he will be doing a lot of it.
One item that Tony Valeri, Martin’s new House leader, should move on immediately is reform of House procedure to do away with most three-line whips. It will be in the gov- ernment’s interest to reduce non- confidence motions to the minimum. This will make a virtue of necessity since a Martin government faced with more fiscal pressures than we realize, with the necessity to spend billions on health care, with the Bloc eager to dis- credit federalism, and with Stephen Harper anxious for round two, will be treading dangerous waters.
For Paul Martin, facing the first minority Parliament since 1979, there will be whirlwinds aplenty but angels may be in short supply.