Canadians now have their least representative gov- ernment since 1918. It is, however, a myth that minority government is necessarily circumscribed and brief. Paul Martin will make his own fate. If he has now found his public purpose, what precisely he wants to do for others with the power he so much wanted for himself, and if he can also learn how to implement national policy with- in federalism, he could remain in office for years.

The difference between majority and minority government is commonly exaggerated. Politicians make much of it because being in a minority does indeed make life less com- fortable for them. The media make much of the difference because a majority is dull; a minority gives scope to write about manoeuvres and deals, real or imagined. The effect of parliamentary strengths on the substance of public policy is another story.

When Policy Options organized an appraisal of the prime ministers of the past fifty years, its finding was plain. The best was ”œPearson, by a landslide.” His was a minority government for five years.

That, however, is not the only evi- dence that election with a minority does not necessarily mean a brief hold on power. In 1957 the Conservatives gained only seven more seats than the Liberals and had less of the popular vote. Nevertheless, Diefenbaker’s elec- tion campaign had stirred enough enthusiasm, and his minority govern- ment was firm enough with a few promised actions, to make it quickly certain that he would get a good run as prime minister. He would have had a full term on the job even if an extraor- dinary error by the Opposition had not made his move on to a majority so quick and easy.

The Pearson government provides a very different example of minority as the road to success. It had sought office with an unusually detailed election platform, wide-ranging and in part highly controversial. The pension plan and national medicare were denounced in the business community as the ruin of the nation, and at first hotly debated by provincial governments as well as by the Opposition in Parliament. They were nevertheless so much in tune with public opinion that in the end Conservatives voted for them. Minority status did not prevent the Pearson gov- ernment from achieving more, of more importance, than can be recorded for any five years of majority government.

This is not to say that it escaped the discomforts of minority. In partic- ular, the Diefenbaker filibuster against the flag was not only a long delay to other business. It severely frayed min- isterial nerves, contributing to several silly mistakes and one serious misjudg- ment. Nevertheless, the country got its flag, the government resumed its activist program for medicare and much else, and the way was paved for the Trudeau Liberal majority of 1968. Indeed, the chief casualty of the flag debate was Diefenbaker, who so much frayed the patience of his own party that a successful revolt against his leadership could develop.

In short, greatly different as were the governments of 1957-58 and 1963- 68, both illustrate how a prime minis- ter with a public purpose can succeed without a parliamentary majority. The minority government of 1972-74 is a different case. The NDP had the bal- ance of power. It kept Pierre Trudeau in office while he pleased it with a pro- gram to the Left of where he had been before and where he was afterwards. He regained popularity, engineered the occasion to be defeated in Parliament, and won the subsequent election handsomely. The price of the interim minority was paid by the NDP. In the 1974 Parliament it had only half the seats it had had in 1972. It has not since won a decisive posi- tion.

Forecasters of early trouble for Martin will point to the two minority governments that were short-lived: Diefenbaker in the 1962-63 incarnation and Clark in 1979-80. Both began in confusion and quickly proved incapable of taking a grip on the public business. The significant difference from Martin’s situation, however, is that they both faced one major opposition party, strongly motivated for an elec- tion re-match soon; and while the small parties had no such wish, they were weak enough to be manoeuvred out of firm support for the govern- ment.

This Parliament is very different. The Liberals (135 MPs) can be defeated only if the Conservatives (99) are joined office while he pleased it with a pro- gram to the Left of where he had been before and where he was afterwards. He regained popularity, engineered the occasion to be defeated in Parliament, and won the subsequent election handsomely. The price of the interim minority was paid by the NDP. In the 1974 Parliament it had only half the seats it had had in 1972. It has not since won a decisive posi- tion.

Forecasters of early trouble for Martin will point to the two minority governments that were short-lived: Diefenbaker in the 1962-63 incarnation and Clark in 1979-80. Both began in confusion and quickly proved incapable of taking a grip on the public business. The significant difference from Martin’s situation, however, is that they both faced one major opposition party, strongly motivated for an elec- tion re-match soon; and while the small parties had no such wish, they were weak enough to be manoeuvred out of firm support for the govern- ment.

This Parliament is very different. The Liberals (135 MPs) can be defeated only if the Conservatives (99) are joined house down. Meantime, the confidence that the prime minister has been dis- playing so enthusiastically since June 28 is well justified. He can govern just as he would if the Liberal caucus were 25 MPs bigger. For quite some time.

When that time runs out will depend in part on provincial politics in Quebec, partly on how well and how soon the Conservatives get their act better together than it was in the election campaign. Mostly, however, it will depend on how far his election experience, looking into the abyss of defeat, has changed Paul Martin.

Concentrated on ousting his prede- cessor and his rivals, the Martin of 2003 thought that rhetoric was enough for what he would do with power when he had it. The public would take that on trust. The early action would be an elec- tion. Definition of policy could come afterwards, as it had gradually done over his first 18 months on the job as minis- ter of finance. The confident presump- tion was made without recognizing that a prime ministership is different. A gov- ernment without any priority but an election, that did not know what it would first do as a government, was quickly muddled to a degree usually reserved for a government befuddled by the imminence of defeat.

The lesson has been, in large part at least, learned. The Cabinet formed on July 20 claims to be ”œhit- ting the road running.” The early direction of the road was pointed in the election campaign. Rejuvenat- ing health care and at last begin- ning some kind of national program for child care are, rightly, the two principal priorities. They have been assigned to new ministers of more ability than most of the hold-overs. What Ken Dryden will be empow- ered to do is as yet vague, and Ujjal Dosangh will have a hard time liv- ing down the PM’s desperate con- centration on waiting lists. Nevertheless, the prospects of improvement in both of these cru- cial areas of social policy have brightened.

If that is confirmed, the government will have momentum enough for eight- een months or so. There will be criticism, but little surprise, if other election prom- ises, of money for a multitude of purpos- es, are mostly delayed. But by 2006?

In the late stages of the election the prime minister presented himself as almost a fellow-traveller with the NDP. Spending promises apart, he seemed anxious above all to ”œUnite the Left” for the protection of Canadian values against Harperism. He went so far that some commentators now foresee a copy of the successful Trudeau strategy, the 1972-74 companionship with the NDP.

This must be wishful thinking. Trudeau, though by no means comfort- able in left-wing garb, was lithe enough to wear it well enough when he needed to. It would be a poorer fit on the bulky CEO build of this PM. Moreover, Trudeau’s incentive was strong: NDP votes put him comfortably ahead of the Opposition. Today togetherness offers no such security; Liberals and NDP combined only just match the other membership of Parliament.

There is an even greater difference. It is experience. What the NDP got from its support of Trudeau was devastation in the 1974 election. It will surely wish to maintain a significant distance from the Martin government. It will join in voting more money for health care, and will support any initiative for early childhood care and education as at least a step in the right direction. But the NDP now has more reason than the Liberals to make their differences clear.

This will therefore be a govern- ment without a regular ally, but it will not need delicately to wheel and deal with the other parties. Its legislation will get through Parliament because, on issues on which the Conservatives vote against it, the Bloc and the NDP will be inclined to support or abstention.

Change, however, will come. The impetus of the government’s present program will be gone within a year. It will make a normal share of mistakes, including those of arrogance. The Bloc may become ready to force an election. Or the government may think it better to take the initiative. In either situation, the jumble of programs scrambled together in the 2004 election will have outlived its usefulness. The Liberals need, almost as much as the Conservatives, to get their act together before they face the electorate again. By 2006, either they will be in further decline from the Chrétien years or they will be revived by the appeal of a new, convincingly coherent set of policies. That will have to be a lot better than the 1993 Red Book that Martin largely authored, and which turned out to have slight relation to what he did as minister of finance. The decisive test of the new Martin will lie in the credibility of his 2006 policy.

Credibility rules out discontinuity. The hard content of ”œPolicy 2006” must have some connection with the ”œMaking History” vagaries of the 2003 claim to leadership. Two principal themes are therefore possible.

Talk of social reforms has been disjointed but extensive enough to justify moving on to a thorough program of democratic investment in the health, education and welfare of Canadians, with priority for attacking the deprivations that deny equality of opportunity to our chil- dren. That would now be the expec- tation if Martin were a Pearson or even a Trudeau. But fiscal responsi- bility requires such a policy thrust to be combined with reformed taxa- tion. It is a program of economic as well as social change, and Paul Martin has given no sign of being a reformer of the corporate economy. While a 2006 election program will surely include enough social reform for Liberal respectability, it may be no more than is reconcilable with the moderate conservatism of Martin hitherto.

The second theme of 2003 was democratic reform. Slaying the financial deficit was to be followed by correcting the democratic deficit. In specifics this amounted to little more than a lighter rein on back- bench MPs. A minority government will be compelled to make that the deepest buried of political promises. Might the consolation be a 2006 agenda for real democratization of our politics?

The need has never been greater. The 2004 election was not like the previous two, when no one could think that voting would alter the government. The campaign was hotly contested, the outcome in fluctuat- ing doubt. Yet the turnout was lower than ever. It used to be 75 percent, even 80 percent. On June 28, only 60.5 percent of registered voters bothered to go to the polls. Registration is estimated to be about 5 percent short of the number eligible to vote. Liberal candidates in total attracted 36.7 percent of the votes cast. Presumably someone in the PMO has done the arithmetic. The answer is that 21 percent of qualified elec- tors voted Liberal. The government owes its existence to barely one Canadian in five.

Perhaps there was before 1918, before women could vote, a govern- ment that owed its existence to an equally small proportion of Canadians. But certainly democratic representa- tion in Canada is thinner today than it has been for almost a century. That should induce humility in politicians who talk about their mandate to gov- ern. It should be an alarm bell for us all. The values of a free, democratic society are rooted in the extent of public involvement in public affairs.

A politician who believes in him- self, who links his party policies to Canadian values as sincerely as does the prime minister, might have faith that more people voting would mean a higher proportion voting Liberal. There is, however, a well-known snag. The most direct way to strengthen the motive for voting, to make all votes count in the composition of govern- ment, is to reform the voting system. It is to replace first-past-the-post election by making party representation in Parliament proportional to party strength at the polls. Such PR might be, on balance, of some advantage to the Liberals relative to the Conservatives in much of Canada, and relative to the Bloc in Quebec. But it would greatly reduce the parliamentary strength of all three of the present big parties, rela- tive to the NDP and the Green Party. For the Liberals to initiate PR here and now would be a more magnificent sub- ordination of self-interest to the public good than can be asked of any party.

However, the pressure for electoral reform is mounting quickly, and wise politicians move before they are driven. There is a practical way for Paul Martin to take his place in history as a champion of democratic change. While the voting system is not fixed in the constitution and can be changed by simple legislation, it is fundamental enough to be a matter for decision by referendum. One form of PR has recently been recommended by the Law Commission, but that in itself does not carry great political weight. The prime minister could reasonably propose a special electoral commission. Its members would be people political- ly experienced but accepted by all par- ties as above partisanship. The government would undertake to act on its recommendations as draft legisla- tion, to be implemented or rejected by referendum.

This procedure could be slow enough to ensure that present parlia- mentarians enjoy one more election by the system they know. Purists would criticize it as a temporizing eva- sion of responsibility. Eugene Forsey, if he were still alive, might well write that Paul Martin was as slippery as Mackenzie King. Most people would accept it as a wisely cautious way of making a great political change.

The change could be greater still. Nothing in Canada is more undemocrat- ic than the prime minister’s prerogative, as since 1926 it has effectively become, to dissolve Parliament for an election as and when it suits his party’s interest. The alternative of an absolutely fixed four- year term, appropriate for the American presidential system, risks intervals of con- fusion in parliamentary government. There is need for flexibility in some cir- cumstances, but power to shorten the term of a Parliament should not lie with the government side alone. It should require a majority including at least one of the other parties. The reform commis- sion could be charged to prescribe a suitable formula, along with its recommendation for the electoral system, with the same government commitment to implementation after referendum. The combination would be a profound advance in our democracy.

More has to be done, how- ever, to strengthen the basis of public involvement in public affairs. Influence can be exercised through many organi- zations, but the instruments of decision-making participation are the political parties. They are voluntary associations in compe- tition with each other. The com- petition is fairer now than it was last year. Chrétien’s legislation made it illegal for a corporation’s CEO to direct money from its pre-tax profits into politics. Parties, politicians and leadership candidates can no longer profit from money paid by a corporation’s customers for busi- ness purposes but used by its executives for the politics they like.

That reform is a giant step for democracy between parties. As yet, however, it is not a step for democra- cy within the parties.

Chrétien overcame opposition within the Liberal Party organization and caucus at a price to taxpayers. To compensate for lost business finance, party funding from the federal treasury is greatly increased. The incidental result is to make the Liberal Party, in particular, even more than before a machine directed from the centre, dom- inated by the party staff and leader.

The heart of such democracy as sur- vives within the party is in the constituency associations, where vol- unteers discuss public affairs, where opinion leaders and candidates for Parliament can emerge. Objectionable as it otherwise was, the old financing at least had the merit that some of it, particularly from smaller businesses, went to constituency organizations and local candidates. The new public money goes to the party as such. It fur- ther increases the dominance of machine politics.

Remedy is in the prime minister’s hands. He could rule that most, if not all, of the Liberal Party’s annual fund- ing from the treasury will be trans- ferred, in equal shares, to all the party’s constituency associations, to be used as their members decide. That would somewhat enhance Martin’s public status as a democratic reformer. It would do a lot for his popularity in the party ranks. It would do far more than freer votes in Parliament to strengthen the democratic role of backbench MPs.

A more fundamental reform would require legislative change. It would be to provide that much " a half or more " of the treasury funding for election campaigning would not be paid to the parties, to use for their TV spots and other political advertising in the style of selling soap. Instead, the money would be put under the control of Elections Canada, to be used to buy considerable segments of television time for a variety of programs in which party representa- tives " not leaders alone " could describe, discuss and debate party policies. That would be a serious beginning to raising public interest in voting. It might not be easy legislation to get through the present Parliament but the prime minister would earn points by trying.

It has to be recognized that most of what is needed to rebuild public involvement in politics is slow work outside Parliament, in the parties, in the schools, in many voluntary asso- ciations. But initiatives for elec- toral reform, for lessening prime ministerial prerogatives and for redirecting treasury funding within the parties would be major moves toward the demo- cratic reform with which the prime minister has sought iden- tification. They could help to give the impetus he will need, but most of it must come from a policy founded on clear social priorities. He has chosen to create high expectations by the vision and boldness of his talk. He must soon match it by programs that are both long and sure in their stride.

For that, a minority government will require the leadership of a new Martin, or perhaps of a younger Martin who had been stifled through years of waiting for power.