Liberal party members seem well pleased with the deal struck with the New Democrats, as well they might. The agreement solves several problems, in particular their ongoing difficulty attracting popular support in the usual manner.
Federal Liberals have won just one majority in the past 20 years. They enjoyed a strong period over the previous decade, but mainly due to a split in opposition ranks that left them largely unchallenged. And before that they sat on opposition benches for two Tory majorities.
Justin Trudeau appeared to end the slide in 2015 with a convincing victory, but has lost ground ever since. Liberal popular support was lower in the 2019 vote than in 2015, and lower still last September. In all, Trudeau’s forces have hemorrhaged almost 1.4 million votes over three elections in six years.
They continue to present themselves as a national party, but depend overwhelmingly on support in the country’s three largest cities to keep them afloat. Conservatives have drawn more votes in the past two elections, even while running under less-than-scintillating leaders. If the Tories ever quit picking uninspiring bosses, Liberals might actually have to start worrying. While it’s fair to note that Tory votes are heavily concentrated in western provinces, they still draw more votes than the Libs.
The agreement solves several problems
The NDP pact eases some of the stress. Trudeau is now relatively safe in expecting three more years in power, and possibly longer if he can lure away the allegiance of more NDP voters in the meantime. We’ve been told by “progressives” and much of the Ottawa media that this is entirely democratic, and even a sign of political maturity, given that lots of countries in Europe and elsewhere commonly land themselves with a mishmash of parties running the country.
Speaking personally, I’m not aware that governance in Europe has been that superior, now or ever, given the history, the financial crises, the bailouts and the chronic power gaps. Brexit was not a sign of strength and unity, and we’ve been told recently that a big reason Vladimir Putin concluded he could attack Ukraine and get away with it was the perceived weakness of a 28-member European community afflicted by chronic bickering and discord. If anything, the Ukraine crisis has forced the EU to quit its quibbling and show some backbone, which is a fine thing. But if it takes a Russian war to bring about unity and a sense of shared purpose, I’m not so sure it’s a system we need to emulate.
In any case, parties of the left in Canada have long argued for a change in the voting system that would make coalitions more common. The reason is obvious: with two leftish parties versus one rightish, Liberals could be assured of dominating Ottawa, with the NDP as useful assistants, even while favoured by barely a third of the populace. They’ve tried repeatedly to talk up electoral reform involving some kind of proportional representation, but can’t get it past voters who say they like the theory but aren’t enthused about the convoluted versions on offer. First-past-the-post may not be perfect, but at least you can understand it.
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What’s interesting about the latest federal manoeuvring is that it seems to place rival powers in Ottawa and the provinces on increasingly polarized planes. There is a single lonely Liberal premier in Canada, that being Newfoundland’s Andrew Furey, and a single NDP premier, way over on the other coast in British Columbia. The rest, especially the big ones, vary in their degree of antagonism, but are in no case big fans of the Trudeau party’s appetite for a Big Government agenda with ever-expanding incursions into provincial powers and activities.
The completion of Trudeau’s national daycare plan can’t possibly lessen their nervousness. Ontario became the final link on Monday when it accepted a deal in which Ottawa will provide $13.2 billion over six years in a bid to sharply cut the cost of daycare. To seal the deal, Trudeau’s people had to find a way to meet Ontario’s demand for more money than the Libs were offering, given the sharply higher costs common to its cities. According to advance leaks to the Toronto Star, the extra money will be siphoned from an existing infrastructure program, enabling Liberals to claim they’re sticking to their $10.2 billion overall budget while actually doling out hundreds of millions more.
While no one doubts affordable daycare is a good thing, the program is an undeniable expansion of federal powers into provincial territory. Since Ottawa is supplying the cash, it will play a big part in calling the tune now and down the road. Despite assurances, provincial leaders can’t be sure the money will remain on tap once the initial agreements lapse. Nor can they be sure new cash will be provided as costs inevitably rise in what will be a heavily subsidized operation. All that has been conveniently ignored amid the mutual backslapping, pushed down the road like so many other financial worries facing a country addicted to debt.
The daycare program is an undeniable expansion of federal powers into provincial territory
But don’t think provincial leaders don’t know it, or are any less determined to defend their turf. Quebec’s Premier François Legault was quick to condemn the Liberal-NDP deal and predict future confrontations. Saskatchewan and Alberta were equally offended, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe denouncing it as “a takeover of one party by another.” If anything, Alberta appears ready to crank up a level of antagonism that has always been among the country’s fiercest, replacing the ever-combative Jason Kenney with the even more fiery Brian Jean, on the basis that Kenney isn’t nearly conservative enough for “real” conservatives.
It’s long been a feature of Canadian politics that voters like to balance one party in power in Ottawa with an opposing force running the province. It may be the NDP deal presages a cementing of that situation in place, with a semi-permanent leftish arrangement holding Ottawa while the provinces defend themselves with entrenched conservative adversaries. None of the Prairie provinces looks likely to switch from Tory regimes, and Quebec appears quite happy to relegate all the traditional parties to also-ran status in favour of Legault’s nationalist alternative. A recent Quebec poll showed provincial Liberals with just 18 per cent support; if anything, the story has been a rise of the moribund Conservatives to 14 per cent, ahead of the separatists.
Ontario heads to the polls in June, with Ford enjoying a healthy lead. Even the city of Toronto, the ultimate bastion of federal Liberal strength, looks certain to re-elect former provincial Conservative leader John Tory to a third successive term, making him the city’s longest-serving leader. One despondent “progressive” columnist judged Tory’s victory so certain that left-wing voters should concentrate on lower-level council seats as a blocking formation.
Where the NDP ends up in any of this is up in the air. But perhaps the relegation of third parties to distant corners as supporting actors is just another part of what “maturing” democracies are all about.