By Andrew Cardozo

From Ottawa Citizen. http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/lessons-from-a-liberal-ndp-accord


A shorter version of this article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on August 25, 2015


Governing Accords are a good way of working minority governments
By Andrew Cardozo

“Coalitions are just not the Canadian way”, was the Conservative cri de Coeur in 2008 when the Liberals and NDP tried to establish a coalition government.
Well, actually it is. You see, Canada was born out of a coalition government.
The “Great Coalition” was created out of three of four parties elected in the 1864 election in the Province of Canada, which consisted of the two colonies Canada West (which would become Ontario) and Canada East (the future Quebec). Included were the Conservatives and the True Grits from Canada West, and the Parti Bleu from Canada East. The fourth party, Parti Rouge was not in the coalition.

It was this coalition that agreed to form Confederation and then disbanded after the good deed was done. They were then joined by elected members from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the first Canadian Parliament.

(And as an aside, those party names are clues for why the Conservative party colour is still blue, the Liberal colour is Red and why the latter are still called Grits. Post Confederation the Conservative Party was made up of the Conservative Party of Canada West and the Parti Bleu from Canada East, while the Liberal Party came from the True Grits and the Parti Rouge.)

Canada also had another coalition headed by Conservative Robert Borden during World War I, in order to pass conscription. It was made up of Conservatives from all parts of the country and English Canadian Liberals.

It is worth observing that in both these coalition governments the Quebec wing of the Liberals (the to-be Liberals in the pre-Confederation session) did not join in the national cause, a sign the distinct society that has existed since before Confederation. It often is the way it is and that’s just part of the character of this country.

Today there is much discussion about a coalition government if none of the parties wins a majority in the October 19 election.

While coalitions are not that common in Canada, it is import to remember that Confederation was brought about by a coalition of three of the four elected parties in 1867.

Our system operates on the primary principle in parliamentary democracy of the “Confidence of the House”, which simply means that the government needs to have the support of the majority of the elected members, regardless of their party affiliation. This is how traditional minority governments survive – vote by vote.

But there is another way, a governing accord. And Exhibit A is the 1985 Liberal-NDP Accord in Ontario.

In May 1985, the Progressive Conservatives won 52 seats in the Legislature of Ontario, eleven short of the 63 required for a majority. The Liberals got 48 and the NDP 25 seats. The PCs were called on to form a government by Lieutenant Governor John Black Aird as per tradition, but were duly defeated on a vote on the Speech from the Throne, whereupon the Aird called on Liberal Leader David Peterson to form a government, having been informed of the Accord that the latter has signed with Bob Rae, then the provincial NDP leader.

Peterson points to many ways for parties to cooperate in Parliament but makes the important distinction between sharing legislative power and executive power, saying he was prepared for the former but not the latter. That is, an accord that the two parties would agree to the passage of various legislation, but he was not in favour of having a joint cabinet.

The way this came about was quite simple. Days after the election, Rae designated a negotiation team of three senior members to have discussions with both the PCs and the Liberals.

Peterson says they came in with a “wheelbarrow” of demands and through a negotiation process the list was whittled down to some 20 points of common interest – legislative and policy issues, and an agreement that the NDP would support a Liberal government for two years.

The issues included jobs and training for youth, job equity, employment equity, rent control and an end to doctors’ extra billing.

The leaders signed an accord which is well worth reading today. (Google “Liberal-NDP Accord”.)

Peterson also makes the point that what made this situation unique was that the PCs had been in government a long time and were looking tired, and while they had four more seats, the Liberals in fact had a slightly higher popular vote, and had the moral clout to consider taking office. He also notes that with 25 seats the NDP were not a “fringe group on the edge” which was going to have undue influence.

It is worth noting that through this process Rae was interested in an actual coalition, but could not get enough support for it in his caucus and party – in fact here were s few strong voices that didn’t even favour an accord. He did not get to discuss the matter with Peterson, who says he would never have agreed to it anyhow.

Both Peterson and Rae acknowledge that their parties had a lot in common and were able to find a substantial common agenda for two years of stable government. There was also a lot of mutual respect among leading members of both parties, something Peterson says is sadly lacking in politics today.

Interestingly, neither of them were prepared to speculate or advise on what should happen after the next federal election, if one party does not have a majority.

But here are the potential similarities:
– There is a Conservative government that after a decade in power is looking tired and scandal-ridden, and strongly disliked by those who will vote NDP and Liberal. Many of whom would be outraged if these three parties allowed for a minority Conservative government if it had most seats.
– At this stage the three main parties are all fairly close in popular support and together have wide support among Canadians.
– The commonality between the main progressive parties – the NDP and the Liberals, is perhaps enough to form a robust governing accord.

The important thing about an accord is that it puts in place a strong, stable, minority government for a defined period of time. Stability being one of it’s strongest features.

And beyond political stability, a government-by-accord or a coalition government is at its core a cooperative government there is little doubt that most Canadians prefer their political parties to work together rather than always be at loggerheads.

Regardless of what the results are, if there is a minority government it may be a good idea to start having an Accord to give the government stability.

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.

Subscribe to the Pearson Centre newsletter.

Insightful commentary & debate, delivered to your inbox. Sign up below.