ANALYSIS | The Liberals and NDP are learning to work together. Is that a model for the future? | CBC News


The confidence-and-supply agreement between the Liberals and NDP is now just over a year old. The primary takeaway from the experience to date might be merely that such a thing is possible — that two competing parties can find agreement on a set of ideas and work together to implement those policies.

For the parties involved, the greatest lesson might be the value of communication and building personal relationships.

“When I contrast this minority government with the last minority government, there’s just way more communication. And that, I think, is what helps keep us out of the ditch,” said an NDP source, speaking on the condition they not be identified by name.

“Now that I’ve been through this for a while, I can totally see how it would be possible to end up in a confidence crisis that nobody meant to engineer. Just because nobody’s communicating.”

When opposing sides are left to interpret each other’s actions and guess at motivations, suspicions are heightened and needless conflict can follow. So while the Liberal-NDP deal demands progress on the 27 policy items it covers, what it really requires is dialogue.

“Having set those structures in the agreement so we don’t leave communication to chance, but there are structured meetings where it has to happen — that’s been really helpful, both in times when things are going smoothly, but also helpful when things aren’t going smoothly,” the source said.

“And I think it’s also helped to build relationships at many levels between staff, between critics and ministers, between MPs, between the leaders, that [are] also helpful in kind of steering the ship.”

A senior government source, also speaking on the condition they not be named, agreed. 

“By working with folks closely, you learn how to talk to folks and that helps you in good and bad. And there’s relationships and capital and goodwill to call on in good and bad,” the government source said. “It’s a relationship and you need to be building it.”

Parties can do more than yell at each other

The value of communication is the basic message of every guide to marriage. But if the notion of relationship-building seems novel in the context of Canadian politics, it’s because public communication between parties consists almost entirely of accusations, boasts and taunts.

Judged only by question period, it seems the participants can barely stand to be in the same room together and are only capable of speaking in partisan talking points.

At least some of that conflict is necessary — it creates accountability and gives expression to the differing views within a pluralistic society. But minority Parliaments cannot function without at least some amount of compromise and cooperation, at least not for long.

And if minority Parliaments are now more likely to be the rule than the exception, parties are going to need to work on their communication skills (or Canadian voters are going to have to get used to having elections every two years).

In most European countries — where proportional representation essentially guarantees that no single party will win a majority of seats in the legislature — parties working together is the norm. Even within the United States Congress (no one’s idea of an ideal legislature) there is a rich history of members working across party lines. In such systems, some amount of cooperation is considered a requirement.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh go after each other during the federal election English-language leaders’ debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Not that such things were completely unheard of in Parliament before now. But a confidence-and-supply agreement seems to require a much greater degree of coordination. Liberal ministers can’t simply call their NDP counterparts with a head’s-up the night before a new program or bill is announced. For the most part, conversations are starting earlier in the policy-making process, with ministers and critics going back and forth over ideas and policy design.

Things have not always gone smoothly. Outside the 27-point agreement there have been notable points of conflict — first over proposed amendments to new firearms legislation, then over the question of whether Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, would be called to testify about foreign interference at a parliamentary committee. The parties still regularly disagree and air those disagreements in forums like question period.

But the deal has held. The government figures it has completed 16 of the 27 items (not including the plan for dental care that was laid out in last month’s budget) and this Parliament has now been in session for more than 500 days. If it survives until the scheduled end of the Liberal-NDP deal in 2025, it will be the longest-lasting minority Parliament of the last 60 years (the modern record is 888 days). 

Is this a new model for future Parliaments?

Whether the Liberal-NDP agreement will serve as a model for the future will depend to some degree on both politics and math.

There have been 10 minority Parliaments since the NDP first contested an election in 1962. In only five of those Parliaments did the Liberals and NDP combine to occupy a clear majority of seats in the House of Commons, as they do now. In all other cases, they would have had to work with a third party to be sure they could pass legislation.

In cases such as 2004 or 2008, that third party could have been the Bloc Quebecois. But it’s not clear how willing any party will be in the future to make a formal deal with a separatist party. In 2008, when the Liberals and NDP attempted to form a coalition government with the Bloc’s support, the Conservatives effectively weaponized the involvement of separatists to denounce the deal.

The Conservatives themselves could have a hard time finding a dance partner. During the two minority Parliaments that ran from 2006 to 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were able to govern by either winning support for legislation on a case-by-case basis or by simply daring the other parties to vote against them and trigger an election (the Liberals of the day made a habit of standing down).

A politician stands and speaks in a legislature. He's framed by benches on the other side of the aisle.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre might find it hard to secure support from other parties for his climate policies. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

But federal politics may have changed in significant ways since then — particularly as it relates to climate change. Would the Liberals or NDP be willing to work with, or even just avoid toppling, a Conservative government that was set on rolling back or outright repealing policies designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Would either the Liberals or NDP allow a government led by Pierre Poilievre to follow through on his promises to scrap the federal carbon tax and clean fuel regulations?

While the Liberals and NDP may have had a relatively easy time finding points of agreement, it should be possible for nearly any two parties to find some amount of common ground. But could two parties possibly bridge a chasm as wide as the current left-right split on climate change?

For now, the Liberals might be keen to point out that they’re working with another party and to contrast that with what they call the Conservative Party’s opposition and obstruction. And Conservatives might be happy to portray themselves as standing resolute against the progressive tide.

But the future might require that all parties learn the value of communication, relationships and everything else necessary to ensure Parliament can function for four years at a time.


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