Martin Heads Minority Government

HISTORY SHADOWS Paul MARTIN like no other Canadian politician. He's acutely conscious of carrying the famous name of his late father, a force in Liberal cabinets from 1945 to 1974 - including Prime Minister Lester Pearson's during two consecutive minority governments in the 1960s. So as Martin begins to plot course for his own minority, the lessons of his father's generation are once again echoing for him. "There are histories of minority governments that have been able to do great things," he mused last week in his first news conference after the June 28 election, citing Pearson's as an obvious example. Among its lasting achievements: introducing the Canada Pension Plan in 1965 and national medicare in 1966. But history also records that Pearson's second minority term deteriorated into a chaotic affair marred by incessant cabinet infighting.

Clearly, Martin will strive to keep things from coming to that. He will try to make his minority work as well as Pearson's did early on, but also set the Liberals up for a return to majority rule in the next election. The opposition parties face a quite different challenge: co-operating just enough with Martin to look respectable, without allowing him enough success to rebound. But if all that sounds like a prescription for caution, history suggests otherwise. "Minority governments tend to be aggressive rather than hesitant," says University of Waterloo history professor and Pearson biographer John English, who is also a former Liberal MP.

Unsure how long their power will last, minorities often try to move fast on a few priorities. "I think this will be especially true of Martin, who will want to make his mark," English says. If Martin has his way, that mark will be made through multi-billion-dollar initiatives in health and daycare - his two big campaign policy thrusts. In theory, at least, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to get enough opposition support to move forward on either file. The Conservatives also favour a big injection of new health funding to the provinces, though they might balk - along with the Bloc Québécois - at the Liberal preference for Ottawa to gain some power to push provinces to hit specific targets, especially on shortening waiting times for treatment. On the Liberal idea of a national subsidized daycare program modelled on Quebec's, the NDP and the Bloc are expected to be broadly supportive, the Conservatives deeply skeptical.

The distribution of seats in the House - 135 Liberals, 99 Conservatives, 54 Bloc, 19 NDP, and one independent - suggests voting coalitions will shift depending on the issue. But not all ingredients are equal in the minority mix. NDP Leader Jack LAYTON finds himself agonizingly close to real balance-of-power clout: if his party had won a single riding more, he would have had enough MPs to team up with the Liberals to hit that magic majority number of 155. Instead, Martin will need to court the support of either the Conservatives or the Bloc, or some ad hoc combination of MPs criss-crossing party lines, to pass any legislation. The arithmetic on bringing down the government is tricky: assuming that the Speaker, who only votes in the case of a tie, is drawn from Liberal or NDP ranks, then the Tories and Bloc together have just enough MPs to force an election - if they vote en masse with no dissenters. Otherwise, it will likely take some combination of MPs from all three opposition parties to force an election - until, of course, the Liberals decide they are ready to face Canadian voters again.

If the opposition parties join together to defeat the government, it must be over an issue serious enough to provoke an election. "If somebody destroys this minority just because their polling numbers look good, they know the public will punish them," says Stuart Smith, who was the opposition Liberal leader in Ontario's legislature when Premier Bill Davis presided over back-to-back minorities in the 1970s. That fear of angering voters by dragging them to the ballot box on flimsy grounds, together with the four-way split in the House, could mean Martin's minority will last longer than the year or two many observers have suggested. "If he manages it right, this can go on for four years," predicts Smith, now a Toronto businessman and public policy consultant.

The prospect of a stable minority raises the question of how the Bloc will position itself. As a separatist leader, Gilles Duceppe would make an improbable partner in co-operating on new legislation for all of Canada over an extended period. Yet he vowed at his news conference the day after the election not to sabotage the federal Parliament. "Step by step, we'll see what happens," Duceppe said cautiously. After his solid performance in the leaders' debates, Duceppe's credibility - even outside of Quebec - is higher than anyone could have anticipated. Still, as the head of a party devoted to persuading Quebecers that Canada doesn't work for them, his motives will remain suspect. "The Bloc would be best served if Parliament were to become dysfunctional, no matter what they are saying," contends Government House Leader Jacques Saada, one of 21 Liberal MPs in Quebec who managed to win their ridings.

HARPER has the most to lose if Martin's minority ends up surviving long and looking effective. Yet Harper, too, has reason for wanting to display at least some co-operative spirit in the House. Formed just last year by the surprise merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, his new Conservatives need to prove they are capable of contributing on the national stage - and not risk being branded as merely the latest version of the western protest movement that forms a big part of their roots. As well, strategists in every party agree the electorate simply won't want to see politicians out campaigning again too soon. "I think this Parliament will work because the people are going to want us to work together," says British Columbia MP John Reynolds, the Conservative House leader.

Reynolds is the sort of MP who could rise to particular prominence in the minority environment. As Harper's point man on Commons strategy, and his key liaison with the other parties, Reynolds will have the critical job of figuring out how to manage day-to-day pressures of votes, debates and House committee work. As for Saada, whether he keeps his job remains to be seen: Martin is contemplating how to rebuild his cabinet, and could name a new one within the next two weeks. Six of his 38 ministers lost their seats on June 28, and a seventh, Social Development Minister Liza Frulla, faces a recount after clinging to her Montreal riding by a mere 35 votes. Because the new cabinet will have to co-operate much more closely with the other parties, negotiators capable of forging working relationships across the Commons aisle might now thrive ahead of tougher-talking partisans.

The tone of politics in a minority period tends to take a turn toward the diplomatic. "The atmosphere is, I don't want to say collegial because that's not exactly it, but more respectful," says Gordon Ashworth, who was executive director in the office of then-Ontario premier David Peterson when he headed first a Liberal minority and then a majority in the late 1980s. Ashworth said that during the minority, key Peterson ministers, especially Robert Nixon and Ian Scott, relied on social relationships to keep the peace with the opposition. "It was a matter of sitting down and chatting, sometimes over long dinners, and making it happen," Ashworth recalls, adding that this sort of informal contact is hard for a premier or prime minister to cultivate directly.

In fact, the ability of the leaders' offices to maintain firm control in Ottawa over the coming months, and perhaps years, could be sorely tested. Even before the election, clamour for more freedom for MPs was rising - with at least rhetorical support from Martin, Harper, Layton and Duceppe. Now, backbench MPs inclined to flex their muscles will know that by forging alliances that straddle party lines, they may be able to have their way as rarely before. One sure sign that times are changing: lobbyists who usually concentrate on courting cabinet ministers are devising strategies for influencing backbenchers and the opposition. "Minority gives us a chance to build consensus around issues that might not otherwise be on the radar screen," says Michael Atkinson, president of the Canadian Construction Association.

Reynolds and others say ordinary MPs will have their best chance to increase their influence on House committees. And Saada said he, for one, is in favour of giving those committees more formal power, including drafting new laws in some cases, instead of just reviewing legislation sent to them by cabinet ministers. But even the wiliest party veterans aren't sure quite what to expect once ordinary MPs start becoming more independent. Old stories about past minorities are getting dusted off these days in Ottawa, but history is only a rough guide to Parliament Hill's new game. To a large extent, the politicians will be making up the rules as they go along.

Maclean's July 12, 2004