Minority report: Can Trudeau recover?

By John Duffy 

Canada has considerable experience with minority governments. Over the course of 43 elections, our country has had 14 hung parliaments. That’s a big enough selection for some patterns to emerge.

By their very nature, minorities are transitional. The entire political system palpably yearns for a more definitive outcome. So a key question for Canadians right now: What kind of minority this one will be? Where does all this end up?

Some minorities are dives, part of a multi-election pattern in which a majority is first weakened to a minority, and then the job is finished off with a change of government in the next election. Other minorities are dips, in which the governing party temporarily slips to minority status then rebounds back into majority at the next outing. Memories are still fresh of the dive of 2004 and 2005-6 that ended the Chretien/Martin years, and continued until 2015. On the other hand, old souls can still recall Pierre Trudeau’s dip of 1972-74.

What factors create dips and dives? What scenario are we facing now? The answer probably lies in the fact that federal minority parliaments usually come in streaks, with one difficult, awkward minority following another as two insufficiently strong national parties lock in a protracted struggle. These lengthy battles, moreover, tend to take place against dramatic national backdrops. Such was the case in the 1920s, where the Great War’s lingering agonies splintered the two-party system along linguistic lines and led to three successive minorities.

The muddled pattern repeated in the 1960s, as Quebec’s political upheavals, Diefenbaker’s erratic performance and Pearson’s scandal-plagued administrations generated three hung parliaments in a row. The most recent minority streak came from 2004 to 2011, as Stephen Harper fought with Jack Layton to translate the Liberals’ toxicity in Quebec, arising from the sponsorship scandal, into a permanent realignment toward a two-party system.

These three minority streaks account for nine of Confederation’s thirteen previous hung federal parliaments. This means that, if history is a guide, we’re perhaps more likely to see a series of minority governments arising from this one than to see one party emerge triumphant at the next national canvass.

But why should that be the case? Isn’t last week’s election result purely the outcome of unappealing, negative campaigns? What’s the great upheaval in the background? After all, there’s nothing on the scale of the First World War, the Legault government is not re-running the Quiet Revolution, and SNC-Lavalin is no sponsorship scandal.

But one, maybe two, large-scale dynamics do suggest themselves as drivers of a potential multi-minority scenario. The first is a profound, environmentally driven economic restructuring that is commencing worldwide.

For a country such as Canada, which has one foot in a high-tech, hydro/nuclear-powered space and another deep in the oil patch, managing this transition represents an agonizing political challenge. In that context, is it surprising that the climate-passive Conservatives should do so poorly outside of their prairie bastion?

Should we be startled that the Grits and Tories left over 30 per cent of the popular vote to other parties (exceeded only by 1993’s fragmented result), and that the NDP finished fourth?

The wrenching changes coming to Canada’s economic foundations are certainly of a scale that could produce a string of minority governments that do not command genuine nationwide support. Canada’s 43rd parliament – and its budget votes and confidence motions – is accordingly one where the left wing will be defined by opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline-expansion project, the right wing will be defined by opposition to the carbon tax, and the centre will be occupied by a minority brokerage party that favours both.

That’s what Canadian federal politics probably ought to look like at a time like this.

The other major revolution under way is social. Equality-seeking minorities range from the transgender and queer to Indigenous Canadians to people of colour to women who are tired of being sexually harassed – and so many more.

It’s difficult for bloodless political calculation to grasp the visceral feelings associated with the struggle for equality felt by these Canadians. It is equally difficult to imagine the fury of those displaced, challenged or simply ignored as this immense inflection point in human history is addressed with such seeming suddenness.

Whichever side you’re on, the politics of this upheaval likely produced a significant gender imbalance in the 2019 campaign. Surely this revolution constitutes a shift large enough to deny majority to an otherwise perfectly electable Trudeau government, and deny even a shot at power to Mr. Scheer’s party, which seems on the losing side of this revolution.

Only time will tell if these fast-moving, big-scale dynamics lead to a multi-minority period. But the historical record, and the dynamic backdrop, certainly suggest that a clear dip or dive scenario may not be in store.