Canada’s rookie politicians get a crash course in hung parliaments

Last week, political veterans met with newbie senators behind closed doors. Here’s what they had to say about navigating a minority government
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 10, 2020
The author (left) joined Anne McGrath, Hugh Segal, and Bob Rae at a session in Ottawa last week. (Steve Paikin)

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We have a so-called hung parliament in Canada these days, as the Canadian people, in their wisdom, declined to give any party a majority of the seats in the House of Commons in last October’s federal election.

The last time we had a minority parliament was after the 2008 election — Stephen Harper’s third as Conservative party leader. Harper went on to win a majority in 2011, then Justin Trudeau won a majority for the Liberal party in 2015.

This means that there are a whole bunch of relatively new politicians on Parliament Hill who have never experienced what life in a minority parliament is like. And a lot of them are in the Senate.

In fact, of the 99 senators currently serving in Ottawa (there are six vacancies), fully 51 were appointed over the past four years by Trudeau — and so have never before had to act as a chamber of sober second thought to a hung parliament.

Senator Frances Lankin, who was appointed by Trudeau as part of the Independent Senators Group in 2016, is one of them. Lankin, though, has a wealth of political experience, having first been elected 30 years ago as a Toronto MPP as part of the Ontario NDP’s one (and, so far, only) election win at Queen’s Park.

So she put the following question to her fellow newbies in the Senate: Would there be any value in having some political veterans meet with senators behind closed doors — no staff, no media — to explain how their lives may change, given the new political reality in Ottawa? Several dozen said yes. Lankin, who’s known me for as long as she’s been in public life, asked me to moderate the session, which was held last week. (She agreed to let me write about it on condition that I not identify what senators said or asked, so that they could be completely candid.)

The experts, representing the three major parties, all have considerable experience dealing with minority parliaments: Ontario’s 21st premier, Bob Rae, who sat in minority parliaments in Ottawa in the 1970s and 2000s and at Queen’s Park in the 1980s; Hugh Segal, who advised Progressive Conservative leaders Bill Davis and Robert Stanfield during hung parliaments in the 1970s and was a senator during the Paul Martin and Harper minority-government years; and Anne McGrath, who advised NDP leader Jack Layton during the Martin and Harper minority-government years.

“Unfortunately, some of what I’ll have to say is quaint because of the heightened polarity in politics today,” Rae began. “In a majority parliament, you can be as adversarial as you want with no consequences. Now that’s not true. You’ve got to adopt a different style.”

Rae reminded the senators of a conversation he once had with former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, who won the 2011 election one seat short of a majority government.

“I’ve got a strong, stable minority,” McGuinty told him.

“No, you don’t,” Rae responded. “You’ve got a minority government, and that’s a moveable feast at all times. Expect the unexpected.”

Rae told the senators that a minority parliament also offers an opportunity for the government to involve the opposition in decision making, which can create problems for opposition MPs who simply want to lob bombs, rather than take responsibility for policy decisions.

And Rae added this admonition: “Don’t bluff. Don’t threaten. If you’re going to do something, do it. There’s nothing that brings more disrepute with the public than bluffing.”

Trying to establish some trust with the other side is also worth the effort, he said. Rae, as a Liberal MP, recalled being asked by former party leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff to meet with officials from Harper’s PMO to let them know where they could expect opposition co-operation on files such as the war in Afghanistan.

“It did build up a bit of trust,” he now says. “So, try to establish some lines of confidence, because this is all about confidence.”

For his part, Segal reminded senators that nothing would end up on their desks unless the government and at least one other opposition party wanted it there. “When people work across party lines, there’s no limit to what you can achieve — if you don’t care who gets the credit,” he said, recalling the slogan that was on a plaque on United States president Ronald Reagan’s desk.

While Rae reminded the senators that they had been appointed, not elected, and that therefore there was a limit on just how much power they ought to exercise, Segal also told the group that there were muscles they ought to flex. For example, he said, if the House of Commons refuses to address controversial issues around immigration or the colonial excesses around the Indian Act, senators should dive in.

“Eighty-five per cent of the prison population of this country is either First Nations or low-income people,” Segal said. “Look at those issues in a non-partisan way; you’re in a great position to do that.”

Then, looking into the audience at the newest senate appointees, Segal added: “This is a tremendous opportunity for you. You’re in a position to increase your impact on Canadian politics.”

McGrath was in a somewhat awkward position, in that the NDP has long been on record as wanting the Senate abolished. “But that’s not at the top of our wish list today,” she said. “We’re not going to the barricades on that one right now.”

Having said that, she did point to the 2004 minority government, when Layton forced Martin to reverse $4.6 billion worth of corporate tax cuts in order to secure NDP votes for the passage of the Liberal budget. (The money instead went to public housing, transit, and post-secondary education.)

On that occasion, the NDP claimed victory; McGrath assured senators that the NDP has a wish list ready for this minority parliament, too.  

“You’ve always got to be election-ready,” McGrath said. “Always be looking to the next election.”

McGrath also stressed the importance of having lines of communication open among the parties. “You need someone from everywhere that you can talk to within these institutions and within political parties,” she said. “We don’t want to descend into what we’re seeing in other parts of the world.”

McGrath saw lots of opportunity among the parties and the senators for making progress on pharmacare, dental care, child-care programs, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“You can really improve the state of the country,” she added. “Stay focused on that.”

Conventional wisdom suggests this hung parliament could be around for a while. The Conservatives and the Greens are in the midst of leadership elections, and the NDP has no money in the bank. Rae said, don’t let conventional wisdom fool you.  

“A lot of people thought the same thing in 1979,” he reminded everyone.

On that occasion, the minority PC government thought its budget would sail through the Commons because the government was brand new and the Liberals were leaderless. Pierre Trudeau had stepped down, and the Grits were in the midst of replacing him. When Joe Clark’s government was defeated in December 1979 (by a six-vote majority of MPs, including Rae himself), a new election was on, and Trudeau returned from the wilderness: he ultimately won a majority for the Liberals in February 1980.

“So, remember: things can change very quickly,” Rae warned.

Segal reminded senators that, at the Quebec Conference, in 1864, as the political leaders of the day negotiated Confederation, “more time was spent on the role of the Senate” than on the powers of either the House or the provinces.

“You may not have the moral authority to stop government legislation,” Segal said. “But bad private-members’ bills? Crazy labour-relations stuff? Absolutely, yes.”

So as you watch the new House of Commons figure out how to negotiate the choppy waters of the first minority parliament in a decade, just remember: more than half the senators in that “other place” have never seen these political circumstances. And that might make the goings-on in the upper chamber worth watching a bit more carefully.

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