What the federal election will mean for policy — and for Ontario

ANALYSIS: Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are looking at a minority in the House of Commons — but they still have a chance to make moves on climate change, pharmacare, and more
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 22, 2019
Man and woman smile and wave to crowd.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wave to the crowd after a victory speech in Montreal on October 22. (Valerie Blum/EPA)

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It can be easy to forget, between all the blackface scandals and dual passports, that the object of elections is to change policy: governments running for re-election say what they’re going to try to do with their next kick at the can, and opposition parties say what they’d do differently, and voters pick which they’d prefer. With the votes counted, the Liberal Party of Canada is looking at a minority in the House of Commons, but not a slim one, meaning they’ll have a reasonable chance to make their platform a reality for however long Canada’s 43rd Parliament lasts.

A Liberal minority is going to have some substantial impacts on public policy in Ontario, and the desires of the smaller parties in Parliament may affect things in ways we can’t necessarily predict. Here are some of the big policies we can expect to see a new government pursue.

Climate change

The carbon tax is safe, for now. Indeed, if the Conservative Party of Canada takes the lesson from Andrew Scheer’s defeat last night that it’s not electorally profitable to go to voters without a serious climate plan, the carbon tax might become a reasonably fixed part of federal policy. Technically, the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act still needs to survive judicial review at the Supreme Court of Canada next March. But the carbon tax has already prevailed in two provincial courts, and even the dissenting justices made it clear that the problems with the carbon tax had more to do with the particular design the Liberals had chosen, not the ultimate policy goal itself. Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court does invalidate the current federal carbon tax, there will be a strong bloc of cross-party MPs willing to make the changes necessary to save a federal carbon tax.

Ontario, of course, currently has a government that’s deeply opposed to the carbon tax. But if it’s going to be a permanent part of governing anyway, the Progressive Conservatives may finally make their peace with it. The billions of dollars the carbon tax raises could be an easy way to slim down the provincial deficit, in any case.

The broader world of climate policy will also be interesting. The Liberals already had an ambitious agenda in their platform to support such things as electric vehicles and green building renovations, and it seems likely that, if anything, the New Democrats and Green Party will push them even harder on that front.

In short, the broad majority of Canadians who support climate action got more or less what they wanted last night.

Pharmacare

For voters looking for help affording prescription drugs, the story is more complicated. The Liberals promised help for pharmacare in their platform, but there are divisions within the party: some members want a big, public, national program, and some want to take a more incremental approach that would largely leave private insurers in place. The fact that the Liberals will, to some extent, depend on the New Democrats for their survival might make a reasonable observer think that the “big public plan” side inside the Liberal caucus would have the upper hand, but it’s more complicated than that. The ultimate pharmacare gatekeepers aren’t actually in the House of Commons at all, and most of them don’t need to worry about elections anytime soon. Health care is a provincial, not federal, responsibility, and, in the end, a “national pharmacare plan” is just another word for “something the provinces agree to.”

In theory, the federal government could make a deal sweet enough to entice provinces to come along, but there’s a broad swath of conservative provincial premiers from the Rockies to the Atlantic who don’t believe government is the solution and who especially don’t believe that Ottawa is the solution. Landing an agreement with the premiers would be difficult in the best of times, and Trudeau may simply not manage it in this Parliament.

Housing

An issue that could set the Liberals and NDP at odds in the next Parliament is housing. While both parties support federal support for housing, the NDP platform called for a much larger federal role in funding affordable housing and included a large numerical target — 50,000 affordable homes built annually for 10 years — that the Liberals might be hard-pressed to commit to in a budget.

This is a case in which policy can’t really escape politics, because, while the Liberals will necessarily need the support of other parties to govern, it’s not true that the consequences of failure are the same for everyone. In theory, the collapse of a government is bad news for everyone, since all MPs suddenly need to go ask voters for their jobs again. But the Liberals did reasonably well in this election under far-from-ideal circumstances, and they might not be afraid to go back to voters again sooner than the opposition parties would like. Trudeau and his cabinet will almost certainly get one budget through Parliament next spring without any real hiccups, but by 2021, they might be ready for a fight again. (Stephen Harper’s first minority lasted only two years, from 2006 to 2008, before he decided to try his luck again at the polls.) Oh, and one other thing to consider: in 2021, absent some truly major changes at Queen’s Park, the bogeyman the Liberals ran against so successfully this election — Doug Ford — will still be premier. The Liberals may not mind running against him one more time before Ontario voters get to render their verdict in 2022.

The result of that arithmetic — is it better to govern in a minority or roll the dice and try again for a majority? — may have more power than last night’s results to decide the fate of the housing file, and many other policies.

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