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A minority opinion « Douglas Fisher



A minority opinion

Sun senior parliamentary analyst Douglas Fisher was a third-party MP during three minority governments; in his experience they can be both fruitful and exhausting

Does the prospect of a minority government merit all the analysis it’s been getting this election campaign?

Opinion polling indicates the Liberals have slipped enough to lose 40 or so seats, losing the comfortable edge they won in the elections of 1993, 1997 and 2000.

Of course, there’s no way an elector may vote directly for a minority government (also often called a minority House) although voting for a third party might help. When we do get a minority House it means enough seats have been won by third and fourth parties to keep the two “old” parties — Grit and Tory — from gaining at least half the Commons seats, plus one.

We had four minority governments out of five elections from 1957 through 1965, and there has been much speculation about it happening again in 2004. Such fascination is rarely strong on historical substance, perhaps because we’re hardly devotees of the parliamentary past, and a minority House is iffy. This is so even though we’ve had nine of them, the first coming in 1921, after wartime crises had busted up the two-party pattern in Parliament in effect since Confederation. Out of the fractures came several new parties, the most successful being the Progressives, the United Farmers and so-called Labour.

The first three minority governments were finessed along by wily Liberal Leader W.L. Mackenzie King after the elections of 1921, 1925 and 1926. He was abetted throughout some nine years of power in the ’20s by the Progressives’ bias against taking part in “want of confidence” votes in the House.

The next minority government after King’s came in 1957, ending 22 years of Liberal rule under King and Louis St. Laurent. The Tories under John Diefenbaker moved boldly into office, and suddenly he was a national hero. After the first, awkward exposure of Mike Pearson as the new Liberal leader, the Chief seized the moment, dissolved the House, and went for and got a mighty sweep less than a year after his minority win. In short, it took two elections to be rid of what had been a governing Liberal juggernaut. Today, some electoral buffs think it will take two elections to get the Chretien-Martin Liberals out.

The next election after his big sweep put Diefenbaker back with another minority, but this time with a cabinet and caucus split deeply over defence policy. He was unable to hold for long the tacit backing by Bob Thompson and his third-party Social Credit caucus. A clear defeat in a House vote forced the 1963 election, in which Pearson and the Liberals won power but missed a majority by a handful of seats. Two years later, Pearson tried again for a majority and missed, again by a few seats.

The next minority government came in 1972 when Pierre Trudeau’s run of four years with a big margin disappeared. However, he carried on in office for two years because the NDP, led by David Lewis, promised no opposing votes if the Liberals brought in “progressive” legislation. Then a budget calculated to enrage the socialists led to the defeat in the House Trudeau wanted, and in the ’74 election he won back majority status. This became a long, dreary mandate vexed with inflation and constitutional bickering, and it closed with the election in 1979 in which Joe Clark’s Tories won the most seats but fell half a dozen short of a majority.

The young Clark declared he would rule as though he had a majority (as the Chief had chosen to do in 1957). This stance failed when his first budget, a tough one, was rejected by a small margin in a House vote early in the session. He sought and got a dissolution despite the near certainty he could have saved his government and seen the retirement of Trudeau by making a deal with a few Creditiste MPs (who dreaded another election so soon). Then he could have returned to vote again on the budget, using the Pearson precedent of 1967 which circumvented the defeat of the Liberal budget at its third reading.

You will be hearing how exciting and invigorating a minority House would be, and how it would give significance to the role backbenchers play. I can vouch, as a third party MP in three minority Parliaments, that each was exhilarating and testing. Both of Pearson’s minority mandates were chaotic and rife with scandal but also, arguably, the most fruitful and dramatic years in our politics because they produced so much important legislation — social, economic, cultural and constitutional.

Past experience also suggests that if a fresh party — say Stephen Harper and his Conservatives — should form a minority government next month there’s the prospect its legislative intentions might founder in a Senate controlled by a sizable Grit majority.

Nevertheless, if June 28 brings a Liberal minority it would count on tradeoffs through its social policies from the NDP, much as Lewis got from Trudeau in 1972 and David Peterson, as a minority Liberal premier of Ontario, arranged with Bob Rae and the NDP in 1985.