After the Oct. 21 federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would continue his progressive agenda despite his Liberals losing 20 seats and falling 13 seats short of a majority in Parliament.
A coalition government was widely expected, with the NDP opening the door to talks. However, a strong left-wing, progressive presence in Parliament appears to have given the prime minister confidence that he can pass key legislation over the coming four years in a minority position.
It’s no doubt an attempt by Trudeau at maintaining a façade that he hasn’t been damaged by the revelations from an extremely vicious election campaign. Perhaps he thinks a coalition could hurt him.
But if we learned anything from the 2010 to 2015 government in the United Kingdom, it’s that coalitions are more damaging for the smaller party.
A coalition partner could have been exactly what Trudeau needed to show Canadians that he needs a majority to do his job properly.
In the May 2010, David Cameron’s Conservative Party was just shy of winning a majority in parliament and so teamed up with the Liberal Democrats to form the first coalition British government in 36 years.
After more than a decade of Labour rule – the last couple of years under decidedly uncharismatic Prime Minister Gordon Brown – the change was a big shock. Liberal Democrats Leader Nick Clegg became deputy prime minister in Cameron’s government. In multiple joint appearances, the pair described the merits of working together based on their shared values of “freedom, fairness and responsibility.”
It was widely expected that the Liberal Democrats would ride the wave towards renewed relevance. But in the 2015 election, their fortunes turned and they lost 49 of their 57 seats.
The coalition was an unmitigated disaster for the Liberal Democrats and not necessarily because of poor decisions. It was the very nature of the coalition – the fact that compromise was necessary to govern – that killed them off.
Clegg had to accept policy that directly conflicted with promises he’d made during the 2010 election. For example, his promise to vote against any increase in university fees came back to haunt him when he was forced to accept tripling the cost of attending university, something that played a significant part in him losing his seat in 2015 to a Labour candidate.
However, when Cameron had to compromise, he could subtly suggest he wasn’t able to do his job properly without a majority to govern.
Cameron returned with a majority in 2015 election and with increased energy. On election night, he described it as “the sweetest victory of all.”
So the short-term pain of working with the NDP might have been worth it for Trudeau, since the threat of a populist government in Canada seems extremely distant.
Trudeau might have been wise to accept the NDP’s offer of a coalition government, but he would need to do it with care. The difference between the Liberals and the NDP is certainly not about world views – it’s just a matter of some policy specifics.
Had Trudeau found a big enough policy gap and mindfully failed to deliver on a promise, he could have shown Canadians that coalitions simply don’t work. He could have demonstrated that he needed a majority government to enact the agenda he promised.
Now, however, Trudeau has decided to go it alone – and let the NDP off the hook. It appears he simply hopes his agenda will be passed with the support of the NDP and others.
He should fully expect to work for those votes and no doubt make compromises along the way. The problem is, he’ll have nobody to blame if things go sideways.
Trudeau has put himself in a position of weakness and that will only benefit the Conservatives. If the Conservatives can pick apart the prime minister’s compromises and deliver a positive vision for Canada, then the next election is up for grabs.
The prime minister has missed a golden opportunity by refusing a coalition.
Jack Buckby is a research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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