You wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but the federal Liberals just received the lowest percentage of votes to win the largest percentage of seats since 1867 – 54.4 per cent of the seats with just 39.5 per cent voter support. As a result, the Liberals should act like they are fully aware their minority miracle majority is very unlikely to happen again.
Yes, they have a 14-seat majority, but with 15 seats won by a margin of less than 2.6 per cent of total votes cast, and another 18 seats won by 2.6 per cent to 5 per cent, the Liberals should walk on egg-shells over the next four years.
Even a small percentage of NDP supporters who may have voted Liberal to stop the Conservatives switching back to the NDP, or Conservative voters who may have stayed home voting again, will change the results of the next election significantly.
So what should the Liberals do? First, act like they have a minority government: nothing will motivate supporters of other parties more in the next election than being ignored by the Liberals for the next four years.
Second, democratize and clean up federal politics: nothing will turn off Liberal MPs and supporters more than being ignored by the Prime Minister’s office, and nothing will hurt the Liberals more than a series of ethics, secrecy and waste scandals.
The Liberals have promised 75 changes in 32 areas in the “Open, Honest Government” section of their platform, including changes to decrease voter ID requirements, strengthen access to information, ensure merit-based Cabinet appointments including to the Supreme Court and Senate, free and empower MPs and committees in a few ways, restrict government advertising and party spending in between elections, reform Parliament in a few ways, and ensure gender-based analysis of the effects of government policies. Those promises, some of which lack key details, would make the federal government more open and democratic, but not more honest and ethical.
The Liberals made no promises in the key areas of honesty-in-politics, ethics and lobbying disclosure and restrictions, whistleblower protection or strengthening enforcement by watchdogs (such as the Ethics Commissioner and Lobbying Commissioner) or strengthening citizen group watching of government and big businesses. And there is only a vague promise to close political financing loopholes.
The Liberals’ promised open government changes are also vague and, even if kept or strengthened, will likely not let enough light in to prevent major ethics or waste scandals. The Liberals best remember that what is currently legal is not considered by the public to be the same as ethical.
Only strong honesty, ethics and lobbying disclosure requirements and restrictions, that many surveys over the past 15 years have shown a large majority of voters want, will prevent this unethical virus that ruined the Conservatives from infecting the Liberals early and often.
Finally, the Liberals should keep one of their strongest and most significant democratic reform promises by changing the voting system – and ensure the committee that consults on the change is evenly split between Liberals and opposition party members to avoid the charge that they are trying to rig the system in their favour.
If the Liberals act like they have a comfortable majority or dash the hopes they fostered and encouraged for real change, especially change in how politics is done, they will likely quickly lose the support they have finally won back after 10 years.
Duff Conacher is Co-founder of Democracy Watch and a Visiting Professor at the University of Ottawa.