In an election in Canada’s multiparty parliamentary system, not every party can seriously aspire to form a government once the votes are counted. Pre-election opinion polls will indicate which parties are in the running for the big prize, and which are not. For those in the second category, there is still a consolation prize to be sought: a Balance of Power. If no party wins a majority, the government’s fate may well be in the hands of a third party, which can use this situation to extract legislative concessions. Such parliaments have not been uncommon in recent Canadian history, at both federal and provincial levels, and in many of those cases the party holding the Balance of Power has been the NDP.
In practice, however, managing a Balance of Power can be tricky. A classic case was the federal House of Commons following the election of 1972, in which Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals were reduced from a majority to a shaky minority. To stay in power, they needed the support of the 31 New Democratic MPs, led by David Lewis. For a while, the Balance of Power worked the way it was supposed to. The government introduced NDP-friendly legislation such as a foreign investment review process and a pension increase. But by early 1974, the sustainability of the arrangement was in question. As political commentator Patrick MacFadden wrote in the Last Post, an alternative newsmagazine of the time:
In the case of the NDP it is possible to write two scenarios. (Everyone writes scenarios in Ottawa.) The first is the coalition government scenario. Its main purpose is to underline the basic sense of responsibility of the party. Being responsible, it has a right to share in the governing of the country. Good legislation will ensue.
The second scenario is what we will call the gun-fighter scenario. The theory here is that to be taken seriously as the fastest gun in the West, you must kill a man – or at least draw on Billy the Kid or Jesse James. The townspeople will then go ooh-ah. “That David,” they will say. “He’s a mean son-of-a-bitch.” …
The trouble with this scenario, apart from the obvious one that it is preferred by a minority of caucus, is that David Lewis’s leadership style leans heavily on caucus opinion. In this, he is very different from T.C. Douglas.
The other difficulty is that you could get shot …
The speech from the Throne will be unnaturally specific this time … There will be nothing in it that the NDP will not be able to vote for. On the other hand, if they vote for it and the Liberals then call the election, the NDP will not have a platform.
On the other hand, there will not be an election before June 25.1
Soon after this was written, the NDP voted against the Liberals’ budget, bringing down the government. In the ensuing election, held on July 8, the voters returned the Liberals to majority status. The NDP caucus was reduced from 31 members to 16.
In the spring of 2014, Andrea Horwath faced a similar dilemma. Like David Lewis 40 years earlier, the Ontario NDP leader and MPP for Hamilton Centre held the Balance of Power. She had her own gun-fighter persona: the Steeltown Scrapper. The budget introduced by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals contained much NDP-friendly material: an Ontario pension plan, more money for transit, increased taxes on high incomes. But Horwath decided to shoot, announcing that the NDP would not support the budget.
In the ensuing election, Horwath had difficulty defining where her party stood. The NDP campaign was widely perceived as being to the right of the Liberal one. The NDP did not do badly, keeping its 21 seats and slightly increasing its popular vote. But there was a swing from the Conservatives to the Liberals, largely because Conservative leader Tim Hudak was all too clear about where his party stood. The Liberals won a majority and the NDP’s Balance of Power was gone.
As I write this, the next federal election is just under a year away. Much can happen in a year, but at the moment it does not appear likely that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will retain their majority. However, neither Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats nor Justin Trudeau’s Liberals appear to be in a position to gain a majority either. The probable outcome is a Balance of Power. Its exact configuration is likely to be determined in Ontario, with a parliamentary delegation expanded to 122 seats, many of them competitive. Hence the 2014 Ontario election is significant not just for Ontarians but also as a possible harbinger of what is to come on the federal scene.
In this section, two knowledgeable political observers survey the state of politics in Canada in light of the Ontario election and other recent developments. Using a model that converts poll numbers into seat projections, Paul Barber forecasts a minority Liberal government after the next federal election. One of Stephen Harper’s major challenges, he suggests, will be to convince voters that he is not a federal version of Tim Hudak. Nelson Wiseman focuses on the NDP. He examines the reasons for the party’s current weak state despite its federal breakthrough in 2011 and despite the continuing popularity of its ideas among Canadians.
Another election in Ontario, the October mayoral vote in Toronto, also attracted Canada-wide interest. This was primarily because of the spotlight that has been cast on Rob Ford’s extraordinary reign as mayor, finally brought to a close not by conflict of interest or by crack videos or even by the voters but by cancer. But Zack Taylor shows that there are other reasons for people across Canada to pay attention to Toronto’s municipal affairs, which reflect deepening economic and political divides that are replicated in other Canadian cities. The suburban areas around Toronto were a key component of Stephen Harper’s majority in 2011. The continuing strength of “Ford nation” is an indication that the appeal of conservative populism is alive and well in these areas, and should not be discounted as a factor in the next federal election.
1 Patrick MacFadden, “Ottawa Notebook: The Trouble Is You Could Get Shot,” Last Post, March 1974, p. 16. Patrick died on November 2, 2014, as this issue of Inroads was being prepared. He leaves behind many incisive passages like the one quoted here. May his memory be for a blessing.