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Why Minority Government is Good for Canada

April 18, 2011

3-minute read

The following piece was originally written by CCPA Executive Director Bruce Campbell and CCPA BC Director Seth Klein in the lead-up to the 2006 federal election. Given Stephen Harper’s repeated appeal for a majority in the current campaign (and his frequent assertion that a minority government will fail to provide the steady governance Canada needs), we thought it would be worth re-posting an abbreviated and updated version of…

Why minority government is good for Canada

Is minority government bad for Canada? A prevailing view among Canada’s economic elite is that minorities produce gridlock and instability, and that only “strong” majority governments can produce meaningful change. Yet while majority governments have been very successful in advancing elite policy priorities, this convenient myth masks the reality that minority governments have historically produced important change that most Canadians support.

Canadians need to recall their recent experience with majority governments. Two full decades of back-to-back majorities under successive Conservative (1984–1993) and Liberal (1993–2004) governments delivered largely on the demands of corporate Canada, not the broader electorate. For Canadian citizens, election promises seemed to vaporize. Instead, these majorities delivered:

    <li>massive corporate tax cuts;</li>
    <li>the end of universal benefits for      children;</li>
    <li>repeated attacks on Old Age Security      benefits;</li>
    <li>deep cuts for health, education, and      social assistance;</li>
    <li>removal of federal support for      affordable housing;</li>
    <li>gutting of unemployment insurance;</li>
    <li>offloading of programs such as      training and welfare to the provinces;</li>
    <li>introduction and entrenchment of      both NAFTA and the GST;</li>
    <li>closer harmonization to U.S.      standards and regulations in areas such as health and the environment; and      closer integration on intelligence and military security.</li>

And the list goes on. Almost none of these measures were election issues, nor were they priorities for the majority of Canadians. They serve as an important reminder that we should be careful what we wish for, and that many of the most significant (and harmful) things done by majority governments never appeared in their election platforms.

In contrast, the Pearson minority governments of the 1960s brought in far-reaching reforms greatly valued by Canadians to this day, including the Canada Pension Plan, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the Canada Student Loan program, increased federal transfers to the provinces, and Canada’s most cherished social program –– Medicare.

In 2004, the Liberals campaigned on commitments to affordable housing, training, student assistance, the environment and foreign aid. But it was only because they were reduced to a minority and forced to make compromises with the NDP that they were held accountable for these promises. If they’d had their way, the Liberals would have replaced these promises with more tax cuts for big business.

Under a Liberal majority, Canada would almost certainly have signed on to the US Missile Defense program, over the opposition of the vast majority of Canadians.  With a majority, it is doubtful the Liberals would have finally moved forward on their promise (overdue by 12 years) to bring in a national child care program (subsequently scrapped by the Harper government), or achieved their landmark Aboriginal agreement (again subsequently scrapped by Harper). While far from perfect, the 2004-2006 minority parliament made modest progress in reversing the damage to our public programs. This is what most people wanted and what they voted for.

The last five years of Conservative minority government have brought in a huge round of tax cuts and military spending increases. But recall that minority government prevented the Harper Conservatives from implementing much of its radical agenda, including major social program cuts and scrapping the long-gun registry. And the opposition forced the Conservatives to implement a substantial fiscal stimulus program in 2009 to cushion the impact of the recession (against their original wishes).

Is handing a majority to a party –– and giving it carte blanche to implement its own, largely unknown, agenda –– the answer? We don’t believe so. There are far too many issues that have gone un-debated in this election.

Under a Harper majority, what will happen to the CBC? Will we see a radical decentralization of taxation powers to the provinces? Might they re-open the issue of privatizing the CPP? Will we see cuts to core social programs like EI or seniors benefits? Will anything happen on the climate file? What will happen to health care? We don’t know, and we shouldn’t find out the hard way.

The Conservative plan has not been fully costed. For example, it does not spell out that cuts it will make in order to close a budget shortfall in the coming three years (minimally of $4 billion according to the Tories themselves, but as high as $12 billion according to some authoritative sources). Thus, while we know what Harper says he will spend more on, we do not know what he may cut or privatize.

One reason Canadians feel disenchanted with politics is that parties run on one thing (usually centre-left platforms with broad appeal), and then when handed a majority, deliver something very different. Minority governments, on the other hand, serve to check this impunity. Another minority would force whoever forms government to listen to the representatives elected by the majority of Canadians (rather than influential lobbyists), and keep them from straying too far from core Canadian values.

Bruce Campbell is the Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Seth Klein is the BC Director

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