It is widely argued that, if good times permit, it’s nice to have minority governments in Ottawa and a divided congress in Washington. For five years, the opposition in Canada warn that a majority Conservative government would impose “a hidden agenda,” while in the US, Republicans successfully rebalanced Washington by campaigning against a socialist coup. Both messages play on the same fear: once one party gets popular enough to be in charge, it will immediately start doing unpopular things.
This prediction is rather illogical and impossible to prove—or disprove—in advance. (Why would a larger caucus of Conservative MPs who won by broadening their message decide to resurrect issues with marginal appeal and low priority?) The alternative circumstance—a majority government with sufficient time and power to implement major reforms that could enjoy popular support or at least broad acceptance—deserves greater attention.
Canadian history is studded with successes accomplished by majorities—a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Goods and Services Tax, and Free Trade with the US are contemporary examples. None of these were ideologically extreme, and they remain securely in place whichever party is in power. Nevertheless, not one of them would have been possible to accomplish without the secure tenure of a majority government.
Yes, public healthcare in Canada was legislated by a minority Liberal government in the 1960s. However, that federal government was awash with surplus money; nothing needed to be traded off. Furthermore, public healthcare was both credible and widely popular because the Tommy Douglas government of Saskatchewan had had a majority government five years before, when it first implemented universal public health insurance for the province.
The big issues that can’t get on the agenda of today’s minority parliament don’t seem to get the attention of those that may be “hidden.” Still, they are many: legislating strict representation by population for the House of Commons, reforming unemployment insurance in order to support individuals regardless of where they live, a security agreement with the US that would involve legislative changes in Canada in return for an open US border, and, someday, a tax on C02 emissions in order for Canada to do its part to fight climate change.
These issues don’t necessarily divide people on predetermined ideological grounds—rural versus urban voters, or Eastern Canada versus the West. But, the benefits and the costs don’t fall equally, and entrenched interests would be aroused. Also, workable and sustainable answers also require time and a spirit of compromise that only secure governments can illicit.
Ontarians who worry about Albertans and resent Quebec’s political savoir faire should recognize that a new deal for Ontario will require a majority government in Ottawa.