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Minority governments have an upside, but no guarantees

It’s no surprise that those most elated by the results of this week’s federal election are public sector workers, who are already jockeying up to the taxpayers’ cookie jar courtesy of a minority Liberal government that’s going to be dependent on the NDP to prop it up during crucial votes.

It’s pretty safe to say we can’t expect to see anything like fiscal responsibility of the kind last exercised in this country when Paul Martin was finance minister. Nor are we likely to see any long-term thinking that puts nation-building ahead of entitlements, especially to the overly entitled.

That said, there is a history of consensus-building under past minority governments in this country. The one caveat is that such advancement came at an earlier time that was both less partisan and witness to more competence.

A common perception sees minority governments as weak, maintaining a majority is needed to get things done. However, Canadians have been typically well served by minority governments, which rely on wider input and compromise to move forward.

One of Canada’s most persistent political myths is that only majority governments are able to make meaningful change. The reality is frequently the reverse. Minority parliaments have often been the most effective in terms of achieving real progress for people.

Two decades of back-to-back majorities under successive Conservative and Liberal governments delivered largely on the demands of corporate Canada, not the broader electorate. That agenda was stalled, at least temporarily, under the minority headed by Martin 15 years ago. Negotiations to maintain support from the NDP forced the Martin government to put a brake on its rush to cut corporate taxes and redirect that money to reducing tuition fees, building affordable housing, improving energy efficiency, and improving protection for workers, for instance.

Subsequent minorities tempered Stephen Harper’s harmful tendencies.

It’s fair to say that some of Canada’s most progressive programs – including the most treasured one, universal health care – arose while minority governments were in place. Relying on support of at least one other party in the Commons tends to force governments to embrace, if even reluctantly, a wider perspective. In the case of health care, it was Tommy Douglas’ NDP that led the charge.

Progressives argue the minority government made progress on many policy fronts that put people first, a goal espoused by all of the parties, but seldom put into play in the same manner when a majority is in place.

Today, we’re back in a place where the NDP holds the balance of power. That may prolong the shelf-life of Jagmeet Singh, who led the party to a loss of almost half its seats. The party’s focus will be on developing saleable positions and using its leverage to the party’s advantage, pushing as much of its platform into the mix as a concession for backing the Liberals in confidence votes, such as the next budget.

That may not work to the public’s advantage, however, if the emphasis is on enriching the public service and boosting individual entitlements rather than investing in physical infrastructure, long-term financial stability through the likes of pension reform and sovereign funds, and an equitable regulatory system that begins to counter the decades-long slide into corporatism. The latter requires the country to move away from creeping police-state tendencies, removing corporate money and lobbying from politics, and using anti-trust legislation to dismantle or render defunct the new robber barons of this gilded age, including the likes of Facebook and Google.

Count on plenty of entitlements, and little in the way of good governance, however.

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