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Working The New Minority Government

By Scott Proudfoot & Michael Teeter

In a minority government, associations that successfully negotiate an understanding with officials and ministers in private may find deals renegotiated in the Commons. This article was first published in the September/October issue of Association & Meeting Director Magazine.

In the last 100 years Canadian elections have produced 8 minority governments, Mr. Martin’s being the ninth. (For history buffs, previous minority governments followed the elections of 1921, 1925, 1957, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1972, 1979.)  Common in the past and likely to be more common in the future, minority government is still a new experience for most sitting Canadian politicians - and many current association executives.


Here are a few things Associations Executives should keep in mind as they navigate their way through this new political environment.


Short Term Politics Trumps Long Term Benefits


In 1979 newly minted Prime Minister, Joe Clark, announced he would govern as if he had a majority.  His Finance Minister, John Crosbie, introduced a budget that promised, “Short term pain for long term gain”. This approach turned out to be brave but stupid and the Clark Government is a historical footnote. Mr. Martin’s Government will not wish to make those same mistakes.


A minority government means the election never stopped! Events that merely embarrass a majority government can be life threatening to a minority government. Irrespective of the long-term benefits, the short-term political costs of every decision will be weighed more heavily. Issues near and dear to your associations lacking a clear political pay-off will not attract the government’s attention. There are some positions that simply will not sell. Pick issues accordingly.

The Party that Props-Up has Significant Influence

While the government has said it will negotiate support on an issue by issue basis, practically it will seek the support of the NDP and the Bloc on social and environmental issues and it will require the support of the Conservatives on some business and defence issues. Overall, this Parliament will lean more left than right. Business-minded associations may find themselves playing defense. Associations, more interested in social and environmental issues, will find new opportunities to advance their issues.


Obviously, the party that is "propping up" the government on a particular issue or bill will demand policy concessions in return for this support. Because negotiations will occur on an ongoing basis, association executives directly interested in a particular issue will have to be particularly attentive.


Political Leverage over Cabinet and the Public Service

Associations executives know many important decisions affecting business outcomes are made at the "official" and Cabinet levels. Traditionally associations cultivate key relationship in the bureaucracy because Cabinet Government vests officials with great influence and power. 


In a minority government, associations that successfully negotiate an understanding with officials and ministers in private may find deals renegotiated in the Commons.

In a majority government, the governing party and its regional caucus groupings tend to have the greatest influence.  In a minority context, power is more widely distributed in Parliament.  Individual MPs can demand and receive decision-making power and influence over decisions previously outside their purview. 


The Action will be in the Committees


There will be a natural tendency to work out more issues in Parliamentary Committees.


In a majority government, ministers and senior departmental officials cherry-pick the recommendations offered by the Standing Committees and ignoring ones they do not like, sometime dismissing entire reports. They no longer have that luxury.  Trade-offs and agreements and opposition votes will have to be lined up before any item reaches the House for a vote. Consequently, more legislations will be held up or die in committees or take on entirely new features.


The roles of the Chairman and Parliamentary Secretaries will be critical to committee work as will a good internal working relationship with the Opposition critics.  Committee hearings and deliberations will become both more strategically important and challenging to interested associations.


107 New Players


In dealing with the increased power of Members of Parliament, also take note that one third of the House of Commons is now made up of freshman members  - 41 new Conservatives, 31 new Liberals, 26 new Bloc Québécois and nine new NDP MPs. So many new members will shift the dynamics of existing caucus and parliamentary committees. So many new members will shift the dynamics of existing caucus and parliamentary committees.


An individual MP can be a powerful advocate in a minority government. Many of these new members have had relationships with associations, NGO and community groups. Association executives should get to know these new MPs and renew acquaintance with older members. Determine who your supporters are. It is incumbent upon the association advocates to pick their "champions" carefully, and educate these champions to assist with beneficial outcomes.

Good Bye Democratic Deficit

A minority government has a way of erasing the democratic deficit. Government survival depends on the support of individual Members of Parliament, even those from opposing sides of the House. Beyond that, the Martin Government is committed to more free votes and more policy-making influence from Parliamentarians and Parliamentary Committees, including swearing in opposition members, Parliamentary Secretaries and committee chairs (as Privy Councillors) for the purpose of confidential briefings and more open dialogue. . 

We would also note that in a minority government situation, Senators will catch the liberated spirit of the Commons and be more inclined to flex their existing legislative muscles.  These are not inconsiderable when used with adroitness and persistence.


Governing without Parliament

A minority government only feels safe when Parliament is not sitting.  Any minority government will do as much as it can via existing regulations or executive decisions and go to Parliament only on issues when absolutely required. Associations should ask themselves what the Government can do for them that does not require either legislation or a budget item.


Will that be One Budget or Two?


Many associations’ lobbying efforts are targeted at the Government’s annual budget introduced in February. This parliament may last one to two years. One budget introduced and passed is certainly possible but two is a stretch. If your association does not have your item inserted in the upcoming budget (which means you should have already started) there may not be another opportunity prior to the next election.


The Provinces Have A Seat at the Table


Because Mr. Martin and his advisors have tied so much of their own agenda to issues primarily under provincial jurisdiction (healthcare, cities, training, etc.) the positions and actions of the provinces will ricochet around the  Commons picking up both support and opposition. The provinces are likely to be more actively lobbied as certain groups seek leverage over federal positions.


Final Thoughts for Association Executives:

Minority Governments can be surprisingly energetic. They are unpredictable. They present both risks and opportunities.   They give association advocates new opportunities to influence outcomes, even those typically driven and decided at the Cabinet table. Individual Members of Parliament, from all sides of the House, can be key to voting outcomes.


Even where regulatory, expenditure or policy decisions are made outside the direct purview of Parliament; a skilled advocate can mobilize allies in Parliament to seek leverage in support of beneficial outcomes. As decision-making is vested more in the hands of elected officials and less in the hands of bureaucrats, new (and sometimes innovative) ideas can find their way into government policy and legislation. A new approach or idea may more easily gain traction via a Parliamentarian proponent as through a policy framework created, vetted and revised through bureaucratic consultation processes and a myriad of bureaucratic reviews and rewrites.


A minority parliament will be a good time for some associations to ‘Think Big’ and push for major change.


And remember, grassroots campaigns have a greater potential impact in a minority parliament. Eighty of the current Members of Parliament won their riding by less than 3000 votes. Any association that demonstrates it can mobilize a significant number of these MPs constituents around their issues will have their attention.



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