Recent weeks have featured much speculation about a possible federal election sometime this spring, perhaps following the delivery of a budget in early March. Most Canadians probably think an election during a pandemic and a troubled vaccine rollout would be dangerous and inconvenient. I would also argue that it would be unnecessary.
Let’s remember that after the last election in October 2019, the Trudeau Liberals went from majority-government status to a minority position in the House of Commons, with just 157 seats, based on obtaining the lowest percentage of the national popular vote (35 per cent) of a governing party in Canadian history.
The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) won the popular vote and formed the official opposition with 121 seats. The NDP won just 24 seats, its lowest total since 2008, the separatist Bloc Quebecois won 32 seats, and the Greens won three seats.
As I have argued previously on these pages, minority governments are not aberrations or necessarily dysfunctional. How effectively they operate and how long they last depend on a number of factors, such as the distribution of seats among the parties, the types of issues that arise on the government agenda, and the skills and motivations of the party leaders, especially of the prime minister.
Surprising critics who claimed he was a political lightweight, Trudeau has wielded power shrewdly. He did this in part by daring the opposition parties to defeat his government — for example, when he labelled the creation of a special committee to study the WE Charity scandal a matter of confidence. He then prorogued Parliament to blunt opposition attacks. Both actions were constitutionally problematic but politically effective.
The circumstances of the opposition parties aided the prime minister in ducking accountability. The CPC was in disarray over leadership, with Erin O’Toole replacing Andrew Scheer in August 2020, and over its ideological orientation, with "Trumpian"-type ideas and individuals gravitating to the party despite the new leader’s insistence that the CPC would remain moderate and pragmatic.
The NDP has proven to be a reliable ally of the Liberals, which is a familiar pattern with past minority Liberal governments. Party leader Jagmeet Singh claims more generous relief cheques and greater assistance to students have been among the gains obtained in return for propping up the government. Even though the NDP claimed the Liberal government lacked integrity and expressed doubt that it would fulfil promises to create national daycare, pharmacare and standards in long-term care, the party refused to combine with other opposition parties to defeat the government.
Hard-headed political calculations that an election would not go well for the party were behind this strategy, and predictably, political opponents and some media commentators alleged hypocrisy.
Liberals were happy to take credit for popular economic-relief measures proposed by the NDP. On pandemic issues, the national government provided money and obtained vaccines, but it was the provincial governments who were forced to face the unprecedented public health challenges on the ground.
Based on the relatively high approval of Trudeau’s national leadership role, the Liberals are sufficiently ahead in the polls that a majority government seems within reach. A cabinet shuffle, a cabinet retreat, and a prime ministerial message warning the national board of the Liberal party to be prepared for an election, all contributed to media speculation.
There is a big difference, however, between planning to force an election (say, by using a "poison pill" in a spring budget that the NDP would have to reject) and being ready for an election if the opposition parties should become intransigent within Parliament in ways that would block Liberal plans.
The Liberals have been skilful and opportunistic in managing past minority-government situations. In the current Parliament, they have not been blocked or unduly constrained by their minority status. None of the opposition parties has been ready for an election. The pandemic has dominated the political agenda, so other issues have been crowded out.
The Liberals have been allowed to spend freely. A truncated and hybrid House of Commons has limited opportunities to challenge the government.
No doubt, there are political gladiators in the Liberal back rooms who insist the primary goal of a minority prime minister is to obtain a majority and, given the current favourable circumstances, insist that Trudeau should "arrange" an early election. A smart prime minister, however, would not send the country to the polls when the pandemic still rages, especially in Ontario and Quebec where national elections are decided.
There is great uncertainty about when mass vaccinations will be completed. The amendments to the Canada Elections Act authorizing special pandemic voting arrangements have not been approved by Parliament.
The next fixed-date election set by law is on or before Oct. 16, 2023, unless Trudeau calls a snap contest or the opposition parties combine to defeat the Liberal government on a confidence matter. There is no good reason for a spring election; even a fall contest could be problematic. Better to make the minority government work than to stage an unnecessary election.
Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.