Liberals Should Have Staying Power in Minority Position: Flanagan

December 18, 2019 Updated: December 18, 2019

The Liberal government got an early reminder that it isn’t in a majority position anymore when a Conservative motion to form a new parliamentary committee on Canada–China relations passed with the help of all opposition MPs.

Despite having a weaker hand, the Liberals should have ample opportunity to forward their legislative agenda, says Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary.

“The Liberals may not be able to do everything they would like, but they should be able to do quite a bit,” says Flanagan, who was chief of staff for Stephen Harper prior to the merger that formed the Conservative Party of Canada.

“They don’t need to make a long-term deal with anyone; they can just tack back and forth between the parties,” he says. “They can draft legislation which they anticipate could get the support of one or more opposition parties, which could be a different configuration each time.”

Nevertheless, the process of governing will be more difficult.

“They have to accept that some of their legislation may not get enough support to pass, in which case they may choose to withdraw it or let it die on the order paper,” Flanagan explains. “The confidence convention in Canada doesn’t require them to win every vote in order to stay in power.”

Minority governments only fall when major legislation, such as a budget, fails to pass. Another means is by a motion of non-confidence in the government.

The Liberal government led by Paul Martin 15 years ago faced similar hurdles. The 2004 election downgraded the Liberals from majority to minority territory, followed by the Conservatives, the Bloc Quebecois, and the NDP—as it is today. That government also faced an early challenge by the Conservatives, as they joined with the Bloc and NDP to force changes to the speech from the throne.

Opposition harassment remained constant. In April 2005, the Liberals avoided a non-confidence motion by cancelling opposition days from the parliamentary schedule. The government made changes to health-care spending, revised equalization, and legalized gay marriage. It finally fell due to a Conservative motion of non-confidence in November 2005.

“The Liberals do have to take steps to make sure they don’t needlessly suffer embarrassing defeats on non-confidence issues,” Flanagan says. “They have to ensure they have enough of their own members on hand when votes could arise—more work for the House Leader and Whip. They also probably need to be conciliatory in scheduling House business to keep the opposition parties from ganging up on them.”

As for parliamentary committees, he says the Liberals will have to handle them carefully throughout this term.

“They won’t have a full majority on committees, and more chairmanship will have to be allocated to the opposition parties,” he explains. “This could lead to some of their desired legislation being blocked or heavily amended in committee.”

The Conservative motion to create a China relations committee passed with 171 opposition MPs voting in favour and 148 Liberals voting against. Some thought the Liberals mishandled the motion and could have shown themselves ready to collaborate by voting in favour.

The day after the motion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to make amends. “We recognize that there is an opportunity to collaborate further on the special committee on China. We just certainly hope that the opposition parties are careful not to play politics and endanger the lives of those Canadians with it.”

“[T]hose Canadians” are Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, arrested in China a year ago on charges of espionage soon after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the behest of Washington. They have since been held in detention and not allowed to speak to lawyers or family members.

As the Liberals navigate parliamentary procedures, they enjoy the benefit of experience. In 2015, they elected 136 first-time MPs as a major part of their 184-seat majority. But in this 157-seat minority, only 24 Liberals are rookies. The Conservatives have 38 first-time MPs, the Bloc 21, the NDP 7, and the Greens 1.

Historically, Canadian minority governments have lasted roughly 18 months, but Flanagan believes the Trudeau minority should have some staying power.

“Unless something happens that causes all three opposition parties to decide they want an election, the Liberals can govern as long as they want,” he says. “I don’t think any of the opposition parties will want an election soon.”