Supplies of confidence
The NDP gets used to life, and a deal, with the Liberals
I wanted to ask Anne McGrath about the NDP’s “confidence and supply” agreement with the Liberals because we’re a month into the deal; because it’s the air we breathe now in political Ottawa, like it or not; and because McGrath, the national director of the New Democratic Party of Canada, doesn’t often retreat into euphemism.
We met during lunch at the Château Laurier. I had a salad that cost as much as a Buick. She stuck to coffee. Jagmeet Singh’s agreement not to withhold confidence in Justin Trudeau’s government for the next three years “sets up a kind of cognitive dissonance,” I said to her, “where every time Jagmeet or one of the critics says ‘This government is terrible,’ people say, ‘Well, then how come you’re in bed with them?’”
Me: “Yeah? It’s just the cost of doing business?”
McGrath: “I mean, yeah. That is a communications problem. But you have to be able to do it. You have to be able to say, ‘This is what we were able to get, using our power, from a Liberal government. This is not an NDP platform document,’ right? ‘These are the things that we were able to get.’
“And for people in our midst who say ‘We’re skeptical, we don’t think the Liberals will be honourable,’ or whatever, we say, ‘Well, we’re skeptical too.’ When they say, ‘It doesn’t go far enough,’ we say, ‘Yes, we agree. It doesn’t go far enough. It’s not an NDP throne speech.’”
This two-track messaging — the Liberals are a letdown, but we will support them in return for a promise to pursue common goals — is unwieldy. Its tone of grudging support, or of condemnation with an asterisk, is not the sort of discourse one often hears in Ottawa, where criticism tends to be more full-throated. And indeed, there’s a conventional wisdom that the main victim of this arrangement will be the NDP themselves.
“Oh, totally,” McGrath said. “That’s very much what’s being said right now. Blue Liberals and Conservatives are suddenly very preoccupied with our future and our success.”
This is where most people would dismiss such concerns out of hand. But McGrath — who was a key player in the federal NDP during Jack Layton’s leadership and who was Rachel Notley’s first principal secretary when Notley was Alberta’s premier — isn’t most people. The concerns make a lot of sense, she admitted.
“The popular wisdom, and I think it’s pretty true, is that in these arrangements the governing party — which has the levers of power and communications — gets all the credit for everything good that happens. And the junior partner gets all the blame for everything bad that happens. Or for anything that didn’t get done.”
How does Singh’s NDP plan to avoid that fate? “I think we have to do a couple of things. One is, and this was actually written into the agreement, the word ‘adversarial is in the preamble.’”
Indeed it is so. “Politics is supposed to be adversarial, but no one benefits when increasing polarization and parliamentary dysfunction stand in the way of delivering these results for Canadians,” the Liberal-NDP agreement, “Delivering for Canadians Now,” says.
Perhaps some people in Trudeau’s office are already surprised to learn the extent to which Singh’s office reads this sentence as a license to be adversarial.
“We have to maintain our role as an opposition party,” McGrath said. “We have to be critical. We have to be oppositional, adversarial, in areas that are not covered by the agreement. And then we have to be relentless in the areas that are covered, to get them done. Because I would say, and most people would probably agree, that the biggest weakness this government has is in implementation.” Boy howdy, I would agree to that.
Are there internal nay-sayers within the NDP too? This is the place where just about everyone in today’s Ottawa would say, “Not at all! We’re focused on Canadians and united in our determination to blah blah blah.” But again, McGrath is wired differently.
“Yeah, I hear skepticism, for sure. People are very alert to the potential electoral consequences. But I also think that people pick and choose their history.”
Here we get into the heart of the matter. This is not McGrath’s first rodeo. In fact, for all the free advice the NDP has been getting against deals with Liberals, on the general thesis that this will get the NDP squashed like a bug, the NDP itself has a long and robust history of trying to cooperate in elaborate way with other parties.
McGrath helped broker the formal coalition that had Layton and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe back defeated Liberal leader Stéphane Dion against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives for a few wild weeks in 2008. She had worked on offers Layton made to Paul Martin when Martin was a minority prime minister in 2004. And the urge to work across party lines long predates Layton, to Ed Broadbent and David Lewis and as far back as Tommy Douglas, working with Lester Pearson’s minority government in the 1960s.
The NDP instinct for coalition-building, formal or informal, is well-entrenched. What has varied — what has, lately, usually been absent — is Liberal interest in playing along. That’s what changed, partway into Justin Trudeau’s second minority.
What’s the attraction? Why do New Democrats so often want to cooperate, even given the risks? “Well, a couple of things,” McGrath said.
“One is, next to being in government, having influence on what will happen in government is the next-best thing. And it actually does get things done that we care about. Also, from the electoral point of view, it shows people that we are serious. That we have proposals that can work. That we are capable of governing.
“I mean, when you look at any research, qualitative or quantitative” — polls or focus groups — “going into any election, people really like what we talk about. They love our policies. They love our people. They love all sorts of things about us. But they don’t believe we can do it.” Giving New Democrats influence over government decisions, in this reading, strengthens the case for voters to back the NDP in the future.
You can buy this or not. My point today is that the NDP has almost always bought it, going back nearly to the first days after its modern, post-Cooperative Commonwealth Federation incarnation was born at the dawn of the 1960s. Brad Lavigne, who worked with McGrath in Layton’s office 15 years ago, tells some of the story in his 2013 book Building the Orange Wave:
Tommy Douglas, the father of medicare, worked with Lester B. Pearson to get the Medical Care Act passed in 1966. The Canada Pension Plan and the Quebec Pension Plan were also products of Pearson’s minority government. Under the 1972 Pierre Trudeau minority government, NDP leader David Lewis helped bring in national social housing, changes to the political financing laws and steps to ensure greater domestic ownership of Canadian energy resources. … In Saskatchewan, when NDP premier Roy Romanow was re-elected to a third term with a minority government in 1999, he listened to the message sent by the electorate and created a governing coalition, appointing Liberal MLAs to the Cabinet. What followed was stable progressive governance for the people of Saskatchewan, for which the NDP was rewarded with an outright majority win in 2003.
In his own 2010 book, How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot, another key Layton strategist, Brian Topp, describes these overtures and marvels at the refusal of successive Liberal leaders to take yes for an answer. Paul Martin was initially dismissive of Layton after the 2004 election: “You’re two seats short, Jack.” Later Layton’s 19 seats would come to seem awfully useful to a beleaguered Martin. He made major concessions to get NDP support for his 2005 budget (leading Lavigne to call it “the first federal NDP budget”).
When a public inquiry unearthed so many revelations of Liberal corruption under Jean Chrétien’s government that no opposition party would continue supporting the Martin Liberals, the Martin crew blamed Layton. To some extent this continues today on Liberal Twitter. “For many months thereafter, Mr. Martin’s team complained bitterly that their defeat in the election was all our fault,” Topp writes. “We hadn’t given them the support in Parliament they were entitled to.”
Topp’s rebuttal to that Liberal resentment could stand as a text for NDP overtures to the Liberals to this day:
As events demonstrated, Mr. Martin and his team were entitled to nothing from the NDP or any other competing political party. Our support, like any other, had to be earned and negotiated — by talking to us, by listening to us, and by finding some compromise with us that we could accept. That’s what business in any normal Parliament is all about, particularly in a minority Parliament, which is “normal” in most of the democratic world.
By coincidence, I ran into Brian Topp on Monday as I was on my way to my lunch with McGrath. He said there had been representatives of Germany’s social-democrat party, the SDP, at the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit in Ottawa three weeks ago. And a lot of the conversations between Canadian New Democrats and German Social Democrats had been about cooperating with one’s adversaries while remaining adversarial.
“This is common in our world,” Topp told me. “We talk about this all the time, we have examples all over. It’s only in Ottawa that people can’t believe you when you talk about this sort of thing.”
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In the concluding chapter of his book, Topp canvasses several reasons for preferring cooperation among parties over a war of all against all. First, alliances permit a certain audacity, he writes. “Canadian minority governments have generally remained in power by giving as little offence as possible.” Coalitions, in contrast (the Trudeau-Singh case at hand isn’t formally a coalition, but it offers some of the advantages) “include the additional benefit of spreading responsibility for tough decisions among more parties.” We’ll see, if this half-coalition takes any tough decisions.
Second, Topp wrote in 2010, “coalitions can build a government that a majority of Canadians actually voted for.” Again, almost-but-not-quite true here: Trudeau’s is the only government, but it won less than 33% of the popular vote, whereas the Liberals and NDP together won just over 50%.
Third, Topp wrote, “coalitions can help cure ‘elective dictatorship,’ by balancing the overweening power of modern prime ministers with government caucuses that have some bargaining power of their own.” Here, I think the Trudeau-Singh deal’s admirers and its detractors are just going to have to agree to disagree about whether the new arrangement reduces the prime minister’s tendency to overween. The same is true for Topp’s last claim about cross-party cooperation: that by increasing representation from different parts of the country, such arrangements are useful in “reinforcing Canada’s unity.”
The NDP haven’t always been willing to cooperate. There’s the case, famous in Parliamentary nerd circles, of Pierre Trudeau offering some cabinet seats to Ed Broadbent’s New Democrats to broaden his governing coalition after the 1980 election, even though the Liberals had won a majority. Broadbent didn’t like the terms, or had some other reason for sitting this one out, and he turned down Trudeau’s offer. And the Liberals haven’t always been disdainful, though usually, as with Martin in 2005 and Dion in 2008, their willingness to share the spoils increased when they were in the middle of a huge crisis.
What put Justin Trudeau in more of a cooperative mood than most of his predecessors? “I don’t know why he feels he needs it now, to be honest,” McGrath said. “Except that going from vote to vote tends to completely seize — it preoccupies you too much, you know? And it’s hard to get things done.”
It’s been widely suggested that Trudeau, by suing for peace with Singh, is clearing the decks so he can orchestrate his succession as Liberal leader. I have some patience for this theory myself, though in the nature of things it’s impossible to know. “I don’t believe it,” McGrath said. “Both he and Jagmeet look, to me, like people who want to get things done.”
Did the Conservatives, the party we haven’t really discussed here today, spur things along? McGrath seemed not to spend much time thinking about what the Conservatives might do, or what their voters, who must feel pretty alienated by the Trudeau-Singh deal, might think. To her the Conservatives are simply to be worked around. “They’re oppositional and adversarial in absolutely everything,” she said. “Their whole objective is to disrupt. Not to have better legislation or better programs or anything like that. Their modus operandi is disruption.”
Will this pact last until 2025? Maybe. “What are the exit ramps? The exit ramps are when one party or the other decides to walk away. Like, if it’s in their interest. At the moment, I don’t see that [happening]. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen.”
McGrath is particularly pleased that it has brought free dental care for children under 12. “That’s huge.” What it will bring next is something the NDP will judge when it happens. These things are built, not necessarily on quicksand, but certainly not on concrete. They’re human constructs. It’ll be for everyone to decide whether this deal brought Trudeau’s government closer to utility or further from it. His dance partners first, and then the rest of us.
I’ll be writing about music and other arts at length from time to time, but for now I just want to pass this along. It’s the great double bassist Joel Quarrington, who recently retired from the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, playing the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Extraordinary.