When Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh announced their confidence and supply agreement, they were replicating a similar Liberal-New Democratic minority government move a half century ago.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 28, 2022.
OTTAWA—There is a reason we say history repeats itself.
Because it does. We only have to watch the unfolding despotic massacre in the Ukraine to see a repetition of the slow-moving Second World War commitment by the Allies.
Just last week, politicians finally acknowledged what the world has witnessed. Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. He is breaking all the rules by bombing innocent civilians in his attempt to carry out a human annihilation that breaks all the rules of international armed combat.
Even close Russian allies are starting to have doubts, with two senior advisers resigning and fleeing the country in the past few days.
At home, we see another example of history repeating itself. When Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh announced their confidence and supply agreement, they were replicating a similar Liberal-New Democratic minority government move a half century ago.
The 1972 election yielded a Liberal minority with Pierre Trudeau as prime minister and David Lewis as leader of the NDP. By working together, the pair introduced new initiatives such as the creation of Petrocan, a national Crown corporation designed to manage Canadian oil and gas supplies.
Their agreement was not a formalized one, as Lewis was worried that too much co-operation might assist the Liberals more, so his party withdrew its support after two years, prompting the 1974 election.
Lewis was right. The Liberals were rewarded for this cooperative period with a majority while the New Democrats were reduced to a rump with Lewis losing his own seat.
The same thing happened to Liberals in Ontario when leader David Paterson negotiated an agreement with then NDP leader Bob Rae to take over after the minority election of 1985.
Rae also initiated discussions with Progressive Conservative leader Frank Miller, whose party had four more seats than the Grits.
But in the end, the program negotiated with Peterson won the day and the formalized agreement resulted in a Liberal-NDP accord, in which the New Democrats agreed to support the Liberals for two years.
Once the two-year agreement lapsed, the Liberals called an election and ended up winning the second largest majority in the history of Ontario politics.
But Rae’s reduced party hung in there, and when Peterson called a premature election in 1990, to everyone’s surprise, the New Democrats formed a strong majority government.
The current federal Liberal-NDP agreement gives the government double the amount of breathing room that existed in the Peterson-Rae accord.
By introducing certainty, the Trudeau-Singh agreement takes the drama out of federal politics until 2025. That may be a good thing for them. But it certainly takes the guesswork out of politics.
And observers like guesswork.
In a minority, there is always an open question about when the government might fall, but this has been replaced by a road map of aggressive social programs that will dominate public discourse.
National pharmacare and dental care have been firmly vaulted to the front of the government’s agenda in Ottawa.
As Jagmeet Singh said last week, he didn’t know whether it would help his party win, but the programs would certainly help people.
All in all, there is a significant public appetite for parties wanting to work together.
And the vitriolic response to the agreement from the Conservatives may actually have been overstated.
Ordinary Canadians like it when political parties manage to co-operate instead of fight. It runs counter to the general view that politicians spend all their time bickering.
Pharmacare and dental care may end up being much more costly than has been predicted. And that could certainly give some credence to the Conservative cry that the Liberal government is running a reckless deficit.
Depending on what happens with inflation and the ballooning deficit, the agreement may also put some pressure on Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s ambitions. If she is going for the brass ring, she has to be able to keep the country’s finances in check as a first step to the prime minister’s chair.
The agreement also runs counter to the separatists’ view that Quebec should have ownership over all decisions in health care. That could open the door to a resurgence of the Bloc.
But on the principle of dental and drug coverage, most Quebecers probably don’t care who delivers but would simply embrace the new benefits.
In the end, Singh may become the father of dental care, following in the footsteps of another NDP leader, Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas.
If history repeats itself, the party rewarded for this agreement in the next election will be the Liberals.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.