What federal parties can learn from confidence and supply in B.C.

By Shannon Waters and Palak Mangat March 23, 2022

British Columbians are no strangers to confidence-and-supply agreements like the one just signed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh after living under a government committed to a similar setup for just over three years.

The confidence-and-supply agreement (CASA) between the BC NDP and the Green Party allowed the John Horgan-led NDP to form government after the Liberal government — which held 43 seats to the NDP’s 41 following the 2017 election — fell to a confidence vote just two months later.

The federal agreement springs from a very different political circumstance with “a lot of good co-operation between the Liberals and the NDP” already on the record, said University of British Columbia political scientist Maxwell Cameron.

“Most of what’s in this agreement, they already agree on and they’ve been working on already together, so you hardly need a supply-and-confidence arrangement to continue with the kind of co-operation that has characterized this Parliament,” Cameron told Politics Today. “That said, the decision to make it formal is significant, and it does speak to the willingness of both parties to at least say that they want this Parliament to sit out its term.”

The CASA agreement in B.C. “worked well and it lasted” much longer than many anticipated, Cameron said — a situation that could play out in Ottawa as well.

B.C. Premier John Horgan and then-Green Party leader Andrew Weaver sign a confidence-and-supply agreement in 2017. (BC NDP)

After failing to capture a majority of votes in the 2021 election, Cameron doesn’t think the federal Liberals are too eager to get back on the campaign trail.

“But it doesn’t seem to be crazy speculation to say that maybe 18 months from now, prime minister Chrystia Freeland will decide to tear up the agreement,” Cameron said, referencing rumours Trudeau could step aside from the party helm before the next election and his deputy could wind up taking the reins.

New Liberal Party leadership could give the governing party the cover needed to break faith with their NDP partners, he added.

“The new leader comes in and decides this agreement is inconvenient and wants to run an election on shifting the party to the centre,” Cameron said. “And that could be a winning play.”

B.C.’s CASA agreement came to an end when Horgan called a snap election in September 2020, barely a week after Sonia Furstenau took over as leader of the BC Green Party.

Horgan has blamed the Greens for the election, citing the caucus’ opposition to a government bill that would have allowed youth who experienced overdose to be detained in hospital against their will. Despite being neither a confidence motion nor a supply bill, the premier suggested the Greens’ opposition showed a lack of support for the government.

But Cameron suggested it was more plausible that the NDP had tired of being tied to its junior partner and wanted a chance to govern on its own.

“It’s very clear that since the NDP provincially got its majority, it has governed differently — it has been much more centralized, much less responsive to public opinion, much more willing to drive forward its own agenda without listening to other parties and other voices, either inside the legislature or outside.”

“I actually think the [BC] NDP governed better when they were in an arrangement with the Greens, and I would be hopeful that the Liberal government federally would govern better because they’re in an arrangement with the NDP,” he added.

Beware the spending bonanza, says professor

Among the agenda items the federal NDP touted in a release yesterday was an agreement to launch a new dental care program for lower-income Canadians, beginning with 12-year-olds this year before folding in those under 18, seniors and people living with disabilities in 2023. “Full implementation” is set for 2025, with the regime limited to families where income sits below $90,000 per year.

“Text me,” Singh tweeted yesterday, imploring Canadians to let him know “how this will help you and your family,” alongside a phone number with a 613 area code.

The party is also hoping to see a Canada Pharmacy Act pass by the end of 2023, efforts to expand elections to a three-day voting period, and “early moves” by this year’s end toward a plan to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. (The Liberals initially vowed to do so by 2025 before bumping the vow up to 2023.)

When it comes to committee work, the New Democrats agreed to “communicate” with the government regarding any issues that “could impede the government’s ability to function or cause unnecessary obstructions to legislation review, studies and work plans at committees.”

Early Tuesday, Trudeau confirmed reports the two parties had come to a deal that would see his party remain in power into 2025, framing it as a “responsible answer” to uncertainties posed by the pandemic and challenges facing democracies “with hyper partisanship and toxic polarization.”

Trudeau staked his ground to “serve Canadians through and beyond the next election” — the PM could be in office for a decade by the time the pact expires, should he remain Liberal leader.

The federal pact will see the NDP support the Liberal government on confidence matters until 2025, in exchange for movement on policies like pharmacare and dental care. (Twitter/@JustinTrudeau)

Singh repeatedly cautioned the pact is not a coalition, which was “never” offered up and nor would it have been considered by his caucus, which remains an “independent” and “opposition” party capable of scrutinizing the government.

He also pushed back against the notion of the agreement being an “electoral strategy” when pressed if he was concerned about not picking up more seats should a snap vote be called. (The captain, despite generally polling high on the likability scale, has twice failed to make a dent in the party’s electoral standing.)

Conrad Winn, a Carleton University political scientist who studies public opinion, said the move appeared to be “from another era” when the country wasn’t faced with “mammoth debt and inflation wasn’t rampant.” Noting there is military “instability” in the face of nuclear threats from Russia, he said the agreement’s emphasis on new spending initiatives signals the two captains are “oblivious” to the need to rein in federal coffers.

“The announcement is slightly odd and out of place. Maybe some voters will think it’s appropriate, but with the passage of time,” that may shift amid rising deficits.

He said the deal does not lay out how the government will “afford” its own increased military spending.

“To the extent that dental care and pharmacare are valuable, where can we save money in other programs to make such spending possible?” he wondered, adding it’s an open question where the government will turn to find “efficiencies.”

The professor also expressed confusion around the NDP’s “strategy,” which appears to be clearer on the Liberal side.

The opposite of anti-democratic

Despite some assertions to the contrary, CASA agreements are “not anti-democratic in any way,” per Cameron.

“I take umbrage at the suggestion that this is some sort of inappropriate power grab or that it shouldn’t be done,” Cameron said. “It’s positive for democracy, in terms of accountability, in terms of co-operation — it’s good to have our parties learn to co-operate together.”

If the “point of politics” is to ensure that policies supported by a majority of voters are acted on by elected members of political parties via debate, negotiation and even compromise — rather than “a series of small interests vying for control of the agenda” — such agreements are a net positive even if they’re unfamiliar to many Canadians. he said.

Speaking to Politics Today, NDP strategist Cam Holmstrom said the “irony” is that it is typically “easier” for opposition parties to rake in donations during a minority Parliament because of the looming threat of a snap election, which is now off the table.

While the deal aims to provide “certainty” in how Parliament will function into 2025, with the NDP vowing to support the next four Grit budgets and help defeat non-confidence matters proposed by other opposition parties, “you’re not helping yourself raise money or get candidates or be ready for the next election,” he said.

But that makes it clear the party is placing an emphasis on “delivering on their promises” rather than partisan fighting — which is ultimately the “right” and “mature” approach, despite not being the “easiest political route.”

“Good policy makes good politics. If you go into your seats, push for good policy, bring it forward, make it happen — the electorate will reward you in the end without having to do all the political machinations and all of that, playing the game,” said Holmstrom, a longtime organizer who spent a decade working for the NDP caucus on the Hill and is now a consultant with Bluesky Strategy Group.

While it’s a risk that doesn’t “always turn out to be the case,” he said as a rule of thumb, “doing good gets you good results from the policy front and political front.”

“We complain as a society so much about that kind of behavior from our politicians, that we’re embarrassed to watch question period because of the yelling and screaming and fighting,” he said. “This is a test to the public, that ‘This is what you’ve asked for — more co-operation, more adult behaviour.’ The question is, ‘Are you going to reward that in the end?’”

Singh acknowledged it’s a “legitimate concern” that he will be viewed as a junior partner to the Grits but added “frankly, I don’t care.” (His caucus similarly grappled with those sentiments but ultimately came out as “enthusiastic” about the pitch. NDP MP Jenny Kwan told reporters while there’s a “full range of views” within caucus about the matter, it is about “compromising” in a minority Parliament and the party has been focused on, right from the get go, “getting as much as we can for the people.”)

“If the issues on which the two parties have agreed to find common ground are issues that have broad support in the public, then is this not perfectly democratic? In fact, it is just the way democracy should function,” Cameron told Politics Today.

The junior partner shoulders most of the risk

Cameron suggested the federal NDP should be prepared to get the short end of the stick when the agreement eventually ends.

“The NDP should know that it’s often the case that the smaller party in these kinds of arrangements often don’t get the credit for the policies of the government, and it can wind up losing shares of the vote in the subsequent election,” he said.

In the meantime, parts of the NDP base may be put off by the party’s willingness to work with the Liberals — “You’ve gotten married with the Liberals and they are the obstacle to your ever forming majority government — why would you do that?” — and the party’s identity could be diluted.

“The danger is you lose your identity, you lose your brand, you come to be seen as a prop to the Liberal Party — you’re no longer an independent voice,” Cameron said.

CASAs are rare in Canada and are “worth the paper they’re written on,” but that does not mean that nothing significant comes from them.

“If we think back to the Pearson governments in the 1960s — minority parliaments with similar kinds of supply-and-confidence arrangements — we got the Canada Pension Plan, the Canadian flag [and] improvements in health care,” Cameron said. “There were a series of things that were actually done by that government that showed that it was effective.”

By 2025 — or whenever the federal arrangement ends — its success should be judged by “legislation passed, measures enacted [and] programs created or sustained,” Cameron told Politics Today, plus “evidence that those things are being done in a way that responds to what the public wants.”