Canada confidence-and-supply agreement, and irresponsible opposition

The Canadian government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party have forged a confidence-and-supply agreement with the New Democratic Party (NDP). Under the terms of the deal, set to run thorough June, 2025, the NDP publicly commits to supporting the Liberal minority cabinet on budget and confidence votes, in exchange for the government advancing some NDP policy priorities. Seven policy areas are mentioned in the agreement itself. One of the key priorities–in fact, the first item in the list–is a dental care program, which has been a campaign pledge of the NDP in recent elections. There are proposals for “making democracy work for people,” but in case anyone is wondering, no, electoral system reform is not on the list.

Predictably, figures within the opposition Conservative Party is decrying the “back room” deal (as if it were not public–it is on the official government website, after all–and as if bargaining processes themselves were ever predicting when carried out in a “front room” of scrutiny). But two candidates vying for the leadership of the Conservative Party have gone well beyond normal criticism of such a deal or the policies it will lead to. Jean Charest accused the government of ignoring the results of the election and of embracing an “anti-democratic” ideology. Patrick Brown said “the will of Canadians has been subverted.” (There are several contenders for the leadership; the party has been with an interim leader since shortly after its 2021 election defeat. Among the contenders, Charest and Brown would actually be considered relatively moderate!)

These are irresponsible statements, and are playing on ignorance about how parliamentary democracy works. Quite contrary to Charest’s statement, the Liberal-NDP agreement is precisely how democracy should work. Canada has a parliamentary form of government (far superior to the presidential form, by the way). Governments must maintain the confidence of the majority of elected representatives. If no party has a majority on its own—something the Conservatives have managed to achieve just once since 1988–then inter-party agreements stabilize the government and facilitate passage of policies favored by parties representing a majority. 

As for “will of Canadians” most political scientists would caution that there is no such thing as a general will. What makes democracy work is accountability at the next election, and cooperation between elections. That is what this agreement is about.

I believe it is not the first such agreement in Canadian history, although it is the first of many minority governments in some time to have such an explicit agreement. Broadly, there are three options when an election in a parliamentary system does not result in one party attaining more than half the seats. (1) Two or more parties can form a coalition cabinet; (2) one party can govern alone with a public commitment from a support party (or parties) in parliament; or (3) one can govern alone and seek case-by-case support from various parliamentary parties on specific bills and on the annual budget. One could add other options, as well, such as act as if you are the majority and dare the opposition to combine and vote you out, or call an early election and try to win a majority. The latter is, of course, precisely what Trudeau attempted in 2021, and the result ended up being hardly any different from that of the 2019 election.

This agreement represents the second of those three main options. The NDP gets no cabinet seats, and thus it is not a coalition. The NDP commits specifically not to vote against the government on budget or no-confidence votes, while the Liberals agree to take up some NDP policies. Thus the Liberal Party does not have to worry about the NDP joining with other parties against it, nor do the Liberals have to attempt to please the Conservatives or Bloc Quebecois in order to gain support for legislation. Thus it is firmly in the category of public commitment between a minority government and a support party. (Like all coalition and confidence-supply agreements, it is not legally binding, and either side could elect to break it at any time.)

It is worth noting that the Seat Product Model expects no-majority situations to be a regular occurrence. Given the district magnitude (1) and assembly size (currently 338), we should expect the leading party to average around 48% of the seats. Over time, this is very close to what we have observed. Since 1997, the first year the House of Commons had over 300 seats, the mean seat share of the largest party has been 49%, and the median has been 47.3%. The Liberals currently hold 47.0%. Five of nine elections since that time have resulted in less than 50% of seats, while the others have returned majority governments. Over the entire period since 1949, eleven of twenty four elections have returned minority situations. So roughly half of elections result in no majority, which is about what we would expect from a seat product that predicts about half the seats, on average, for the largest party.

Canadian party elites and the public thus should have got used to the idea that a majority is not the natural outcome of an election. They should further get used to the idea that, as a result, parties might strike deals to enable minority government to be stable and successful at implementing policy. Yet the habits of majoritarianism die hard, especially when both the empirical record and the Seat Product Model show that majorities always are a likely outcome, even if not necessarily the most likely at any given election. The majoritarian habit is even harder for the Conservatives to kick, given that they currently have no viable partners, and if they form minority government, their best hopes are either case-by-case deals or provoking early elections and hoping vote splits among other parties and wedge issues allow you to get a majority (both of which were practices during Stephen Harper’s two minorities before winning a majority in 2011). If the consecutive elections with similar results in 2019 and 2021 have convinced at least some party elites that a more consensual style is needed, it would mark an advance for Canadian democracy. But not an advance the Conservatives are going to find it easy to reconcile themselves to. Hence their resort to claiming inter-party cooperation is an illegitimate and anti-democratic practice, when that could hardly be farther from the truth.