WINDSOR, ON — Ask a campaigning NDP leader if they would support this party or that party in a potential minority government and every NDP leader is trained to say the same thing: They’re running to be prime minister.
It’s what Jack Layton said. It’s what Thomas Mulcair said. And during a campaign stop here Wednesday, it’s what Jagmeet Singh said.
“I’m running to form government,” Singh told reporters here. “I’m running to be the prime minister because I’ve seen in a minority that New Democrats made life better for people. If we were not there, if we were not present in Ottawa … people would have been far worse off in this pandemic. And that’s motivated me more than ever to be the next prime minister so we can actually help people out.”
Singh’s response was prompted by a reporter’s query about his intentions if the current general election results in a minority Conservative government led by Erin O’Toole. Voters already know what Singh’s NDP did when Justin Trudeau led a Liberal minority government: It largely supported the government on confidence matters but withheld support until it could say it achieved certain objectives — increased sick leave benefits or pandemic benefits to students — that are important to those who vote New Democrat.
These negotiations with a minority prime minister can be tricky. One has to know when you’ve got all you’re going to get from a minority PM. And, at some point, if one pushes to far, a minority PM could just find another parliamentary partner or chance a confidence vote and an election.
The late Jack Layton and his team have been widely credited for skillfully negotiating with both a Liberal and Conservative minority prime minister, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. Only once did Layton ask for more than a prime minister was ready to give.
That was in 2005, when Layton could not accept what the Martin government was offering on health care. Martin called Layton’s bluff, the country went to the polls, and that’s how we had Stephen Harper.
Those who have been involved in minority government negotiations say any participating leader can only go as far as his base will allow him.
And that rule largely prevented Singh from entertaining any scenario in which he would have propped up former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, had Scheer ended up leading a minority Conservative government after the 2019 election. Scheer’s personal values on so-called social conservative issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, right-to-die legislation and so on were just too far from the NDP base and so, even before they started counting the ballots in 2019, Singh had declared that working with Scheer would be a non-starter.
Was that wise? Who knows. But Singh did see the NDP caucus cut down from 39 members to 24 members and, in the process, lost a significant amount of political capital. Scheer, on the other hand, won the popular vote and increased the Conservative caucus by 20 MPs. (And then lost his job! But that’s another story … )
This time, though, it may be different if Singh finds himself facing a Conservative minority led by Erin O’Toole.
For one thing, Singh is campaigning well so far in this election and all polls have consistently shown the NDP in position to win seats rather than lose them as it did in 2019. It might even add back the 15 members to its caucus it lost in 2019. And that will give Singh more political capital and freedom in any negotiations.
Second, Singh, when asked Wednesday here, did not — as he did in 2019 — rule out working with the Conservative leader. He now sounds as if he is keeping all his options open should he be leading a minority government or working with one as a supporting partner. Singh did tell the Toronto Star‘s editorial board in February, though, he would not work with O’Toole. But now, he’s less equivocal.
“We’ll look at that when it happens and make decisions that are in the best interest of Canadians,” Singh said Wednesday.
Finally, there is O’Toole himself and a party that is very different than the one in 2019. Both may be more palatable to the NDP base than 2019.
And the Conservatives are doing their darnedest to appeal to working class voters with policies that could have come right from NDP playbooks of Parliaments past. On Monday, for example, O’Toole said he’d introduce legislation that would guarantee at least one spot on the board of directors of any federally regulated company for worker representatives. Then he vowed to change bankruptcy laws so that pensioners would have a greater claim to bankrupt company’s assets, something New Democrats fought hard for when both Nortel and Sears went out of business.
On top of that, O’Toole has often introduced himself as the pro-choice son of a General Motors worker. The Conservatives may not get the endorsement of union leaders but they are working hard to get the votes of union rank-and-file.
And that should that make it much easier for Singh and O’Toole to come to some understanding in a future Conservative (or NDP!) minority parliament.