Members of Parliament returned this week to a House of Commons uncannily similar to the one they left two months ago to hit the hustings. The Liberals and NDP picked up a couple of seats, the Conservatives lost a couple, and the Bloc and Greens held their own.
In the green chamber, it’s déjà vu all over again.
That’s led many observers to question the point of the whole campaign. Since nothing much changed, this “Groundhog Day” election seems like a waste of money and effort. I disagree. By electing a Parliament almost exactly like the one it replaced, Canadians actually sent a strong message: not just about what they want government to do, but also about how to get it done.
After 18 months of pandemic, amid tantalizing glimmers of hope it may soon end, Canadians faced a historic choice. Should the country now snap back to some pre-COVID-19 ‘normal’? Or has the pandemic more permanently changed what we expect from our governments?
Even before the ballots were counted, it was clear the latter option reflected a strong plurality of Canadian opinion. Even Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole sensed Canadians wanted more from government in the future, not less, so he engineered a big-spending platform with deficits almost matching that of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Parties espousing an even more ambitious vision of post-pandemic reconstruction won most of the votes.
So the message from voters is pretty clear: government must do more, not less, to keep Canadians safe and secure, even after the pandemic passes (hopefully soon). Moreover, by returning another minority, Canadians expect their leaders to implement this vision in a collaborative and efficient way — without the usual posturing and ultimatums.
There’s an important analogy between the current moment and the consecutive Liberal minority governments headed by Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s. Now universally regarded as one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers, Pearson was elected in 1963 with 128 of the then-265 seats (short of a majority). He’d promised several major new programs, but progress was slowed by minority impasses.
Eventually, Pearson called another election, gambling on a majority. He ran on an even more ambitious platform, but still fell just short of majority.
So Pearson rolled up his sleeves and got down to business. Tommy Douglas — whose NDP also won more seats — pushed Pearson to go further and faster. It’s no exaggeration to say that second Pearson minority had an epic impact on our country.
The shining achievements were medicare and the Canada Pension Plan. But there were many others: the Guaranteed Income Supplement, student loans, the Canada Assistance Plan, and more. That time is now regarded as Canada’s “golden age” of nation-building.
Could the next Parliament emulate that expansive, expensive vision? Of course, the world is very different than in Pearson’s time. But both the need for visionary policy innovation, and the capacity to make it happen, are undeniable.
The seemingly static outcome of this latest election confirms Canadians want to see powerful measures that make their lives better — not just during COVID, but after. And they clearly rejected the traditional political infatuation with balanced budgets that hamstrung previous initiatives. Those are historic verdicts, even if the seat count hardly changed.
There are several initiatives on this Parliament’s agenda that together could constitute a historic shift in economic and social policy, not unlike Pearson’s second minority 44 years ago.
The new national program will definitely proceed, and the pressure will be irresistible for the last holdout provinces to sign on.
Every single major party advocated for improvements to EI. The pandemic reminded Canadians that reliable income security is not a “handout,” it’s a necessity.
A new $15 minimum wage in federally regulated industries comes into effect at year’s end. And there are other ways this government — as Pearson did, with his first national labour code — could leverage better labour standards.
Housing was a top priority for voters this campaign, and all the parties spoke to it. Big initiatives to expand affordable supply could win support right across the chamber.
Real progress in these and other areas could put this Parliament down in the history books as one that made the most of a challenging moment. But it will take a more collaborative, less partisan approach to convert these grand visions into concrete progress. No party wants another election soon. So it’s time to stop playing chicken and get the job done.
Some even propose a formal coalition to take the threat of another election off the table, and force leaders to focus on implementing the things Canadians voted for. But even without a formal deal, there’s huge political and economic room for this Parliament to significantly improve the lives of Canadians.
Let’s hope the MPs quickly get down to business and make that happen.
Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, based in Vancouver.