The confidence and supply agreement announced by the Liberals and NDP in Ottawa on Tuesday sounded eerily familiar to voters in British Columbia.
Back in 2017, a similar arrangement between the provincial NDP and Green parties ushered in a sea change in B.C. politics after a nail-biting election. Today, the architects of that deal say it can stand as a positive model for the federal parties.
“We were able to get a lot done here, because we put the interest of others ahead of political partisan interests, and we both learned how to compromise,” said Andrew Weaver, the former BC Green Party leader who signed the agreement with Premier John Horgan, allowing Horgan’s NDP to form a minority government.
“I think the (federal) NDP in my mind look like the adults in the room, as they recognize that by working together with the federal Liberals, (they) can advance better public policy that will benefit all.”
Experts say the B.C. agreement was struck in a very different political environment that was more supportive of the NDP-Green partnership than it may be for the federal deal.
It was also far from perfect, they add, presenting challenges to the BC Greens that Jagmeet Singh and the federal NDP will be wise to learn from — particularly for their long-term future.
“Both sides will have victories and accomplishments they can point to, just like in B.C.,” said Gerald Baier, a political science associate professor at the University of British Columbia.
“But this (agreement) also has the potential to really hurt the NDP going forward, because voters will think, ‘Why would I vote NDP when the Liberals are doing the kinds of things that the NDP would do?”
What happened in B.C.?
The 2017 election saw the BC Liberals fail to win a majority of 44 seats in the legislature after 15 years in power, earning 43 seats to the BC NDP’s 41.
That made the BC Greens the kingmakers despite only having three MLAs, putting them in the position to support either a Liberal or NDP government.
After negotiations with both parties, the Greens struck a confidence and supply agreement with the NDP, which formed a minority government after the Liberals lost a confidence vote.
Weaver says the first few months of the new government presented a learning curve for both parties. Disagreements on natural resource development in particular became public when the BC NDP pushed ahead with the contentious Site C hydroelectric dam project, which the Greens called “fiscally reckless” and harmful to the environment.
Yet he says the two sides eventually “clicked” by early 2018, leading to accomplishments like the CleanBC environmental plan, the speculation tax on real estate and child care legislation that were shaped through compromise.
“In my case, I recognized that as a party of only three, we have a responsibility,” he said. “If we were to just flex our muscles all the time, that would be viewed as irresponsible governance. So we negotiated.”
The partnership’s priorities weren’t always supported by voters, either. A push by the Greens to move to proportional representation in future elections was put to a referendum, which was ultimately rejected.
In the end, the BC NDP came out as the winners of the deal. Horgan scrapped the agreement a year early when he called an election in 2020, which saw the NDP win a clear majority. The Greens, meanwhile, stalled on their historic gains in 2017 and failed to grow their caucus.
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By that time, Weaver had already resigned as party leader and did not run for re-election. And he maintains that the agreement he struck with Horgan proved good governance beyond the party base was possible and necessary.
“The reality is, you are not elected by a party, you’re elected by constituents,” he said. “It is absolutely critical that you govern for all, as opposed to your base.”
Horgan said Tuesday he was “glad to see political cooperation designed to help people” and congratulated the federal Liberals and NDP on their agreement.
Lessons to be learned
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that the Liberal-NDP agreement will last until the next scheduled election in 2025, providing years of stability as the government continues to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Singh described the deal as “not a destination, but a starting point” and vowed to continue to hold the Liberals to account.
Political experts say the biggest challenge Singh and the federal NDP will face will be one Weaver faced as well: how to ensure unity in a caucus where some members might disagree with the other party.
“We saw there wasn’t always agreement with the other two Green MLAs” during the last B.C. government, said Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.
“Whereas Jagmeet Singh has to manage a caucus of 25, some of whom appear to thrive on attacking Justin Trudeau and his government. And so I think caucus management is going to be a much bigger issue for Jagmeet Singh than it was for Andrew Weaver.”
Telford says it’s too soon to say how much leverage the NDP may have on shaping Liberal policy beyond the key issues — pharmacare and dental care, housing affordability — that are part of the deal. But he suspects the power dynamic will look the same as it did in B.C.
“If the Liberals buy another pipeline, for example, the NDP would presumably oppose that,” he said. “But I don’t think they’d have much leverage to do anything about it unless they walked away from the agreement. And that’s going to be a challenge for the NDP.”
Baier says either party will be able to walk away from the agreement at any time, either with the Liberals calling an early election like Horgan did or the NDP determining it can no longer support the deal.
Beyond the question of how long the agreement will last, all eyes will be on how it is perceived by the public as the Conservatives attack the new partnership.
Sanjay Jeram, who teaches political science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., says the federal political environment is much different than the one in B.C. in 2017, where the public was generally supportive of change after 15 years of BC Liberal rule.
“I think this is starting certainly from a more difficult position to gain any sort of widespread public support beyond the base of the two parties, which probably will support it,” he said.
B.C. is far from the only province to secure government through a confidence and supply agreement. Ontario’s Liberals and NDP enacted a similar arrangement in 1985, while New Brunswick’s 2018 Conservative government was propped up by agreements with smaller parties. The current Yukon government also struck a deal between the Liberals and NDP last year.
–With files from Richard Zussman and Amanda Connolly