On Monday, October 21, Canadians cast their ballots in our forty-third federal election. The polls were right – Canada has our first federal minority government since 2011. The Liberal Party of Canada performed better than expected, particularly in Ontario while the Conservative Party of Canada nearly swept Alberta, Saskatchewan and many parts of British Columbia. The Bloc Québécois now holds official party status while the New Democratic Party lost a significant number of seats but could hold the balance of power in the next parliament.
We expect the Prime Minister to take his time to build common ground. He has to understand the new policy and political dynamics, appoint ministers, issue mandate letters and deliver a Speech from the Throne. It is reasonable to expect the PM to reveal the timing for this in the coming days. But the Liberals have multiple challenges to confront – election results exposed deep regional divides in the west and Quebec. The Prime Minister will have to find ways to address the regional representation challenge in Cabinet given that he has no Members of Parliament from Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Our team of advisors have extensive experience dealing with minority governments. Some played leading roles in Paul Martin’s 2004-2006 government while others served Stephen Harper in the minority Parliaments of 2006-2008 and 2008-2011. We have drawn on that experience to offer up the following considerations on navigating the upcoming government:
- A mandate governed issue-by-issue? The first order of business will be opening up lines of communication between party leaders. From climate change to tax policy, they will need to identify opportunities to work together. The Liberals announced this will be a government managed on an issue-by-issue basis. In this scenario, the notion that you can only talk to ministers and their staff to gain traction for your agenda will not suffice. The government will rely on opposition members, likely from the NDP, to get legislation passed. On any given measure, advocacy will have to cross party lines. It is critical to bear in mind that the public service will also be trying to figure out how to navigate the government’s agenda. Organizations that can provide bureaucrats with practical, well-researched policy input wrapped in good political intelligence will have the best chance to succeed.
- Standing Committees will take maximum advantage of the levers of political power. More so than ever, parties will use opposition-dominated committees to advance their policy and political agendas. Hence, Committee proceedings offer up excellent opportunities to advance alternative policy proposals or to frustrate the will of the governing Liberals. Committees will have much more power to initiate studies, alter legislation or even kill government initiatives. Accordingly, government relations practitioners and the media will pay close attention to the work of Standing Committees.
- The dynamics of a newly independent Senate: Canada’s Senate has evolved dramatically since the last minority government in 2011. The Trudeau government set out to rid the Senate of partisans by appointing independent Senators with no formal political affiliation. Without the ability to rely on a loyal cohort of supporters who can be counted on to get legislation through the upper chamber, a minority Liberal-led government will encounter serious challenges. However, there is still a strong cohort of Conservative Senators, most of them appointed during the Harper years. The Senate now matters, and organizations will be wise to account for this as they plot their government relations strategies.
- Issues often managed behind closed doors now play out in the public domain. A minority government means substantive policy will be no longer be negotiated between governments and stakeholders behind closed doors. Organizations need to be prepared to have their issues debated in the public domain. The yield from Access to Information (ATIP) requests will push the work of public servants into the public view. In that sort of environment successful advocacy will often include a smart, external communications plan.
- The Prime Minister’s Office is in a perpetual state of issues management. Minorities are difficult to manage as staff do their best to implement a workable agenda while keeping a keen eye open for the next crisis or dramatized eruption from opposition parties threatening to bring down the government. Therefore, ministerial discretion to drive programs or legislation is curbed as the Prime Minister’s Office vets every initiative with a view to mitigating risk. Prime Minister Trudeau will also want to appoint a capable House Leader who will play an integral role in implementing the government’s parliamentary agenda.
- Caretaker convention 2.0. Under the caretaker convention that prevails during the writ period, ministries restrict their work to matters that are routine, non-controversial, and do not require much in the way of spending. In a minority government, particularly during the early days, departmental officials will tread cautiously until the new government is able (or not) to find its footing. During this period of adjustment, controversial decisions or policy rollouts will often be delayed or punted entirely as the independent public service attempts to discern how the political winds may blow.
Businesses and organizations need be attuned to communications and building relationships from the beginning of a minority government. McMillan Vantage is here to help advance your priorities.