No one who has been paying attention to federal politics would be surprised by the vitriolic response of the Conservatives to the Liberal-NDP Confidence and Supply deal announced recently. In fact, the comments of prominent Conservative MPs were par for the course.
Interim leader Candice Bergen, for example, decried the “desperate” attempt of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “cling to power.” She declared the “socialists” were “in charge” and the Conservatives were now “facing a majority government in parliament.” In the press conference she called to make her views known, she repeatedly referred to the arrangement as a “coalition” government.[i] When one journalist pointed out that the deal did not, in fact, create a coalition, she replied that the journalist could call it what he liked, but she herself would consider it one.
Even so-called moderate Conservative leadership candidates such as Patrick Brown (“It’s a nightmare”) and Jean Charest incorrectly referred to a coalition. Bergen’s caucus colleague and Conservative leadership frontrunner, Pierre Poilievre, went even further. “They have agreed to a radical and extreme agenda to expand the power of government by taking away the freedoms of the people”, he ranted, before urging his supporters to “take action” to “help me fight against this coalition.” [ii] No explanation was provided as to what “freedoms” would be “taken away” by the deal, or how his supporters should “take action.”
Words can be dangerous if tossed around carelessly. And words either mean something or they don’t. Of course these particular Conservatives were quick to use the term “coalition.” After all, their only successful leader, Stephen Harper, made it a four-letter word, having managed to distort its meaning so badly that many Canadians believe a coalition is actually undemocratic if not a full-fledged coup d’etat. And so, despite the fact that virtually every academic commentator and media report have stressed the fact that the deal does not create a coalition government, the Conservatives choose to continue describing it as one.
Similarly, facts either mean something or they don’t. Bergen’s accusation that Trudeau’s Liberals are “hoodwinking” voters and springing a plethora of unexpected left-wing programs on them is simply nonsense. All of the specific programs mentioned in the deal were clearly spelled out by the Liberals and the NDP in their election platforms for the 2021 election. The problem is that the Conservatives are opposed to all of them, as they themselves made clear during the campaign.
Bergen is correct about one thing. She and her party are now facing a more clearly defined majority in parliament. Together the Liberals and the NDP received 50.4% of the votes in the last election. The Conservatives, by contrast, received only 33.7% of the popular vote. Nor could they reasonably expect to join forces on a regular basis with the Bloc (who in any event received only 7.6% of the vote) since the two parties have almost no positions in common.
These numbers also demonstrate what countless observers have noted, namely that the Liberals were hardly “clinging to power” and the deal was not necessary to keep them there. The NDP, broke and in no position to bring down the government, was always going to support them when necessary to prevent a snap election. The real reason the deal was considered necessary, as both Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh stressed in their separate press conferences, was to ensure the passage of as much of their agenda as possible. Based on their experience in the previous minority parliament, they worried this would be far more difficult in the face of the Conservatives’ ongoing obstruction, delaying tactics and inflammatory, often misleading rhetoric.
There was good reason to worry. As several observers noted in the spring of 2021, the government had not succeeded in having many of its key pieces of legislation passed and the summer recess, as well as a likely federal election, were looming large. Although this might have appeared to be the result of either government incompetence or lack of a sense of urgency, insiders knew that various Conservative actions had also played a significant role in preventing the passage of important bills.
To begin with, the Conservatives had repeatedly held up the implementation of a functioning parliament since the advent of the pandemic in March 2020. Their position, supported by none of the other parties, was that parliament should continue to hold in person sittings, despite public health guidance to the contrary. At the same time, they insisted – and continued to insist throughout the pandemic – that vaccination was a personal choice and should not be made mandatory in the parliamentary precinct or anywhere else. Faced with this implacable resistance, the other parties finally managed to establish hybrid sittings of parliament and, eventually, electronic voting, opposed at every step of the way by the Conservatives. The more than six-months’ delay in setting up such a system, which almost every other parliamentary democracy achieved in weeks, was compounded by Conservative demands for additional modifications to the hybrid system with the beginning of each new session of parliament. [iii]
These delays were compounded by the procedural tactics employed by the Conservatives on almost every piece of government legislation. By February 2021, Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez made clear the Liberals’ frustration with the Official Opposition. “They’re playing politics all the time in the House. It’s delay, delay, delay – and eventually that delay becomes obstruction.” [iv]
His concern was heightened by the fact that several of the government bills being sidelined, such as C-14, were intended to provide crucial financial support programs for Canadians during the pandemic. That bill had been tabled in December but was stalled at second reading as Conservative MPs talked out the clock and prevented debate for eight days. Another, an election bill containing measures the chief electoral officer had requested for the pandemic, was about to be debated in the House when it was derailed by a Conservative procedural ploy that saw MPs forced, instead, to discuss a three-sentence committee report rubber-stamping the appointment of the new president of the Canadian Tourism Commission. This move paled in comparison with the Conservatives’ refusal to extend sitting hours to debate a government response to Senate amendments to Bill C-7, legislation on assisted dying, despite the urgency of a court-imposed deadline for its implementation.
Other parties shared the Liberals’ frustration. Bloc Quebecois House Leader Alain Therrien described the Conservatives’ decisions to hold up the assisted dying legislation as well as legislation banning conversion therapy as “deplorable” and declared “it is inexcusable to hold the House hostage on such matters.”[v] Green Party leader Elizabeth May agreed the Conservatives were guilty of “procedural tomfoolery.” She stated “What I see is obstructionism, pure and simple…Rodriguez must be at his wits’ end. ”[vi]
By June 2021 the legislative backlog had become so serious that the Liberals attempted to extend sitting hours to the end of the session in order to permit the lengthy debate the Conservatives were demanding. But a Conservative filibuster pushed back the vote on the Liberal motion for a week. Rodriguez then called a press conference to denounce the Conservatives’ obstruction. This was hotly denied by Conservative House Leader Gerard Deltell at the same time that Conservative MP Michael Barrett moved a motion for the House to adjourn for the day. This in turn required a recorded vote and delayed proceedings for the remainder of the time allocated for debate.
Similar delays took place at committee hearings, where Conservative members were forcing clause-by-clause study and votes on bills concerning the environment and the regulation of online streaming services that had been tabled in November. NDP Environment critic Laurel Collins agreed the Conservatives were simply trying to run out the clock on legislation they opposed. She also stated her party was “willing to use any of the parliamentary tools available to us” to move the legislation forward to the Senate. (In the end this bill was passed in the Senate although all Conservative senators voted against it, but neither the conversion therapy bill nor the streaming bill were considered and died on the order paper with the fall 2021 federal election.)
With the return of parliament after the 2021 election little changed, either in terms of the status of the parties, or the behaviour of the Conservatives. Little wonder, then, that the Liberals and the NDP began to seriously consider how they could implement even half of their ambitious agenda, not because they were still in a minority situation, but because the Official Opposition continued to make such procedural delays routine practice.
Nevertheless there was undoubtedly hesitation about committing to a more formal agreement, given the predictable “coalition” critique they anticipated the Conservatives would level regardless of whatever format they chose. It is arguably the outrageous behaviour of the Conservatives in supporting the so-called trucker convoy and Ottawa occupation that finally led the Liberals to conclude the hostile Opposition tactics would only increase in the Commons in the coming months. With the forced removal of Erin O’Toole as Conservative leader, and the ascendancy of Pierre Poilievre as the frontrunner in the race to succeed him, the Liberals’ sense of foreboding was no doubt confirmed. Given Polievre’s declared opposition to almost every significant piece of legislation proposed in the Confidence and Supply deal, it would appear that such an agreement was in fact a wise move on the part of the government.
In short, the Conservatives have brought this deal upon themselves. Yet ironically it may not be the disaster they seem to think it will be. At a minimum it will force the party membership to consider whether they really want to select a leader who epitomizes this extremist rhetoric and behaviour, or one who might be able to bring the party back to its senses before the next election.
[i] J-P Tasker. “Conservative Interim Leader Accuses Liberals of ‘Power Grab’ After Trudeau Makes Deal with NDP” CBC News. March 22, 2022.
[ii] Tasker. Op. cit.
[iii] For more detail see B. Jeffrey. “The Politics of Virtual Parliament in Canada” Paper presented to the 26th World Congress of Political Science. IPSA/AISP Virtual. 10-15/07/21
[iv] Joan Bryden. “Conservatives Accused of Playing Politics in the House” Canadian Press. February 28, 2021.
[v] Bryden. Op. cit.