Vyas Saran is a public policy researcher in Vancouver.
As the Ontario election speeds to Jun. 7, the day Ontarians go to the ballot boxes, it’s increasingly clear that two types of people exist: those who put too much stock in the polls, and goddamned liars. Voters of either persuasion might be inclined to assume that an NDP majority is on its way, and that the electoral map might even be rid of Liberal red. But a lack of local polling and an efficient Progressive Conservative vote should dampen our notions that either contender for power will be able to pull off a landslide, let alone a majority. And given the propensity for centrists to shun the left despite some real potential for demagoguery on the right, it’s very possible that the Liberals can hold on to more than a handful of seats.
This leaves room to consider an interesting and plausible situation: Could the Liberals lose government but retain hold over the balance of power, if the PCs and NDP run to a tight finish? And if so, could the chaotic politics of British Columbia follow the path of so many B.C. millennials and move to Ontario?
In the 2017 B.C. election, neither Christy Clark’s incumbent B.C. Liberals nor John Horgan’s provincial NDP were able to secure a majority of seats, winning 43 and 41 respectively. That gave outsize power to the Green Party’s three-seat caucus to bolster the fortunes of one of the two. It was a rare moment for political dealmaking in Canada, one that more typically presents itself in systems with a more proportional allocation of seats; a deal would bring stability, and thus the peace of mind without risking a defeat at any moment at the hands of the opposition. After meeting with each party, Green leader Andrew Weaver wound up backing the NDP to govern B.C. in a confidence and supply agreement (CASA) over the four-year term of the current legislative session—a deal that wound up being much less than a coalition, as there are no Green cabinet members, but one that included major stipulations, like a vow to hold a referendum on electoral reform that would keep the Greens competitive for years to come.
Things haven’t always worked out to be as stable as planned. Indeed, during the dramatic confidence vote on the BC Liberal government with an NDP-Green CASA in hand, one NDP member’s decision to use the bathroom wound up threatening the agreement before it could even get under way. But overall, the B.C. NDP government has been allowed to govern on its own terms, even if by a razor-thin margin.
Since Ontario also shows a tight-two way race, and a third party still in the thick of it, this situation could very well take place in Canada’s most populous province. In fact, research demonstrates that for parties on the left or right, governing without a stable majority is both highly threatening to their longevity, and it tends to yield less robust policies. Because a confidence vote always looms around the corner, each policy decision requires entering into negotiation anew, imposing devastating transaction costs for those in power. Since stable coalitions, with their majority of support in the legislature, tend to demonstrate much stronger and more enduring policies, they attract greater trust with stakeholders, and most importantly, unlike minorities on the left or right, they tend to last.
After this, negotiations are inevitable, pushing each party to carefully consider the risks associated with a deal, their internal and external interests, and the future trajectory of the party. Eventually, with the suitors offering up their main arguments to the partisan belle of the ball, the cases are made. During the B.C. negotiations, Horgan’s NDP argued that via the electorate, a progressive majority voted for change. After then-Premier Clark delivered a post-election throne speech that poached most of the left’s major planks, it appeared he had a compelling case. Clark argued that her party had rightfully won a mandate, both in seat numbers and the vote, and that having the Greens’ support could ensure stability or plunge the province into chaos.
So what’s at stake for the players in Ontario?
For the PCs, their history of animosity with the Liberals will be fresh on the minds of all involved, and it will paint any potential arrangement as an awkward one in the public eye, perhaps denting their legitimacy. Doug Ford has built his brand on antagonizing the government establishment and promising to throw the bums out, through which he’ll finally unleash his “efficiencies” to save the province. To then work with them would be reviled by his more boisterous base.
But research demonstrates that what matters a lot more is not what Ford or the Liberal leadership by then will want, but what their most powerful donors and other financial backers want—those are the true veto points. And events in the past aren’t everything; all across the world of coalition politics—most democracies use electoral systems that make them common—parties have co-operated despite a lot worse in terms of differences in ideology, including sectional and even violent cleavages over religion and ethnicity.
In the end, it is power that’s on the line, and most people involved will see the golden opportunity available to them for what it is. Refusing to compromise due to a history of animosity would be foolish, and it would guarantee that the other side wins handily. Putting aside such differences are worth it if it means stability and security in gaining structural power. In fact, those backers in the PCs should be considering the future of their party; there is a huge opportunity in working with the Liberals, which the Liberals probably know themselves. The Tories, even if they were to come out with a minority, should be concerned about how closely they’re hitting a ceiling a support due to Ford’s brand, and will need to grow beyond their base. The supposed burden of needing the Liberals for a government might be a blessing in disguise, as the party will need to moderate if it wishes to govern for long. Depending on how that goes, they could reach back towards the centre and shore up support.
It would not be out of the question, too, for the PCs to do what other larger parties have offered—a huge ministerial post, perhaps even finance, to really show that they’re interested in governing for more than just their base. As well, research demonstrates that when centrist parties are forced to decide whether to support the left or the right, under electoral systems like ours, they tend to support the latter.
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On the other hand, the NDP and the Liberals seem like a natural match, and to the voters at least, leader Andrea Horwath wouldn’t be risking much to work with the Liberals. There’s little known about how their most key donors would side, but the chances are good they’d align with the Liberals, who actually coopted many NDP planks into their most recent budget. But what would Horwath be risking otherwise? Well, depending on how much she would have to give up, and whether her circle believes that the future of the ONDP is to keep one foot in the left and one foot where the Liberals stand, she could risk her party being riven and relegated back into third place.
Left-wing parties generally decline electorally by moving towards the right and fighting for the middle. The case has played out this way numerous times in Canada, with the federal example for the NDP in 2015 being front of mind, where they were outranked rhetorically on the left by the Liberals. And when Canadian voters are presented with what effectively look like two Liberal parties, they will historically choose the real one. The pressure from Ontario’s most powerful owners of capital—from business owners to investors to executives to lobby groups—will be huge, with the party feeling the effects of red-baiting and threats of investments fleeing the province from elite-owned media and other interests. It sunk Bob Rae in the past.
Horwath may be better off sticking to her guns, and doing what successful left-wing parties in recent years have done—show the people their argument for a more politically and economically democratic society that responds to radical crises of capitalism and climate with radical policies to bring affordability and opportunity to Ontarians—rather than simply capitulating to the right’s fear-mongering over inflation and government overreach in their attempt to keep power and profits in the hands of management and investors, rather than labour.
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So even if Horwath needs to take on Liberal support, she has the high ground. Because electoral success for the NDP means that she would have gained the mandate of the Liberals’ voters—going, if they do vote for the NDP, with her bold vision—she has the better argument that it’s she who should carry it out. By governing well, Horwath might be able to turn those voters on to the NDP for the long-term and in the lead-up to the next election, providing them a chance to be the major party to the left-of-centre in Ontario.
Nothing is certain in the Ontario election, and the possibility that the Liberals hold this kind of card is even less certain. Indeed, they’ll carry a stink in with them as they walk into the negotiation meetings, one that might be bad enough for either party to wonder whether they should simply ignore the Liberals; after all, they had their chance, and the people have clearly moved against them. The Liberals might suffer even more in a coalition or supporting role, too: history shows that in coalitions, the junior party suffers unless they get unique and independent positions in the government, which would be a hard sell for either of the other parties.
But parties change, and if one major party shuns the middle, nothing is stopping the middle from regrouping and gaining support in the polls, threatening a powerful and united opposition that could sufficiently topple the government. Even if the Liberals are unpopular now, seats are still seats. The two other parties are also highly incentivized to build a coalition or a CASA out of a deal with the Liberals: it’s far less costly, and you get more credibility, more voter support, more policy stability, and in general, a greater chance at survival. So it isn’t a bad idea to walk into the talks with heads held high—they did govern for a long, long time, after all—and fight hard to get a good deal. Walking away isn’t a bad idea either, as the government will be very unstable in that case.
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In the end, the really sticky part of what happened in B.C. is unlikely to take place in Ontario, because in B.C., it was a matter of debate amongst the public about whether the incumbents held a right to power. Their mandate was slim, but it was a mandate, and in the end, despite the deal being struck, it was up to Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon to actually determine whether Premier Clark held the better argument to lead or not. In the end, Guichon chose Horgan, swayed both by the support he gathered from the Greens, and by his reasonable argument that voters were after change—and still, pundits were animated throughout the process, going so far as to call for another election.
Don’t expect things in Ontario to get too crazy—this is just one route it could take. But one year ago, all it took pundits to declare a constitutional crisis in Victoria were three Green MLAs and a nearly dead-locked result, making the potential for the Ontario Liberals to be kingmaker—or queenmakers—very real.