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Since the Liberals and New Democrats signed a confidence-and-supply agreement last month, there has been no shortage of analysis about the political implications for the major federal parties.
Did the NDP get enough out of the deal? Will it suffer as the “junior partner” in this arrangement? Are the Liberals abandoning “centrist” voters? Will the Conservatives ultimately benefit from being able to rally a plurality of voters against this progressive alliance?
Those are all fair questions.
But when we eventually measure the success or failure of the Liberal-NDP agreement, it won’t be enough simply to look at the results of the next election. We’ll also have to look at the life and output of the 44th Parliament.
Those are the ultimate questions for every minority Parliament. How long did it last? And what did it do?
The long and short of minority Parliaments
In the last 75 years, there have been 10 other minority Parliaments – ones in which no single party held a majority of the seats in the House of Commons.
The shortest was the one presided over by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government in 1979 – that Parliament lasted 66 days from throne speech to dissolution. The longest minority ran 888 days from 2006 to 2008, covering Stephen Harper’s first term as prime minister.
The average lifespan of those 10 minority Parliaments was 526 days.
The current one, which has survived for 147 days, might not have seemed to be in any immediate danger of falling apart before the Liberals and NDP made their deal. But one of the potential selling points of such a deal is the long-term stability it offers.
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According to the text agreed to by both parties, the current confidence-and-supply agreement is meant to stay in place until the date when the House traditionally would adjourn for the summer in June 2025. If this Parliament makes it that far, it will have lasted more than 1,300 days – which would make it the longest-lasting minority by leaps and bounds.
If an election isn’t called until the fall of 2025, this Parliament would come close to surviving a full four years.
Setting a new standard for durability would be a decent accomplishment. But parliamentary democracy is not only a test of endurance. What’s done with that time matters at least as much.
The simplest measure of that would be the number of government bills passed. But the standard in that respect has changed over time.
Measuring parliamentary productivity
Decades ago, Parliament churned out government bills at a pace that is unrecognizable now. John Diefenbaker, for example, came to power with a minority government in 1957 and a Parliament that lasted less than four months – but somehow managed to pass 30 government bills.
The two minority Parliaments that Lester B. Pearson presided over in the 1960s – from 1963 to 1965 and then from 1965 to 1968 – passed more than a hundred government bills each.
The pace of parliamentary productivity had dropped off markedly by the time of the three minority governments that ran from 2004 to 2011. Those Parliaments passed 53, 70 and 67 government bills, respectively. (All numbers are taken from the Library of Parliament’s legislative record.)
The current Parliament might want to surpass those more recent totals – or perhaps match the 88 bills that were passed when the Liberals had a majority from 2015 to 2019. So far, eight government bills have been passed in the current Parliament.
It might also be useful to look at the government’s rate of success in getting legislation passed. For instance, Paul Martin’s Liberal government passed 58 per cent of the bills it introduced in the House or Senate during the minority Parliament that lasted from 2004 to 2006.
But quantitative analysis of legislation has limits. Parliament is not a widget factory. The quality and significance of the legislation matters just as much, if not more – even if the value of any bill is in the eye of the partisan beholding it.
It’s not just about the number of bills
Pearson’s two minority Parliaments are the gold standard for significant legislation – so much so that those five years have lived on as an example of what can be accomplished in a minority situation.
The Pearson government seemed chaotic and bumbling at the time but it still managed to establish the Canada Pension Plan, the foundations of national medicare, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the Canada Student Loan Program, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, a points-based immigration system and a new national flag.
If making important changes that are not easily undone is the basic goal of politics, Pearson succeeded on several fronts.
The 44th Parliament might be hard-pressed to equal that record. But underpinned by the priorities outlined in the Liberal-NDP deal, this Parliament could still end having solidified federal funding for child care and expanded dental care, while advancing national climate policy.
Mind you, if the real estate market can’t be tamed and inflation persists, the next election might bring in a very different government.
But the result of that vote won’t necessarily be the ultimate verdict on this Parliament and the historic confidence-and-supply agreement for which it will be remembered.