How many parties is too many parties?
Is there a point when having fragmented and small political parties, each winning a rump of seats, actually hinders successful democratic government?
I’m afraid that’s a question we might be asking soon on a federal level.
I actually prefer there to be the occasional minority government every now and then, at both the provincial and federal level. Why?
Because it stops the “our way or no way” hubris of majority governments that essentially set out their own view as the only way to look at an issue. (Case in point? Premier Doug Ford’s current Ontario government, now wasting its electoral currency on forcing an issue — the size of Toronto’s city council — that matters more to Doug Ford than to the electorate.)
Minority governments are keenly aware of their mortality, and that means they tend to be more willing to reach consensus with other parties. And that consensus often means better decisions and better laws.
In the Atlantic region, Newfoundland and Labrador has only briefly had a minority government. If there had been one seven years ago, I’m sure the Muskrat Falls project — now a horrible economic millstone for the province’s electrical ratepayers — would have gotten the kind of full impartial review the project needed in the first place, and simply didn’t get.
Minorities aren’t all that common in the Atlantic region. New Brunswick last had one in the 1920s, and P.E.I. had three, all before the 1900s. Nova Scotia’s the only province to have had minority governments post-2000.
But there’s another side to that coin: the more fragmented parties are, the less likely they are to govern at all — and sometimes, that governance is held hostage by relatively few seats.
The whole of British Columbia politics now hinges on three Green Party seats, meaning the concerns of the less than 17 per cent of the population that voted for the Greens get more than their fair share of attention.
Stephen Harper’s successful runs as prime minister, it can be argued, depended on the unification of conservative-minded candidates, both hard core and softer-C conservatives, under a single banner. Even then, his first two governments could only garner minority administrations, part of a longer-running string of federal minority governments.
But now, Maxime Bernier is trying to strip away traditional support from the Conservative party by breaking away and forming his own closer-to-Libertarian People’s Party of Canada.
Meanwhile, there was word Monday that the last five of seven members of Parliament who dramatically quit the Bloc Québecois in February over their leader’s behaviour were returning to the fold — meaning that there will be seven different political parties that hold seats in the House of Commons, with two independents and three vacancies.
Bernier, and maybe even the Bloc, might again end up holding the balance of power in a federal government. It is, at least, not inconceivable.
But on the whole, it seems like they are more likely to leach support away from the NDP and Conservatives.
With the federal NDP generally slipping or stagnating in the polls (and having long-time NDPers leaving politics), the fragmenting is happening only on one side of the political map — in the opposition.
And that gives the moderate left — the Liberals — a distinct advantage.
The Liberals held onto power in the past long after they were stale and too comfortable governing, precisely because their opposition was split into different factions. That could easily happen again, as early as 2019.
Many parties and a minority government can build consensus.
Many parties on one side of the ledger — and only one on the other side — makes majority governments that don’t truly represent the politics of the nation.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.