Back to the Future 

Column / Jean Charest

I know that headline seems like an easy conclusion but how else could we describe the outcome of the federal election campaign?

Before going off into all sorts of directions, we should put the result of this election campaign in a historical context. The first thing to keep in mind is that it is not unusual in Canadian politics that the federal government in power eventually ends up with, as interlocutors, a majority of provincial governments led by parties of a different persuasion.

In fact, it seems to be the rule. Canadian voters, whether by instinct or otherwise, do not like to put all their eggs in the same basket. This is normal, and in many instances, it is to the benefit of Canadians that there be some form of implicit checks and balances. 

On regional tension, we are also dealing with the reality of living within one of the most decentralized federations in the world. There will always be some level of friction between both levels of government.

It comes with the reality of living within a country that is geographically vast, founded by First Nations, then the French and the English, with a diverse population that shares common values but sometimes has different interests.

What varies from one period to another is the level of intensity of regional tensions and the ability of the central government to manage these issues.

The fact that we have a minority government, if well managed, can actually be an advantage in facilitating the governance of the country.

First, Canadians have seen minority governments before and most of the time enjoy the fact that they are constrained in their ability to govern. People like the idea that the government and the opposition parties will be forced to cooperate and work together with a view to obtaining consensus.

Second, the government can greatly benefit from the advantage of lower expectations on its ability to deliver. This means that the government cannot be easily blamed for whatever is going wrong and yet if the government is apt or good at the art of governing, it can take credit for whatever is going right.

Third, this also represents a new and major opportunity for the premiers to step up and fill the void. I know from experience that this is easier said than done. Even with the creation of the Council of the Federation, there is not a lot of history of the premiers being able to reach across their own borders to present a common front on issues of provincial interest and national importance.

An exception to this history was the successful 2004 Health Accord negotiated between the newly created Council of the Federation and the minority government of Prime Minister Paul Martin. For the record, the accord of 2004 received the political support of the Conservative opposition led by none other than Stephen Harper and the NDP.

In the short term, the new minority Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must do two things. First, it must go to great pains to respond to the outcome of the election by acknowledging to the Canadian electorate that they accept their decision and that they get the message. Canadians will want to know whether they have been heard or whether it’s going to continue to be business as usual. On this matter, Trudeau is the lead. In politics, humility is always perceived as a great virtue. 

The second thing to do is to define what it means to be a minority government. The government will need to rapidly choose its priorities and inform Canadians on how they intend to work with the opposition parties. 

Defining early and in clear terms what his minority government will do, how they will work with the opposition, the premiers and other stakeholders will determine their ultimate fate. 

In the end, it’s all about defining what it means to be a minority, controlling expectations and then setting the right tone.  

Jean Charest was a minister in the Mulroney government and then leader of the Quebec Liberal Party and premier of Quebec from 2003-2012. He is now a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, with an international law practice.