With a careful display of arm'slength unity, the leaders of Ontario's two opposition par-
ties last week signed an agreement to sustain a legislature of minorities that is unique in Canadian parliamentary history. Aimed at ending 42 years of
Conservative rule in the province, the four-page document all but guaranteed that the New Democrats would support a Liberal minority government for at least two years. After signing the agreement, NDP Leader Bob Rae appeared at a press conference to explain its contents and claim “an enormous victory.” Then, within minutes of Rae’s departure, Liberal Leader David Peterson stressed that the two parties had not formed a coalition. “If we are called upon to form the government,” declared Peterson, “it will be a Liberal government.”
The controversial agreement, including 29 promised reforms, followed weeks of political negotiation in the wake of the May 2 election that reduced Premier Frank Miller’s Tories to only 52 seats from a 72-seat majority in the 125-seat legislature, while Peterson’s Liberals soared to 48 seats from 28. The NDP, with 25 seats, held the balance of power. The Liberal-NDP agreement meant that Miller’s minority government could be defeated as early as next week after outlining its proposed legislative pro-
gram. When that happens, it will be up to Lt.-Gov. John Black Aird to decide whether to call another election or to give the Liberals a chance to form a minority government—as he was widely expected to do.
The arrangement infuriated the Tories. Miller, who called the agreement “an unholy alliance,” at first threatened
a court challenge to test the legality of the deal, but later softened that to suggest that it might be sufficient to ask Aird to consider whether the agreement was constitutional.
Experts said that the arrangement met constitutional requirements because it preserved the essential principle of cabinet responsibility to the legislature by leaving theoretical room for members to vote against a Peterson government.
For their part, the Liberals agreed that ordinary legislation would not be treated as confidence issues over which the government could fall and, in Peterson’s words,
“trump up an election.”
That meant that the NDP, which is financially strapped and anxious to avoid an early election,
could vote against individual measures without bringing down the government. But the NDP agreed to refrain from initiating or supporting nonconfidence motions during the two-year period.
Only if the NDP, acting against the agreement, voted with the Tories or abstained on a nonconfidence motion on overall budget policy or major money bills could the Liberals be defeated. According to Peter Russell, a University of Toronto political scientist and constitutional expert, the alliance would be unacceptable constitutionally if it sought to ban all nonconfidence motions or to guarantee that there would be no election for a specified period. “But this is constitutionally proper—the pact is no big deal in the constitutional sense,” said Russell.
By spelling out the precise terms for NDP support, many historians said that the extent of the deal was unprecedented in Canadian politics. While third parties often support minority governments for a time or occasionally form coalitions—as Conservatives and breakaway Liberals did under Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden between 1917 and 1921—written agreements are rare. In 1926 the third-party Progressives drafted a memo outlining the Conservative policies they would support in order to persuade Gov. Gen. Viscount Byng to ask Tory Leader Robert Meighen to form a federal government—which he did. But the Liberal-NDP agreement pact, noted Russell, “is unprecedented so far as I know in agreeing to such an extensive legislative program.”
Last week’s document outlined a reform-minded legislative agenda which included job creation programs for young people and equal pay for work of equal value, and extended rent controls. The two parties also promised early action to follow through on a controversial Conservative promise by enacting legislation to extend public funding to Grades 11, 12 and 13 of
the Roman Catholic school system.
Despite the Tory attack on the opposition arrangement, a Conservative government insider noted that Miller was fighting a losing battle to stay in office and admitted that some party members were privately calling for Miller’s resignation. “There is a sense of unreality in Miller’s office—they still think they can stay in control and I think they are in Fantasyland,” he added. “It is the same arrogance that lost the election.”^
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.