Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Who Will Govern for the Common Good?Who Will Govern for the Common Good?

Who Will Govern for the Common Good?

In their analysis of federal election 2019, Cardus President and CEO Michael Van Pelt and Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings raise the red warning flag that the resulting minority Parliament represents a Canada in critical need of a vision of common life to heal its deep divisions.

Michael Van Pelt
Ray Pennings
10 minute read

Affection and popularity are truly fleeting for Canadian political leaders. Dissatisfaction runs deep. And there may be good reason for it.
It’s hard to come to any other conclusion from the results of the 2019 general election. None of the parties won a ringing endorsement after a very negative and divisive campaign. Canada is more disunited than it has been in decades. Governing for the common good will be difficult in a divided parliament. Red flags are up on every major file of concern for Canadians.
The minority government of 2019 is as different from the majority of 2015 as baseball is from hockey – but it’s still a game. The fact that the number of Liberal seats plus New Democrat seats equals more than 170 (the number required to pass anything in the House of Commons) means that the government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will likely be more left-wing or progressive in its ideology than it was after 2015. And if Liberal-NDP cooperation won’t work, a nationalist and left-leaning Bloc Québécois with a caucus that has tripled in size could still give a minority Liberal government the votes it needs to pass bills in the House of Commons.
How long could such an arrangement last? That’s anybody’s guess. Governing is complicated in a minority situation, but in many cases, parties’ willingness to precipitate an election depends on less-than-noble considerations. Potential leadership discussions have yet to work themselves out. A party’s ability to fund a campaign comes into play. Likewise, some MPs first elected in 2015 might worry about losing an election before they can qualify for their valuable pensions in 2021. Of course, politics is also a zero-sum game. When one party senses an electoral advantage, likely another sees a disadvantage, making the situation still dicier.

Even where some Parliamentary stability exists, how long it lasts will depend, at least partially, on the ability to broker enough interests to cobble together a majority vote on national issues. That’s going to be difficult.

The campaign exposed divisions within Canada that will take much longer to assess and address than counting ballots. Unlike any campaign in recent memory, the popularity of both the Liberals and Conservatives declined during the campaign. The prime minister who had a majority in Parliament and faced three first-time leaders as his prime opponents lost votes and seats, signalling disagreement with him and his government. Indeed, Trudeau’s party gathered only 33 per cent of the popular vote, compared to 34.4 per cent for the Conservatives who assume the Official Opposition. This doesn’t seem to have chastened the prime minister. Trudeau still timed his victory speech to silence the message of Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer, earning the scorn of pundits as diverse as NDP’s Nathan Cullen and former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall.
Governing Canada with only 33 per cent of the popular vote and huge swaths of the country without government representation will require remarkable wisdom and humility.
Beyond that matter there are at least two sleeper issues that could create crises large enough to divide Parliament and throw off political agendas: Indigenous affairs and foreign policy. Events in Indigenous communities and around the world could bring surprises that cause coalitions to come apart.
Meanwhile, there are three existing areas of concern.

The Economy and Fiscal Restraint

Making life more “affordable” was a major priority in the campaign for all parties. However, the overall fiscal fitness of government and budgets took a back seat to pricey campaign promises of spending or tax-cut packages. In 2015, the Liberals were seen as bold in promising deficit spending as an “investment in the middle class.” Yet they promised to have the budget back into balance by the time of this election. In this campaign, the Liberals promised deficit spending of over $20 billion per year while maintaining that the debt-to-GDP ratio is the most relevant measure. The Conservatives meanwhile promised to return the books to balance by 2024–25 but followed a similar short-term path of significant spending proposals and tax reduction promises. The other parties in Parliament, which hold the balance of power, are all wedded to continued deficits with seemingly little concern for bringing the books back into the black.
The normalization of government deficits gives new life to an old trend. The 1970s and 1980s were a time of growth in government fueled by deficit spending. In the 1990s and 2000s balanced budgets became the norm at both the federal and provincial levels. While the 2008 recession marked a return to federal deficits in order to provide an economic stimulus, there was an implicit obligation to, and serious concern with, returning to balanced accounts soon. The 2015 campaign debate centred on the speed of that reckoning and return, not whether we should. This new normal is notable, not least because of its implications for the nation’s fiscal health for decades to come. It’s also unclear how long deficits and debts will stay on the public policy backburner.

National Unity

The resurgence of the Bloc Québécois came through its appeal for stronger provincial rights.  Unlike previous pitches more focused on sovereignty, the Bloc’s campaign focused on nationalism and provincial autonomy. While Bill 21 and the French notions of laïcité were part of the appeal, so was the resistance to the building of pipelines. Political leadership and voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan interpreted this as a poke in the eye to a province that has been a contributor to equalization payments (in contrast to Quebec, which has been a beneficiary). It will take much more than a day-after analysis to properly ascertain what this all means, but it seems fair to conclude that national unity could easily face new challenges amid reinvigorated provincial conflict. Polls regarding Western separation are probably overstated—Westerners are deeply loyal Canadians—but that doesn’t mean Western Canadians are simply going to acquiesce to federal objections that hamstring their province’s economy. Today’s situation has some parallels with the National Energy Program that caused so much fury in the West in the early 1980s. Most instructive of what future dialogue on national unity will look like is Alberta’s announcement of hearings and an expert panel to examine the province’s place in Confederation.
At a most basic level, the election results create competing challenges. The Liberals will be pressured to implement a more left-liberal agenda, which includes preventing pipelines from being built, in spite of having bought the Trans-Mountain Pipeline (TMX) for $4.3 billion and promising pipeline expansion. With no caucus members from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and facing pressure from possible left-wing allies in the Commons, the Liberal government may even find it easier than ever to give up on pipelines. Doing so would only deepen the sense in the West that the realities of the region’s economic dislocation are lost on the rest of the country, especially urban centres in central Canada. Campaign rhetoric and the election results have done little to credibly provide a counter-narrative.
Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet, meanwhile, wasted no time in his election night speech reminding Canadians that Quebec has never signed onto the Constitution. He has set the stage for reopening long dormant constitutional debates. Reminding voters that the Bloc will evaluate its support for the Liberal government based on its prioritizing the interests of Quebec rather than that of Canada complicates the central priority to govern for the common good.
There are other overlapping divisions to note as well, between the Prairies and Ontario, as well as between cities and rural areas. The clearest example of this came with former Conservative cabinet minister and leadership contender Lisa Raitt losing her seat in Milton, Ont. Her increasingly urban riding drifted toward the Liberals – completing a trend that had started in 2015. Likewise, long-time Liberal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale lost in Regina, Sask., giving the Conservatives a seat they had long sought. Increasingly, we’ve seen larger cities, especially in Ontario, line up behind the Liberals while the Western provinces and more rural areas become more solidly Conservative blue.
In some ways, it seems Canada is moving from two solitudes to many, with everyone voicing their alienation. The rural-urban divide might be one of the sharpest forms of alienation to emerge from the 2019 election.

Culture and Faith

As the Liberals organize a new minority government, there are several continuing concerns to monitor in the days ahead. Will there be increased “values tests” imposed on Canadians like that which set off the Canada Summer Jobs controversy? The addition of an “attestation form” to the standard Canada Summer Jobs application form crossed a new line when community organizations including churches, businesses, and charities were asked to affirm their support for a supposed right to abortion as a condition for eligibility to receive funding for summer job placements. Prior to this decision by the Trudeau government, such funding had been open to all without regard to an applicant’s stance on controversial political matters or questions of conscience. While the government’s decision to retreat partially on outright discrimination based on political belief and conscience muted the controversy, pro-life activity remains ineligible for funding under the Canada Summer Jobs Program today. The fact that the NDP and Bloc Québécois resolutely supported the Liberal government’s original approach to funding for summer student jobs raises at least the possibility that such policies could expand to other funding or to other areas of social or political disagreement. Such moves would be a serious cause for concern, especially if they marginalize Canadian communities of faith.

The campaign made clear another major issue of concern: the possible expansion of medical assistance in dying (MAiD). When the issue was discussed during the French-language leaders’ debate, the issue of expanding access to MAiD was presumed to be a positive step towards advancing a progressive understanding of the public good. It was not understood to be a complex moral debate that in fact divides many Canadians who hold varying positions with mixed degrees of certainty. There was no word of dissent from any political leader, suggesting that even if any dissent existed, the political calculation was that expressing any misgivings carried to high an electoral cost. In addition, at the start of the campaign, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled as unconstitutional a restriction that MAiD be limited to the terminally ill. The temptation will be a rush to judgment and push for expansion when serious deliberation and debate will be required regarding how best to regulate the practice. On both the issues of imposed values tests and medical assistance in dying, we did not get to the current state of affairs overnight. It will take a new kind of leadership and an expansion of our public debate to address public life conflicts that are as much cultural as they are political or matters of public policy alone.  
Part of the problem that both values test and the seemingly inevitable expansion of MAiD highlight is the marginalization and silencing of voices of faith in the public square. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May felt the need to apologize during a campaign interview for naming Jesus Christ as her personal hero. And her party joined the club disallowing the candidacies of any pro-life individuals, like the New Democrats and Liberals. More worrisome still were the suspicion and persistent questions Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer faced from both opponents and journalists over his Catholic faith and his beliefs of issues like abortion and marriage. The fact that such suspicion carried through as a theme even into the final week of the campaign is a worrying development. More worrying still is the conclusion of columnist Matt Gurney in the National Post, who had this to say in his analysis of Scheer’s performance:
 “I wish we lived in a country where every citizen was permitted the respect and dignity of a private spiritual life. But that’s not the country we live in, especially if you’re a Conservative. It’s an automatic anchor wrapped around your neck.”
If Gurney’s take is accurate—and it may well be—it speaks to the need for Canadians of faith to develop a public vocabulary that seriously engages spiritual and moral questions in a pluralistic context. This goes well beyond the “private spiritual life” Gurney mentions because it involves the free exercise of faith, which is a public act.  

While we must be realistic in assessing truly troubling developments in Canada, we must not despair. As a Christian organization, Cardus knows and understands that God is in control of history. We are always hopeful in his promise to restore all of creation. No election can ever change that fact.
So, the work of Cardus continues.
We are very close to releasing a new and accessible report on human dignity—just the kind of work we need to be doing to rebuild Canadians’ true understanding of the human person. This work has immediate implications for MAiD, of course, but also for issues of conscience and religious freedom.
Later this fall, our Spirited Citizenship initiative will release our second Public Faith Index with the help of the Angus Reid Institute. This survey continues the important work of tracking the place of faith in Canadian public life and tests the strength of our social commitment to true and deep pluralism.
Our Social Cities program will soon produce case studies of the contributions churches make to the social viability of their cities. These are stories that can help counter some of the current negative narratives about the place of faith in North American society.
Cardus Education is spearheading new public arguments about independent schools and their place within the public education systems of both Canada and the United States. With a decade’s worth of data and growing partnerships, we’re taking our message and research further than ever before.
Our Ottawa office remains a locus of hospitable engagement with others. Having our office just three doors down from Parliament, ready and willing to host conversation and engagement with Canadians of every stripe, may be more necessary today than it’s ever been.
And there’s so much more work that Cardus is doing that space simply won’t allow us to include.
What we know is this: While the last federal election may have clarified some worrying developments in Canada, it won’t stop Cardus from pursuing its mission and goals with ever more energy and passion. It’s encouraging to know that you are right there with us in our work.

You'll also enjoy...

Religion's Perception Gap

Religion's Perception Gap

With today's release of the fourth major Angus Reid Institute polls on the state of religion in Canada, Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings says the biggest identifiable gap is between Canadians' positive lived experiences of faith and their negative perceptions arising from narratives about spiritual belief. 

Sacred Fire

Sacred Fire

Ray Pennings reflects on the sacred in a ceremony and looks forward to how Canada can best flourish over the next 150 years.

What to do in Post-Truth Politics?

What to do in Post-Truth Politics?

And if a candidate who went too far down the post-truth road were to win, and if my vote were to be part of that win, would I not be enabling a willful campaign to make language meaningless and bald-faced lying the new norm for civil discourse? It was captured in a September issue of The Economist, ...