Minority Rules

This is the first general election in Nova Scotia that I have sat-out, or had no role other than as an interested citizen, in nearly twenty years. Even as we age, we never stop having new experiences, I guess.

As I’ve listened to the analysis, and public domain opinion polls reporting a likely minority government outcome in NS – and the news out of British Columbia in the last 36 hours on the newly-minted minority-government-to-be – my thoughts lept back a decade.

While I was working for the then-Opposition leader, I decided to do my Master of Arts in Political Science, part-time. I chipped away at it over a few years, and when it came time to do my thesis, I chose to do an analysis of “What Makes Minority Government Work”, drawing lessons from the 1998-99 and 2003-06 minority governments in NS.

It wasn’t only a “thing” in NS at the time. One also existed Federally, and there were three other provinces with minority governments. It felt a little like the equivalent of a political plague no sitting government wanted to catch.

Here are the five factors I drew out, from interviews with six former party leaders and their senior staff that influence whether a minority government can be made to work.

1. How the minority came to be.

There’s that old aphorism – where you’re going in life depends on where you came from. In this case, the genesis of the government is important to its outlook – is it a party dropping from majority to minority, and on political life support…or another party joyously forming a new government? Do the parties accept/embrace the legitimacy of the result? Do they have (and did they have the foresight to keep?) experienced staff? How deep is the talent pool in their caucus.

2. What the parties perceive to be the value of cooperation.

This is a question of both form and function. Cooperating is one thing, but whether that is through a formal deal or on an issue-by-issue basis matters, because the ink is barely dry on any agreement before “events my friend, events”, intervene. The relative comfort-level of each of the participating parties is important, too. Will the governing party act like they own the place, or be gracious hosts who are willing and able to share credit and bite their tongue? And how will voters treat either obstreperous or magnanimous behavior among the parties/leaders.

3. The state of existing inter-party dynamics.

The parties have to be able to speak a common language; this can’t be a Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars moment. So do they have established relationships of trust and/or respect? Are their friendships that can be leveraged? Does the supporting party believe they will be sidelined or treated as a junior partner? What are the shared – and/or opposing – policy and/or political interests?

4. The tolerance for the minority’s existence/continuation by the caucus’, parties and the public.

These three distinct but important groups each have different – and often conflicting – views that bear on the outcome of any minority. Political caucus’ are notoriously fickle, and not only have to juggle job security considerations, but are also the “front-line” in receiving public feedback; whether they live in the oblivious ‘bubble’ or the real world is crucial. The party apparatus of each major party is primarily concerned with the practical – can we afford to run a competitive general election campaign, do we have the infrastructure and people in place, etc. And the public, who public opinion says have been generally supportive of minority governments in Canada over time, basically expect people to act like grown-ups and cooperate.

5. The effect of agency (e.g. the players/personalities).

The personalities of the leaders are key. How new or experienced they are matters, and what role(s) they have played in the past helps prepare them for the work of a minority. Who leaders surround themselves with is also highly influential. The reality is that people are people, and people run governments. A minority government can feel a bit like walking around tightly holding political/policy grenades with the pin pulled. In reality, it should be treated more like a sheet of ice in Winter – slips and falls happen, but if you tread carefully and deliberately, crossing is fairly straightforward. Temperament, experience and wisdom play as great a role as anxiety, impatience and arrogance.

Let’s be clear – there are myriad factors about how things can work, for how long…and why, or why not. The above, however, holds true today as both a framework to understand and predict how workable a minority will or could be today, particularly in Nova Scotia.

These factors vary from the very practical – such as weekly meetings of all three leaders’ Chiefs of Staff, operating under a ‘no surprises’ dictum when it comes to government policy. To the very human – not making threats you are not prepared, or that it is not advisable, to follow through on. The annals of legislative politics are littered with hot-headed reactions and statements, and bluster. These have no functional place in a minority government.

In NS one of the key factors folks cited in the 2003-06 minority work was that John Hamm was the first – and at that point, only – party leader to have held every one of the three leadership roles in the Legislature (Leader of the Third Party, Leader of the Official Opposition, and Premier). Hamm himself, and his former Chief of Staff Jamie Baillie, both cited this in interviews as a factor in the perspective and demeanour in leading a minority government from 2003-06.

Fun fact – there is one other party leader returned to this new Legislature who holds the same distinction as John Hamm did, having served in all three leadership roles: Stephen McNeil.

And, who is the leader of the Official Opposition? That same former Chief of Staff to John Hamm, Jamie Baillie – a person who has held two of those three roles (so far…?), and who was credited with helping run an effective minority from 2003-06.

So what do the days to come hold?   Lots and lots of grand statements of transparent and cooperative intent, and closed-door strategy sessions.  Lots of media speculation and navel-gazing.

One safe prediction – though – they don’t involve another election anytime soon.