As Ontario goes ...

Author:Chodos, Bob
Position:ONTARIO AND BEYOND - Balance of power

An introduction by Bob Chodos

In an election in Canada's multiparty parliamentary system, not every party can seriously aspire to form a government once the votes are counted. Pre-election opinion polls will indicate which parties are in the running for the big prize, and which are not. For those in the second category, there is still a consolation prize to be sought: a Balance of Power. If no party wins a majority, the government's fate may well be in the hands of a third party, which can use this situation to extract legislative concessions. Such parliaments have not been uncommon in recent Canadian history, at both federal and provincial levels, and in many of those cases the party holding the Balance of Power has been the NDP.

In practice, however, managing a Balance of Power can be tricky. A classic case was the federal House of Commons following the election of 1972, in which Pierre Elliott Trudeau's Liberals were reduced from a majority to a shaky minority. To stay in power, they needed the support of the 31 New Democratic MPs, led by David Lewis. For a while, the Balance of Power worked the way it was supposed to. The government introduced NDP-friendly legislation such as a foreign investment review process and a pension increase. But by early 1974, the sustainability of the arrangement was in question. As political commentator Patrick MacFadden wrote in the Last Post, an alternative newsmagazine of the time:

In the case of the NDP it is possible to write two scenarios. (Everyone writes scenarios in Ottawa.) The first is the coalition government scenario. Its main purpose is to underline the basic sense of responsibility of the party. Being responsible, it has a right to share in the governing of the country. Good legislation will ensue. The second scenario is what we will call the gun-fighter scenario. The theory here is that to be taken seriously as the fastest gun in the West, you must kill a man--or at least draw on Billy the Kid or Jesse James. The townspeople will then go ooh-ah. "That David," they will say. "He's a mean son-of-a-bitch." ... The trouble with this scenario, apart from the obvious one that it is preferred by a minority of caucus, is that David Lewis's leadership style leans heavily on caucus opinion. In this, he is very different from T.C. Douglas. The other difficulty is that you could get shot ... The speech from the Throne will be unnaturally specific this time ... There will be nothing in it that the NDP...

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