Public servants are responsible for providing advice and support to the government of the day. Normally, though not necessarily, the government is composed of a single political party. British Columbia is trying something new: though the minority government has only New Democratic Party (NDP) members around the cabinet table, the support of the Green Party caucus is essential to its stability. In an effort to manage this relationship over the next four years until the next fixed election date, the leaders of the two parties have signed a confidence and supply agreement.
This is one alternative to forming a coalition government. It affords each party the freedom to vote according to its own platform on most bills, but requires solidarity on measures of confidence and supply like Throne Speeches and budgets. The B.C. agreement is not the first of its kind in Canada. In Ontario in 1985, when David Peterson’s Liberals formed government with the support of Bob Rae’s New Democrats, they signed one too.
From a government’s perspective, this kind of agreement is its lifeline, its inoculation from defeat in the legislature, and its playbook for the next four years. It makes the government look organized, responsible, policy-oriented, and willing to put partisanship aside in exchange for getting things done. The smaller partner – the kingmaker – is at least as fortunate; the agreement puts the party on the map as a partner in governance, though not government, as the party has the power to force items on the agenda while sidestepping ultimate accountability if and when things go wrong. It is almost ideal.
The confidence and supply approach is good news for the public servants who work in support of the government, at least in some ways. First, it provides stability for a four-year period. As long as the parties stick to their commitment (more on this later), public servants don’t have to worry about a snap election or an unexpected shift in priorities. The confidence and supply agreement, because it has been made public, serves much the same function as ministerial mandate letters when they are published. These documents all have the effect of communicating the government’s mandate and priorities for the short, medium, and, in some cases, long terms. The civil service in B.C. might get used to this. The public might too, as it helps them to hold government to account for delivering on specific commitments.
It might not all be good news, though. Four years is a long time in politics and it might prove to be too long for the NDP and the Greens. Their agreement is wide-ranging in scope and covers many policy areas, which means that there will be frequent opportunities for disagreement between the two parties. Their contract states that it is based on “good faith,” which suggests that “bad faith” on the part of one of its signatories would nullify the agreement in the eyes of the other. What if the NDP doesn’t act fast or meaningfully enough on the Greens’ priorities? Will Green supporters pressure the party to pull out of the partnership? Will the NDP be inclined to pull the plug itself, if polling data were to indicate that they were popular enough to win an election and govern alone?
The NDP has agreed to move forward on a variety of measures in exchange for Green support, including: electoral reform; electoral finance and lobbying reform; an increased carbon tax; improved transit infrastructure; the establishment of a Fair Wages Commission, an Emerging Economy Task Force, and an Innovation Commission; the implementation of a drug program; and, many other significant promises. Four years, though a long time in politics, is not long at all for the public servants in departments whose job it will be to turn the terms of the confidence and supply agreement into reality.
Public servants in Canada are not unaccustomed to giving advice to minority governments, which tend to be associated with instability and anxiety. Governing parties can become consumed with their own survival which, for the public service, creates a frustrating environment with a hyper-focus on partisanship and politics rather than policy (though, these days, the hyper-political environment seems to persist regardless). The confidence and supply approach can alleviate some of the anxiety and instability because it eliminates the need for the government to negotiate its position and agenda on an ongoing basis.
Time will tell whether the NDP-Green arrangement will be durable, but in any case it will provide a useful example to illustrate the opportunities and challenges facing the public service when supporting a minority government with a governing partner. If electoral reform efforts in British Columbia and elsewhere are successful, confidence and supply agreements might become much more commonplace in Canada.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University.