This week marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Liberal-NDP Accord in Ontario. The election in early May of 1985 had elected a minority parliament, with the Conservatives at 50, the Liberals at 45 and the NDP at 25. The vote split was roughly 37/37/25.
On the night of the election the commentators (and the Conservatives under Frank Miller) went to bed thinking it was a Conservative minority. That was the way it had been in 1975 and 1977 when Bill Davis had used the rivalry between the NDP and the Liberals to stay in power.
My own thoughts were different. I went to bed disappointed that the provincial NDP (of which I was then the leader) had not gained more seats, but convinced that politics could not just go an as before. After talking with a number of colleagues I phoned David Peterson, the Liberal leader, on the Sunday after the election and we discussed doing something different.
At the caucus the next week all eyes were naturally on what could happen, and for the next two weeks intense discussions with both the Liberals and the Conservatives ensued. We consulted with constitutional experts, colleagues throughout the country, and of course a party at once excited by the possibilities of what could be done.
The Conservatives and some media commentary insisted that they had “won” the election and had a right to govern. They had been doing so for forty two years. Eugene Forsey, who at that time was generally recognised as a constitutional guru, said an arrangement between two parties, each with fewer seats than the governing party, but able together to command a working majority in the House, was “constitutional in every respect”, and insisted I had the obligation to explore every option to create a stable and working legislature.
Some important elements within my own caucus and wider party were dead set against any coalition with either the Liberals or the Conservatives. The NDP would lose its purity and its principles, the argument went, and would do better to vote on a case by case basis in the House, leaving the Tories to govern.
But the majority view that emerged was that a public agreement between the NDP and the Liberals, based on clear objectives and timelines, would be a better option than the Russian roulette of a minority government living by its wits day by day. My own sense was that we had to decontaminate the notion of a minority parliament being synonymous with instability, and show people that the legislature could work better.
The Accord that was negotiated was not a coalition, but a working partnership. The government gave up the right to declare votes of confidence whenever it wanted, limiting itself to budget bills. It would accept a loss on anything else. The deal would last for two years, and the government committed itself to a series of measures – on pay equity, labour law reform, social housing, environmental legislation, the protection of medicare and many others, all within a framework of fiscal responsibility – with timelines clearly set out. A management committee of both parties would meet regularly to monitor the progress of the agreement.
The Lieutenant Governor was kept fully informed about the discussions. The Conservatives insisted on meeting the House and bringing in a Throne Speech, but their defeat followed soon after and a new government was sworn in without a constitutional crisis. The Accord government worked effectively and efficiently, and passed the laws it said it would.
At the time the Accord was seen as guaranteeing the political oblivion of the NDP. One political cartoon had me standing in a jewelry store in a wedding dress showing the ring to the jeweler. “You’re right Mrs Peterson, it is glass”. The Peterson government won a massive majority in 1987 but the NDP became the Official Opposition. In 1990 it won government.
In a parliamentary system elections produce a parliament, and parliament makes a government. That was the lesson learned in 1985. Prattle about “winning a mandate” with less than a majority in parliament is just that – partisan spin, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is a lesson worth remembering.