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Confidence Men

Rob Shaw: Jagmeet Singh enthusiastically campaigned on behalf of a government that gleefully tossed aside a signed agreement and their minority partners. It will happen to him, too.
Premier John Horgan meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to
“Just say the agreement expired.” (BC Government Flickr)

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh says he’s entering a new deal to prop up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government with “eyes wide open” – but if lessons from a similar arrangement in BC politics are any indication, he’s also going to need eyes in the back of his head for the political ambush coming his way.

Singh and Trudeau announced their confidence and supply agreement Tuesday, in which the federal NDP agreed to support the Liberal government until 2025 in exchange for a universal national pharmacare program and dental-care program for low-income Canadians.

For Trudeau, it means three years of running what is effectively the majority government voters denied him in his early election call last year.

For Singh, who twice has been unable to get his party out of fourth place in the House of Commons, it means cashing in his party’s limited political capital to get a couple of election platform promises turned into reality.

“The reason why I got into this job was to get help to people and we are doing that in this agreement,” said Singh, when asked about whether his party can trust the federal Liberals. “I’m going into this eyes wide open.”

Let’s be clear: The federal Liberals will eventually screw over the federal NDP as part of this deal, at the moment the NDP is at its weakest and the moment the Liberals think they can get a majority.

We know this by watching how the longest confidence and supply agreement in Canadian history played out in British Columbia between 2017 and 2020.

The BC Greens and BC NDP signed a confidence and supply agreement (CASA) that was supposed to last until 2021. The Greens upheld their end the bargain, providing the votes needed to keep Premier John Horgan’s government alive. In return, the BC NDP broke the deal a year early, just after the Green leadership contest, when Horgan was at his highest in the polls and a majority victory looked most likely.

It worked – the BC NDP picked up 16 more seats for its comfortable majority. The BC NDP went for the jugular of the Greens, campaigning so hard against new leader Sonia Furstenau that it even called in federal leader Singh to visit Cowichan personally and convince voters the CASA agreement was null and void and Furstenau should be turfed from office.

The Greens fell from three seats to two, though Furstenau survived.

Singh has apparently forgotten his tour of duty in favour of ripping up a CASA agreement whenever the dominant party is tired of cooperating. Now, he’s signed on to one federally in which he thinks the same fate won’t befall him. That’s either naive, stupid, or both.

The federal NDP is in for a rough ride in its new CASA agreement, courtesy of the playbook developed, ironically, by the BC branch of the party.

There are a few other lessons the federal NDP should be watching for, based on the BC experience:

A new leader means a new deal.

In BC’s CASA agreement, the wheels fell off the bus after BC Green leader Andrew Weaver resigned in 2020. Weaver and Horgan had a close friendship (unlikely to be imitated by Trudeau and Singh) and negotiated the deal directly. When Weaver quit, Horgan considered CASA untenable. He called the snap election nine days after the Greens selected Weaver’s replacement.

Trudeau is unlikely to lead the federal Liberals into the 2025 election. Whomever replaces Trudeau prior to that date will want a fresh mandate from voters, and breaking CASA early is the quickest way to get that.

Your accomplishments aren’t yours.

The cornerstone of the BC Green and BC NDP alliance was an ambitious new plan to tackle climate change, crafted by both parties. But you don’t see the BC Greens’ name on the current plan, nor do you hear any BC NDP officials give that party any credit. Once the CASA agreement collapses, the government takes credit for everything. The junior partner is left out in the cold, trying desperately to remind people it was the author of the original idea, even if the final product is covered by the logos of the party actually in power.

Disobedience by the junior partner is barely tolerated.

In theory, a CASA agreement lets the junior partner remain in opposition where it can hold government to account, vote against bills that aren’t matters of confidence, and even defeat bill in partnership with other Opposition parties.

But in reality, this really pisses off the party in power.

The BC Greens got away with it once or twice on minor bills, but when they tried to reduce then-Finance Minister Carole James’s power to use special budgetary warrants in 2019, rejected a BC NDP bill on confining youth to hospital for drug treatment, and voiced opposition to another Hydro bill that was opposed by First Nations, the BC NDP had enough. Horgan cited the disobedience as the kind of instability that required an early election.

The federal NDP are going to get one or two vetoes on federal Liberal legislation – that’s it. Anything after that gets added to a list the federal Liberals will one day present to voters as rationale that Parliament isn’t working – even if, by all rights, it still is.

Accomplishing all the goals is good, and bad.

When the BC NDP tore up its CASA agreement with the BC Greens, another line it used was that the agreement was completed. Everything had been accomplished early, so, off to the polls. The federal NDP will need to watch for signs that the federal Liberals consider promises “complete” when they aren’t, to justify moving beyond the deal.

The larger party will slow-play some promises into oblivion.

One of the key demands of the BC Greens in 2017’s CASA agreement was a referendum on proportional representation (which would have given the Greens more seats). The BC NDP promised support, but then quickly became worried it could destabilise the party’s ambitions for a majority. So, the BC NDP sabotaged the referendum by creating complicated rules and ridiculous options, and then barely expressed any public support for the idea, leaving the BC Greens to do all the heavy lifting. The referendum failed.

The lesson is that the larger party might promise to do something, but then reconsider internally and come up with creative ways to slow-play or undermine the agreed-upon promises.

Consultation by the larger party is a strategy.

Once the BC NDP realized the BC Greens were in CASA for the long term, and not a real risk to bring the government down, the regular consultation meetings between senior staff, ministers and MLAs served one specific purpose: Looking for weaknesses in the junior party that could one day be used against them in an early election call.

The same federal Liberal officials who will be stickhandling day-to-day communication with the federal NDP under the guide of cross-party cooperation will also be the ones crafting the campaign strategies that target all the weaknesses, internal party splits and wedge issues where the federal NDP is most vulnerable.

The federal NDP will need to see the forest through the trees – its access to government ministers and staff give the illusion of day-to-day consultation, but all the while being studied up close by frenemies who are ultimately out to wipe them off the electoral map at a moment’s notice.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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