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The inside story of how the Liberals and NDP faced a crisis that shook their alliance — and why Justin Trudeau’s government survived it

OTTAWA—There were supposed to be no surprises.

It’s the bedrock of the Liberal-NDP deal — a simple notion that, despite the two parties’ competing political interests, neither would ever catch the other off guard.

But eight months into the governing agreement that could see the NDP prop up the minority Liberals until 2025, that principle was violated.

The Liberals had quietly introduced a series of amendments to their firearms bill. And the New Democrats were blindsided.

“Something like that, which kind of blows up outside of the deal structure, really hurts. It burns a lot of capital that I don’t have to spend,” a senior government source close to the agreement told the Star.

Some NDP MPs scrambled to placate their constituents. Staffers calmed other caucus members who felt their faith was shaken. By the time the amendments were withdrawn, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had castigated the Liberals for their “horrible management” of the situation.

“When that happened, it didn’t end the agreement,” the source recalled, speaking on the condition they not be named. “It was like we had built enough of a foundation that it could wobble, but not fall.”

It has now been one year since the deal transformed the federal political landscape. Over that time, a measure of trust has been established between these at-times bitter rivals, according to cabinet ministers, MPs, top officials and party sources who spoke to the Star for this story. For some, the agreement is a worthy — and perhaps historic — experiment in cross-party co-operation that could serve as a model for minority parliaments. They speak of a responsibility to heed voters’ wishes and implement policies that each party can agree to, from new programs like dental care to making progress on such priorities as climate action, housing affordability and Indigenous reconciliation.

Yet the Liberals and NDP remain, in some ways, uneasy bedfellows. Figures on both sides still view the other with suspicion. Some see political risks in working too closely. And officials admit the alliance will only last as long as it makes sense for each party, regardless of what the deal says on paper.

As for what people think, Abacus Data polling provided to the Star indicates the public’s view on the arrangement is largely unchanged from one year ago, when just under half of Canadians supported the deal. Today, 85 per cent of Liberal voters and 68 per cent of NDP supporters want to see the agreement stick, while 81 per cent of Conservatives want to see it topple.

But what’s clear at this point is that, for key players on each side, the deal is still worthy enough to keep Canada’s 44th parliament alive, even if the collaboration it spawned hasn’t always been smooth. Both parties profess a desire to use the deal to get things done and provide stability to Canada’s at-times fractious political life.

At least for now.

Deal born out of the “freedom convoy”

The agreement was born in a miasma of crisis, when convoys of self-described “freedom” activists occupied downtown Ottawa and blockaded key border crossings in the winter of 2022. Armed with misinformation about vaccines and conspiracy theories about government corruption, protesters lambasted a federal government they saw as woefully out of touch, even oppressive.

At the time, talks on parliamentary co-operation had been ongoing for months, and increased in earnest after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Singh to congratulate him on the birth of his daughter. Hoping to prove that politicians could work together amid the chaos and division, the Liberals and NDP inked what is formally known as a “supply and confidence agreement.” In exchange for promises to enact a suite of left-leaning policies, including many the Liberals had already pledged on their own, the New Democrats agreed to support the Trudeau government for the next three years.

“It was fuelled by this sense that governments can’t do anything for people, governments are bad,” recalls Jennifer Howard, Singh’s chief of staff, referring to the convoy protests.

“For us, it was like, we have an opportunity. … Let’s try to use the power we have to try to get some things done.”

To do that, the two sides needed to build trust.

According to government sources, Liberals were wary of letting various New Democrats into their policy-making process for fear they would leak sensitive information for partisan gain.

“We started by giving them smaller amounts of documents, and kind of were like, ‘Are they going to leak? Are they going to leak?’ And then they didn’t,” said another senior government official, who agreed to speak about inside deliberations on condition they aren’t named.

“And then it was like, OK, meeting two: we’ll give you a little more. Is it going to leak? What’s going to happen? Where’s this going to show up? And then it didn’t,” the source said.

Mark Holland, the government House leader, also admitted to some disquiet about leaks.

“It is difficult to let people in,” he said. “You have to blue sky things, you have to try out different ideas that may never come to be — they may even be bad ideas. But you have to have a space to be able to explore them until you get to the right idea, the right way to do something. And so there is a real risk in letting people into those machinations.”

Liberals and NDP still political rivals

For the NDP’s Howard, trust is a difficult concept to embrace when your dance partner is also your chief political rival.

“Ultimately, I want them to win fewer seats and I want us to win more seats, and I never forget that. So no, I’m not going to trust that they have our political best interests at heart, and we don’t have theirs at heart,” she said.

That doesn’t mean there’s a lack of respect, which exists between Trudeau and Singh, cabinet ministers and their NDP counterparts, and members of the oversight committee tasked with keeping the whole arrangement in check, insiders say.

That committee — made up of ministers, MPs and staffers — is one of several “structures of accountability” Howard said keeps both parties honest. As part of the deal, leaders, house leaders, party whips and committee members must take part in regular meetings. And there are clear deadlines when certain policy objectives must be met.

“Some of those meetings are cordial and constructive. And in some of them, there’s pretty strong words about things not moving fast enough,” Howard said.

Last spring, a bevy of government ministers, NDP policy critics and staff from both parties came together to start discussions on a key aspect of the deal: creating a policy framework for workers in emerging clean energy sectors. A government pledge to pass a so-called “Just Transition Act” has been dangling since the 2019 election, and the deal included measures to finally get it done, along with a promise to create a clean jobs training centre and stop putting public dollars towards subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

This remains a politically sensitive effort for the government, not only because pro-oil parties like the opposition Conservatives — and the government in oil-rich Alberta — decry the shift as unfair to fossil fuel workers, but because the NDP has harshly attacked the Liberals for failing to dial back fossil fuel subsidies faster.

According to one source who was present at last spring’s meeting, Liberals wondered whether the NDP’s Charlie Angus — a scrappy and plain-spoken MP from northern Ontario — would be his familiar oppositional self without the public gaze upon them.

As the meeting started, the source said Angus began to get animated, prompting Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to make a comment about how there was no need for partisan talking points.

“And I really saw him shift,” the source said, adding they believed Wilkinson also had to “train himself” to refrain from arguing with rhetorical talking points in these meetings.

Asked about the interaction, Angus admitted he was skeptical at first but said his relationship with Wilkinson has grown more comfortable over the past year.

“I went in expecting that this wasn’t going to work. It’s not that I didn’t think it could work. But you’re dealing with a lot of entrenched political interests. And so again, building that trust is hard,” he said.

For Steven Guilbeault, the Liberal environment minister, it’s “fair game” for the NDP to keep pushing on the government to move faster on its priorities,. But he said the decision to invite the NDP into the policy development process — in his case, by working closely with the NDP’s environment critic, Laurel Collins — has allowed an opposition party that has never held power federally to get a taste of what it’s like to govern.

“I think it has helped them to understand … it’s one thing to ask for something, or even promise something; it’s another one to deliver it,” Guilbeault said.

With few exceptions, the NDP’s leader, most of its MPs and many of its staffers had never formed government. Getting close to that experience had the “side benefit” of increasing the “skill and capacity” of the party, Howard said.

“A lot of our MPs more than once have said, ‘You know, I’ve been in political life for X many years and I’ve never been so relevant … People come up to us and thank us for things that we are doing, which is not anything that I’ve experienced in political life,’” recalled Mélanie Richer, Singh’s former director of communications, who joined Earnscliffe Strategies earlier this year.

“For an MP who has been in politics for 20 years to have been able to impact somebody’s life in that way is something you can hang your hat on, right?”

Liberals’ gun plans a trigger point

But while trust was building in some quarters, tensions flared in others — sometimes over issues that weren’t even part of the deal.

The controversy over Liberal amendments to the government’s firearms legislation — an issue entirely unrelated to the 27 policy items listed in the deal — was the largest source of strain between the parties over the last year, according to several sources.

The proposed changes on what firearms should be outlawed was heavily criticized by the Conservatives and NDP for targeting hunters, sport shooters and Indigenous Peoples. For the New Democrats, who hold sway in both urban and rural communities, the subject is also sensitive due to a 2011 controversy in which two Ontario NDP MPs went against their party by voting with the Conservative government to abolish the long-gun registry.

Liberal and NDP sources close to the deal say they were caught unawares by the changes — described as “poorly executed” by a government source — as Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino backtracked and acknowledged more consultation on the issue was needed. Meanwhile, some on the Liberal side also felt frustrated by NDP opposition to the expanded gun ban.

“I know I talked to (Mendicino) a number of times … to express what I thought was problematic and how we could get through this,” the NDP’s Angus recalled.

“And we did. To me it was a sign that even though sometimes things are gonna blow up in our face — welcome to politics — we were able to work our way through that one.”

For the Liberals, the communications breakdown required some damage control.

By the time the next oversight meeting convened, “we apologized profusely,” the government source said, with cabinet ministers and staffers issuing mea culpas .

Election meddling another stress point

Similar disruptions to the deal have yet to erupt on that scale again, though the Trudeau government’s recent handling of allegations of foreign interference in two of Canada’s elections has sparked another divide.

The NDP, along with other opposition parties, continues to loudly call for a public inquiry into the accusations, something the prime minister has resisted doing.

It wouldn’t be the first time the New Democrats used their position in parliament to push for policies outside of the deal. Last fall, the NDP claimed they successfully pressured the Liberals to spend $2.5 billion on a sales tax rebate to help people deal with the rising cost of living, something a senior Liberal official who spoke with the Star at the time did not dispute.

Another point of tension, which has emerged in recent weeks, touches on the NDP’s desire for a universal pharmacare program, which the government has promised to pursue for years but so far failed to take meaningful steps toward. With the NDP raising questions around undue corporate influence over the government’s medicine price policies, Singh recently raised doubts to the Star’s Althia Raj about whether the Liberals — who have committed in the deal to pass pharmacare legislation before the end of the year — can be trusted to enact a national drug program.

Some Liberals, meanwhile, have harboured concerns that the deal with the New Democrats — long known for favouring big, expensive public programs — would push their government to spend too much.

For some, this presented a political risk for the Liberals, that they would tie themselves too closely to the NDP on fiscal policies and drive centre-right voters — so-called “Blue Liberals” — to Conservatives.

“I do feel like the NDP are kind of pushing us to spend on quote-unquote ‘progressive issues’ at a time when there is high inflation and when I do firmly believe we should be fiscally responsible,” said one Liberal MP who agreed to speak freely on condition of anonymity.

Judy Sgro, a longtime Liberal MP from Toronto’s Humber River–Black Creek, said she shared such concerns when the deal was struck last year. “The NDP are way too left for me,” she said.

But Sgro said she now feels good about the deal, crediting the alliance for creating an emerging dental care program — slated to cost, initially, $5.3 billion over five years — that is helping kids in her riding.

Holland, the Liberal House Leader, admitted the government has to defend against NDP demands for more spending on programs that fit their social democratic world view.

“They always want us to do more, and it’s up to us to be firm and to establish boundaries,” Holland said. “I think in my conversations with the NDP, they understand we can’t do everything that they want us to do.”

Federal budget is the next test

The upcoming federal budget is where some of that push and pull will next come into play, potentially highlighting tensions over fiscal policy, and how much new spending will go to NDP priorities.

Sgro said it will be a “budget of austerity” that will be “very cautious” and devoid of “big spending.”

That’s despite suggestions that billions toward expanding dental care coverage is likely to be a fixture of the budget.

But there is pressure on the Liberals to put more new money on the table, including from business groups and climate activists who want to see incentives to spur Canada’s clean tech and energy sectors to avoid investment getting sucked south of the border.

How long this give and take will persist is perhaps the biggest question in Canadian politics.

Singh told the Star’s Raj he wants to see the arrangement work, and that he doesn’t “want the government to fail.”

A senior government source, meanwhile, mused it will be “larger forces that determine how long this deal goes,” not an impasse over a policy issue.

“It’s when do people think it’s to their advantage to leave an agreement versus the deal itself,” the source said.

When asked to reflect on the success of the deal one year on, sources from both parties independently gave the agreement a grade of B.

Good, but not great.

“I wish there was more being done on housing affordability. I think that is the challenge that we have not cracked,” Howard said. “I think that we are not moving fast enough on some of the commitments around Indigenous reconciliation, also particularly related to housing.”

“We haven’t been perfect. We’ve both made mistakes, but I think both sides learned from those mistakes,” said one government source.

For Angus, the deal’s true worth will be seen in the months ahead.

“Are we going to continue to be able to do this so we can actually move from making commitments to each other to actually implementing something that can actually start to show results?” he asked.

“That’s going to be the question in the coming year.”

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel


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