Boost in support for Liberals the biggest for a minority government in 60 years

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Governing parties across Canada are enjoying a surge in support as they confront the COVID-19 pandemic. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are no exception.

But for a party heading up a minority government to be in such a position is rare. The Liberals’ polling bump is the biggest for a minority government in over 60 years.

The Liberals were in a state of post-election stagnation in late February and early March, averaging about 33 per cent in the polls. That’s exactly where they were on election night nearly nine months ago.

Since then, however, the Liberals have seen their support increase significantly. It has risen to between 39 and 42 per cent support among decided voters, according to a monthly average of national polls.

That’s a big increase of between six and nine percentage points compared to the last election. To understand how remarkable that is, you have to go back through decades of Canadian political history.

Since modern political public opinion polling began in Canada in the 1940s, 10 elections have ended with minority governments. Most of the time, the first nine months of a newly elected (or re-elected) minority government do not see wide swings in public opinion.

The increase in support for the Liberals — which seems to have settled around 7.5 points — eight to nine months after an election is the largest for a minority government since John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives surged by 11.5 points in 1957-58.

That’s the only case of a minority government experiencing a larger increase in support than the one lifting up the Liberals now.

Boost in support for Liberals the biggest for a minority government in 60 years
Change in support in national polls compared to the previous election for parties leading minority governments. (CBC)

Minority governments since the end of the Second World War have had a mixed record of political success — three were re-elected with majorities, three had to settle for subsequent minority mandates and three were defeated. But Diefenbaker’s first minority ended with the biggest majority win in Canadian history.

From minority to majority governments

Diefenbaker rode a wave of popularity into election day in 1957 that continued into the first months of his new minority government.

The PCs kept up a frenetic pace in the early days, following through on popular election promises. After three months in office, support for the PCs ballooned from 38.5 per cent to 47 per cent, according to Gallup. Between six and eight months after the 1957 election, the PCs were polling at 50 per cent among decided voters.

Diefenbaker’s support was boosted by the lacklustre performance of the newly-minted Liberal leader, Lester Pearson, who clumsily suggested the PCs willingly hand power back to his party. With the wind in his sails, Diefenbaker dissolved Parliament and called a new election. It delivered him 54 per cent of the popular vote and the highest share of seats in the House of Commons ever won by a party.

Boost in support for Liberals the biggest for a minority government in 60 years
In 1958, prime minister John Diefenbaker turned his minority PC government into a majority government. (Canadian Press)

After being reduced to a minority government in the 1972 federal election, Pierre Trudeau had to govern with the support of the New Democrats. He introduced new social welfare policies that helped boost Liberal support.

The gains weren’t enormous — four points after eight months — but it was enough to put the Liberals back into majority territory. After being defeated on a budget vote in 1974 when the NDP withdrew its support, Trudeau increased his party’s share of the vote by five points over 1972 and returned to Parliament with a majority government.

Stephen Harper, re-elected with a minority government in 2008, did see a short-lived boost in support in the early months of his second term when the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois tried to form a coalition to boot him from office. But before long, Harper’s Conservatives were down in the polls again, slipping as much as 7.5 points seven months after the 2008 election.

Harper’s minority government hung on, however, and it wasn’t until 2011 that the opposition finally defeated the Conservatives in the House and forced an election. The result was a Conservative majority government.

Pearson, Harper re-elected with minorities

The Pearson minorities and Harper’s first term in 2006-08 featured few big swings in the polls. After ousting Diefenbaker in 1963, Pearson’s Liberals retained their support over the next few months and, when Pearson decided to call an election, the result in 1965 was scarcely different from the outcome in 1963.

The polls wobbled back and forth during the first months of Pearson’s second term. It wasn’t until Pearson stepped aside and was replaced by Pierre Trudeau that the Liberals were able to break the logjam in 1968.

Harper’s first term had a similarly stable polling trend line and his minority government lasted for nearly three years. By 2008, when Harper called an election, the Conservatives had done a good job of undermining Liberal leader Stéphane Dion — but it only got them another minority government.

Going from minority to defeat

There are a few minority government horror stories, of course.

After five years in office, Diefenbaker’s PCs were unpopular and had been reduced to a minority government in 1962. The once-active Tories were now looking incompetent. The cabinet was in revolt and support for the PCs had dropped four to five points. Diefenbaker’s weakened minority government lost a vote of confidence in the House and the election in 1963.

Boost in support for Liberals the biggest for a minority government in 60 years
Prime minister Joe Clark lost the 1980 election after forming a minority government in 1979. (Chuck Stoody / Canadian Press)

Joe Clark, who won a shaky minority government in 1979 despite finishing significantly behind the Liberals in the popular vote, could not fulfil his election promises once in office. Support for Clark’s PCs plummeted by nine points after only eight months. In 1980, they were defeated and back on the opposition benches.

Paul Martin, once seen as the head of a Liberal juggernaut, was significantly damaged by the sponsorship scandal and held on with only a minority government in 2004. The Liberals managed to retain a lead in the polls going into the 2005 election campaign but it could not be sustained. By January 2006, the Liberals were out and Harper was in.

When to pull the plug

Timing matters with minority governments. Had Martin become prime minister earlier and called an election in late 2003, he might have secured a majority government that would have been in a better position to survive the sponsorship scandal.

Had Diefenbaker not cashed in on his popularity very quickly in 1958, he might not have won his historic majority government. Had Clark handled his minority in the House better, he might have staved off defeat in 1980 long enough for Pierre Trudeau to make his planned retirement from politics.

Not surprisingly, minority governments that decide their own fates have tended to fare better than those forced to call elections due to defeats in the House. The record is not perfect, however — which shows why campaigns still matter.

There’s also no guarantee that the trend in the polls after less than a year in a minority Parliament will continue indefinitely. The records of the past nine minority governments show that on only four occasions did the trend line after nine months (positive or negative) stay the same straight through to election day.

When an election is called well after a minority government’s first eight or nine months in office are over, the polling trends can be more unpredictable. Opinions shift over time, so troubled governments tend to get quickly defeated by opportunistic oppositions — and popular ones tend not to hesitate to renew their mandates.

That brings us to today.

The surge in support for Trudeau’s Liberals is historically abnormal. The unprecedented pandemic is one reason for that — but if COVID-19 prevents an election call despite the government’s strong support, that also would make for an abnormal situation.

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