Coalition thoughts

Power wears out — those who don’t have it
(Italian politician and former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti)

Whoever said that Canadian politics is boring ?
In a surprising twist, only a month and a half after the last federal election that saw the Conservative Party of Canada of (then) Prime Minister Stephen Harper strengthen its relative majority in the Canadian House of Commons (despite receiving fewer actual votes than in 2006) but fall short of the stated goal of an outright majority, it now looks as though Canada may not be governed by the Conservatives at all, for the foreseeable future.
Rather, the first coalition government in Canadian history since World War I, formed by the Liberal and the New Democratic party, with the external support of the Bloc Québécois, may take on the task of navigating the country through the uncertain economic times that lie ahead.
At this time, it is not yet clear if such a scenario will actually materialize, or whether maybe the Governor General of Canada will not allow it, sending the country back to the polls instead. It is also possible that a last minute deal with the opposition will allow Harper and the Conservatives to remain in power. Still, it appears sufficiently plausible to spur an intense online debate (see, for instance, the flood of comments at the Globe and Mail web site).

Let me get one thing immediately out of the way: those who are aware of my political views will not expect me to shed any tears over Stephen Harper’s departure. I have never believed him to be the right person for the job, and welcome his replacement. However, this is not so much what interests me about this situation, at the present time.
Reading the reactions from Harper and other conservative politicians, as well as from various political commentators of conservative leanings, understandably expressing frustration and resentment at the turn of events, I was nonetheless surprised by the use of words such as undemocratic, and illegitimate with reference to the proposed coalition government [0]. The prevailing argument is that such a coalition would not have an electoral mandate, i.e., it would not represent the will of the voters. Some Conservatives also point to the support of the separatist-minded Bloc Québécois, crucially needed in order for the coalition to survive a confidence vote, as evidence of the oddity of this operation; the coalition, allegedly put together exclusively for political purposes (i.e., in order to bring down Harper’s government), could not possibly govern effectively.
Aside from one’s personal opinion of Stephen Harper, of the leaders of the parties that make up the coalition, as well as of the wisdom of the entire operation, suggestions of “illegitimacy” seem truly bizarre.

How can this be happening ?
For a simple reason: as a result of the October federal election, the Conservative Party does not hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons. This is not hard to understand, is it ? But apparently Harper, who has himself led a minority government for two years, still has a problem with that notion.
Minority government is no longer a novelty in Canada. Indeed, in spite of an electoral system that is geared toward consigning to a single political formation the task of governing, punitive as it is toward smaller parties [1], the last three federal elections in Canada have all yielded a minority legislature, i.e., one in which no single party controls a majority of seats. Thus, no party can, by itself, form a government that the opposition may not bring down at any time, by means of a vote of no confidence. This was in fact, in late 2005, the fate of the last Liberal government, headed by Paul Martin.
Given Canada’s political complexion, there are good reasons to believe that a minority legislature will be the name of the game for the foreseeable future. This means that the fortunes of any government, either by a single party or coalition thereof, will depend on the effectiveness of its leader at reaching out to the opposition, in order to find some middle ground (compromise — this is what democracy life is all about).
Stephen Harper has shown little or no interest for that, during his two years as Prime Minister. Indeed, his very decision to dissolve the previous parliament (despite not having suffered a no-confidence vote), triggering an inopportune and untimely election, was motivated exclusively by his manifest annoyance with having to try and work with the opposition, and his desire to bypass it altogether, by obtaining an outright majority in the House. That in the wake of his failure at achieving such a majority, he could simply go back and pick up from where he had left, had struck me as very unlikely an outcome from the beginning. This is why, on the eve of last October election, I made the bold prediction that the next government would be a Liberal-NDP coalition propped by the Bloc (I am good, eh ?).

“Undemocratic” ? “Illegitimate” ? You gotta be kidding me !
As the leader of the party with the (relative) majority in the House, Harper was the (presumed) Prime Minister; however, once again he showed himself unwilling (or unable) to try and find a common ground with his political adversaries. He overstepped his bounds; his budget forecast incensed all opposition leaders, spearheading their plan for an alternative coalition government [2]. Now, in the absence of an outright majority, the suggestion of “illegitimacy” of an attempt on the part of different parties to converge on a common programmatic platform, giving rise to an alternative majority, is absurd; throwing up arms in bewilderment, as if somehow the opposition were engaging in anything “undemocratic”, some kind of coup, is nothing short of outrageous, and betrays a surprisingly scarce understanding of how the democratic process works, as well as a rather twisted political culture [3].
In fact, the only truly “illegitimate” things, here, seem to be Harper’s pretense of governing as if his party had garnered 51% or more of the popular vote, when in reality it only represents 38% of the electorate; his demand for yet another election if his wish is not granted (shall we keep voting until you get your majority, Stephen ?); and his apparent intention of stalling now the parliamentary process, in order to avert the fall of his cabinet.

Whether or not any of this would be happening if Harper had been more conciliatory, or if Barack Obama had not won the US election, or what have you, is immaterial. Simply put, in the absence of an outright single-party majority (not just in the House, but especially in the country) a coalition based on a compromise among different political forces should never raise eyebrows, particularly if its combined votes sum up to a large majority (62%) of actual votes (if not necessarily of seats in the House). Indeed, broadly based coalitions should be the norm, rather than the exception, chiefly ahead of tough economic times.
Equally nonsensical, and disingenuous, is the claim that, because of the support of the separatist Bloc, the Liberal-NDP coalition is unfit to govern the country. Again: this is a minority legislature, implying that the support of the Bloc is needed by the Liberal-NDP coalition no more than it would have been needed by Harper (whose first government was indeed propped by the Bloc for an extended period of time).

Is this the right thing to do ?
Yes. In fact, we are way past the point of no return. A decision to back track on the part of the coalition members would be catastrophic. There are a number of reasons why Harper and the Conservatives ought not stay in power at this point, but, in my mind, the overriding reason for taking such an unprecedented action and bringing them down, is precisely that of creating a precedent. It is imperative that a strong message be sent to any future leader of a minority government, of any party, that in a democracy reaching across the aisle to seek the broadest possible consensus is mandatory, not optional. The initial appointment of Harper was predicated on the implicit expectation that he would try to build such a consensus. His utter failure at doing it must result in his political demise. Any aspiring statesman displaying his arrogance and refusal to compromise has no place in a democracy, especially one in which the spectrum of political opinions is as diverse as it is in Canada.
The notion that a strong, effective government is one that is ideologically homogeneous and single-minded, even if it ends up governing against the will of the majority, is one of which we need to get rid soon.

Having said that…
There are a number of things about the coalition, at least the way it is shaping up as I type this, that I find hard to digest, first of all the (presumed) designated Premier. I do not see what credibility the embattled, lame duck Liberal leader Stéphane Dion has to serve in that capacity, after leading his party to its worst electoral showing since Confederation, and after dismissing any suggestion of a possible coalition with the NDP ahead of the October vote. Naturally, neither NDP’s Jack Layton, nor Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe would make any better choices.
In general, given the circumstances that have led to this outcome, I believe that it is important for the new government to be perceived as a true statement of cooperation and bipartisanship, a bona fide attempt to serve the best interest of most Canadians. Consequently, the choice of Prime Minister should have fallen on a widely respected individual, possibly someone super partes, with no strong ideological or party affiliation and with whom at least some Conservatives could feel comfortable. Ideally, this person would have had a strong record of past governance, at the federal or provincial level (someone like Ralph Klein… just kidding). Similar considerations apply to the make-up of the cabinet, of which at this time it is only known that it will include that many Liberals and that many other NDP members. Why does the choice of ministers have to be restricted among elected representatives ? I continue to be befuddled by this confusion of the roles of elected representative and cabinet minister, between legislative and executive powers. Are they not supposed to be separated ?

Notes
[0] Actually, to pretty much anything that is not a) a minority government by the Conservatives or b) another federal election (see, here, for instance).
[1] It is worth reminding that the Green Party of Canada, which garnered almost one million votes at the last federal election, corresponding to 6% of the popular vote, did not have a single representative elected in the House of Commons. If we are going to have coalition and/or minority governments, it seems only fair that the electoral system be corrected in the direction of proportional representation.
[2] Some conservative commentators argue that, in reality, such a plan already existed, and the budget was simply an excuse to implement it. True or not as this may be, it is irrelevant. I fully agree with Scientistmother here: the leaders of the Liberal party, the NDP and the Bloc would not take such an unusual step, if they did not feel confident that they can make a strong case to Canadian voters to the effect that Harper’s budget and government would have been bad for the country. If Harper provided fodder for this, in the process squandering his political capital, he has only himself to blame.
[3] There exist, to be sure, a number of scenarios wherein the charge of “illegitimacy” would have merit. Just to mention the example of another country where these things happen often, if some pre-electoral agreement had been broken (as in, say, the Liberals make a coalition pact with the Conservatives before the vote, and decide afterwards to partner with the NDP instead), or a suspiciously large number of elected representatives had crossed the aisle the day after the vote, then the Conservatives would be justified in crying foul and requesting a snap election — which would almost certainly be called. But, none of what is happening at this time can be described in such terms.

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7 Responses to “Coalition thoughts”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    The CBC article has a very appropriate quote:

    “The Conservatives are arguing it’s undemocratic, but actually elections don’t elect governments,” said Wiseman. “They elect Parliaments. Parliaments make a government. Parliaments can break a government.”

    I can’t figure out LJ’s hyperlink code, so here’s the URL: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2008/12/02/gg-return.html

    Cath

    (Word verification thingy is Prime Middle, which seemed appropriate)

  2. Anonymous Says:

    well said Okham (thanks for the link!). The cries about it being undemocratic are very frustrating. I am not fully comfortable with Dion either, but this is all harpers doing. We know he’s to EGO minded to actually resign, but do you think that would stop this?

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Separation of Powers

    The American system of government, for example, is based upon the separation of powers of which you speak. However, in Canada, we have a parliamentary democracy, which means that we don’t make that separation. See for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliamentary_system

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: Separation of Powers

      I am aware of that — You’re quite right, though, I did not make myself clear.
      In fact, I don’t think that there exists a single democracy where all three powers are completely separated, nor did I mean to imply that Canada is an “anomaly”. Even in the US, executive and legislative are separated, but the judiciary is under the executive (as in, the president appointing Supreme Court justices, judges and the Attorney general).
      I know that in Canada the principle is that of “responsible government”, but still, that the Prime Minister must be the leader of the party with the relative majority and all ministers have to be drawn among elected representatives from that party, even in a minority government, seems too much. To me, anyway…

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