Only 24 hours into this election campaign, and one issue is dominating all discussion, the c-word: coalition.
The threat of a possible coalition is a recurrent theme for the incumbent Conservatives. Yesterday, after visiting the Governor General to ask for the dissolution of Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated:
“Canadians need to understand clearly, without any ambiguity: Unless Canadians elect a stable, national majority, Mr. Ignatieff will form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois. They tried it before. It is clear they will try it again. And, next time, if given the chance, they will do it in a way that no one will be able to stop.”
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was repeatedly hounded by reporters asking him if he’d form a coalition with any other party (or parties), forcing him to issue this statement yesterday in which he categorically states that the Liberal Party “will not enter into a coalition with other federalist parties” and that they “formally rule out a coalition or formal arrangement with the Bloc Québécois.” He did, however, at least acknowledge that they are a legitimate, constitutional option – he simply believes that issue-by-issue cooperation with other parties is the best way for a minority government to work.
In this election, coalitions are something to be feared, rejected, and even somehow illegitimate. How on earth did we get to this point?
For my non-Canadian readers who perhaps haven’t been following recent Canadian political history, the tipping point occurred following the October 2008 general election, which returned another Conservative minority government. When the new Parliament met in November, the government tabled a fiscal update, which included plans to cut government spending, suspend the ability of civil servants to strike until 2011, sell off some Crown assets to raise capital, and eliminate the existing political party subsidy of CAD$1.95 for each vote the party garners in an election. Since all money bills are traditionally matters of confidence, the opposition was forced to consider whether to accept the motion or bring down the government over it.
The pledge to eliminate the vote subsidy caught the opposition parties off-guard. The three opposition parties depend on this subsidy to varying degrees, with the BQ the most dependent on it for its campaign financing. In contrast, the Conservatives excel at fund-raising and don’t need the subsidy at all. Eliminating the subsidy would thus severely handicap the opposition parties vis-à-vis the Conservatives come the next election – and they already have far less money to spend on advertising and general campaign expenses.
The opposition parties rallied and threatened to bring down the government over the economic statement, purportedly on the grounds that it lacked any fiscal stimulus during the ongoing economic crisis, for its suspension of federal civil servants’ ability to strike, for suspending the right for women to seek recourse from the courts for pay equity issues, and for the change in election financing rules, a pledge that had not been raised at all during the election campaign. The leaders of the Liberal and the New Democratic Party signed a coalition agreement, and the separatist BQ pledged to support the coalition on confidence motions for two years – but wouldn’t be part of a coalition government. The three parties were ready to take the agreement to the Governor General and ask her to give them a chance to govern should the government be defeated on its economic statement.
The Conservatives were caught off-guard by this action, and immediately sprang in to coalition fear-mongering mode. There were numerous legitimate reasons why the proposed coalition was less than ideal, but the Conservatives opted instead to attack and completely discredit the very concept of coalition government, going so far as to call it unconstitutional, illegal, a coup d’état, overturning the will of the people, etc. They capitalised on the unfortunate reality that too many Canadians don’t fully understand how Westminster parliamentary democracy works. For a more detailed discussion of this episode, please click here.
Since the 2008 “coalition crisis”, the Conservatives have regularly raised the specter of coalition as something that would undermine Canada’s political and economic stability. Both the ministry and backbenchers repeatedly referred to the “opposition coalition” during proceedings in the House – in particular during Oral Questions since those soundbites are assured exposure on the evening news – and on political discussion programs, in interviews – whenever a microphone presents itself.
Prime Minister Harper has, on occasion, found himself rather on the spot. Soon after the 2010 UK general election, which, of course, resulted in coalition government, he made an official visit to 10 Downing Street. During a press conference with David Cameron, he was asked again about the legitimacy of coalition government and clarified his position by saying:
Losers don’t get to form coalitions. The coalition in Britain, I think it’s important to point out, was formed by the party that won the election, and I think that’s very important.
Thus, according to Harper, the problem with the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition in 2008 was that it would be illegitimate because it did not include the party with the most seats (the Conservatives). Yet he has no problem supporting the Israeli coalition government, which does not include the party that won the most seats.
Embarrassingly for Mr. Harper, he is on record apparently at least open to the idea of coalitions – including coalitions that would not not include the party with the most seats. In a 1997 interview for TVO, he was asked which party he thought would win the next election and replied (emphasis added):
Well, it would really surprise me at the moment if the Liberals didn’t get the most seats. I mean, judging from all the, not just the polling data, but the fact they have such a wide coalition. The way the Liberals, I think, are eventually going to lose office, whether it’s in this election or the next one, is they’re going to fail to win a majority. They’ve basically lost Quebec and without Quebec the Liberal party has never been a majority party in this country. And that’s where I think you’re going to face, someday, a minority parliament, with the Liberals maybe having the largest number of seats, and what will be the test is whether there’s then any party in opposition that’s able to form a coalition or working alliance with the others. And I think we have a political system that’s going to continue to have three or four different parties, or five different parties, and so I think parties that want to form government are going to eventually have to learn to work together.
Also, in 2004, faced with a minority Liberal government, Harper reached an agreement with the leaders of the NDP and Bloc, drafting a letter they were going to present to the Governor General asking her to consider giving them a chance to govern rather than call another election should the Martin government be defeated.
The Conservatives’ fixation with making coalition out to be the most horrific thing to possibly happen to Canada shows no sign of abating. Mr. Harper delivered a campaign speech in Brampton, Ontario, this morning. Run through Wordle, and it produces this result: