• Form, substance, coalitions and accords

    by  • March 27, 2011 • Uncategorized • 14 Comments

    Andrew Coyne is one of my favourite political writers in the country. I probably agree with him about 90% of the time and, in particular, agree with him on issues of democratic reform. I mention this because it means that I share his views on a lot of stuff that is distasteful about the way in which we are governed as well as the causes and potential solutions to it. I usually agree with him on the sort of procedural stuff that matters and the stuff that doesn’t.

    As such, I found it a bit surprising that I disagreed so vehemently with something that he wrote today, on Michael Ignatieff renouncing the option of forming a coalition if elected.

    Now: none of this means that Ignatieff has promised not to topple a Conservative minority government, should one be returned, or replace it with one led by him. He has ruled out a coalition; he has not ruled out a minority government of some other kind. Nor should he. There is absolutely nothing “illegitimate” about one government being replaced by another in this way, that is by the vote of Parliament rather than the votes of the people, and the Tory leader was wrong to have claimed there is. For that matter, there’s nothing illegitimate about coalition governments, either — though the involvement of the Bloc would be an exception to that rule. On this Stephen Harper was right: you can seek to break up the country, or you can govern the country, but you can’t do both.

    The only issue with regard to the possibility of a Liberal-NDP coalition was a political one: would voters, especially right-of-centre voters, care to see a government with NDP cabinet ministers? His pledge today should assuage that concern. Voters must still weigh whether they are comfortable with a Liberal government propped up by the NDP, perhaps via some sort of electoral pact, a la the Peterson-Rae accord in Ontario in 1985 — for the Governor General would want some assurance, in the event the Tories were brought down, that whatever replaced it would be likely to last. And whatever was cobbled together between them would probably still be short of a majority, meaning it would have to seek the support of either the Bloc or the Tories to pass legislation. The Tories are perfectly entitled to point all this out. But that is a very different thing than a coalition. People who consider this a matter of potato-potahto do not know their constitution. It is the difference between the legislative and executive, between MPs and cabinet ministers.

    Coyne is caught up in procedure rather than substance here. First of all, whether it’s government by coalition or government by accord, the Bloc would be afforded an enormous amount of leverage if the Liberals decided to try and form a government after a Conservative plurality was elected.

    Consider how a Conservative government would fall. Once the election is complete, regardless of how many seats he has, Stephen Harper is entitled to test the confidence of the House. Assume, as I think Coyne is implicitly, that the Tories have a plurality of seats. The Liberals wouldn’t want to defeat the Conservatives on the Throne Speech and then find out that they couldn’t command the confidence of the House themselves. I would think that the only way that they would be defeated on a Throne Speech is if there was an understanding with the Bloc and the NDP that the Liberals would be supported in government.

    If the Liberals and NDP made an agreement without ensuring that the Bloc was onside, they would then be in the uncomfortable position of, having defeated the Tories, being forced to barter with the Bloc to ensure their support for the Throne Speech. They would not have a significant amount of leverage if that came to pass – if you’re going to blow up the government, you’d better replace it and if the new Liberal government fell on the Throne Speech and another election ensued, one suspects that there might be consequences.

    If the Liberals are hellbent on forming a government if it’s at all possible, it seems that the net effect is that the Bloc suddenly has a very strong hand, as they become the kingmaker. Whether intentional or not, the Bloc is going to be significantly involved in either maintaining the Conservatives in power or establishing the Liberals in power.

    As for the difference between a Liberal government, governing on the basis of an accord with the NDP and a Liberal/NDP coalition government, I just don’t see there being much of one in a practical sense. The difference between legislative and executive and cabinet minister and MP is all fine and well but if there’s no practical difference in the policy that results (I don’t think there would be), then we’re talking about the difference between (ed. I was originally going to write “Jack Layton, PC” and “Jack Layton” here, but it turns out he’s already a Privy Councillor)…I’m not sure what distinction can possibly be drawn.

    There is a difference between the legislative and executive branches of government and a difference between cabinet ministers and MPs, but when that cabinet is permitted to govern because of an agreement made with various MPs of a different political stripe, it seems to me that the impact of the difference is going to be negligible. Those cabinet ministers aren’t going to be able to make a single decision without giving consideration to the response of MPs over whom they have no control. Jack Layton might not be physically in the room when cabinet meets but his presence will be felt.

    To be honest, I’m sort of surprised that ruling out a coalition government but not some sort of accord satisfies anyone who was interested in the question in the first place. I had assumed that everyone cared about a coalition government because of the types of policy that it might produce, rather than who would be in cabinet or any of things that happen along the way to policy being generated. Ruling out a coalition does not address any of the issues of policy tilt or Bloc Quebecois influence that arise from attempting to govern as the second largest Party in the House, needing the support of two other parties to govern. It’s the definition of form over substance.

    The greatest irony in all of this is that, of all the likely potential groupings of political parties that could be used to arrive at a workable majority (Tory+Liberal, Tory+NDP, Liberal+NDP+Bloc and Tory+Bloc), the most sensible one, which would involve the least political compromise, wouldn’t require any of the federal parties to prostitute themselves to the Bloc Quebecois and would provide government that matches the political leanings of 60-65% of the population would be a post-election alignment of Conservatives and Liberals. Someone should ask why they can’t form a coalition.

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    14 Responses to Form, substance, coalitions and accords

    1. March 27, 2011 at

      Conservative: 119
      Liberal: 116
      Bloc: 40
      NDP: 35
      Green/Ind: 3

      I admit, not a likely scenario, but it is possible for Libs as the second party to form government without support of Bloc.

    2. Robert F
      March 27, 2011 at

      What is your prediction for the election, Tyler? CPC minority? Breakthrough to slim majority?

    3. John Wunderlich
      March 27, 2011 at

      It seems to me that one key indicator of how ‘democratic’ a government is, is the % of the popular vote that the party/ies in the government represent. If a government where two parties representing 50% of the vote cooperate to govern, isn’t that more democratically representative of the country than a a first past the post winner representing 38% of the population?

    4. March 27, 2011 at

      Seems to me this is exactly why Canada is in dire need of electoral reform. Proportional representation would make this situation you are suggesting one that would be potentially much easier to resolve. Coalitions have been working effectively in a lot of European countries for decades…or maybe I’m just a lefty idealist…

    5. lowetide
      March 27, 2011 at

      If you approach these issues with the idea that an enormous number of Canadians believe the Liberals are the party of power then it all falls into place.

      Harper represents an interlude or more likely a short coda before a long and successful run by Canada’s government.

      Ask King, he’s in your bathroom mirror.

    6. March 27, 2011 at

      It seems to me that one key indicator of how ‘democratic’ a government is, is the % of the popular vote that the party/ies in the government represent. If a government where two parties representing 50% of the vote cooperate to govern, isn’t that more democratically representative of the country than a a first past the post winner representing 38% of the population?

      Well, no. If I vote Liberal, it’ll be because I want the Liberal Party of Canada to run the country. I most emphatically will not want the New Democratic Party of Canada to help run the country, and I would strongly reject any argument which says “oh, it adds up to 50%+1, it’s got democratic legitimacy.”

    7. March 27, 2011 at

      But a lot of people who do vote Liberal, probably including myself, won’t be voting for them because they want the Liberal Party of Canada to run the country. They’ll be doing it because they don’t want Stephen Harper to run the country anymore. I do think that there is a certain appetite this time around for the Libs to form a government any which way they can, moreso than there was the last time the idea of a coalition was raised, and that Ignatieff is going to have to weigh the desires of Liberal supporters who want a Liberal government or nothing and this other segment who just want Stephen Harper out of power.

      And yeah, there is a very strong possibility that any kind of coalition majority would be a total mess and make a complete hash of things, damaging the chances of any leader or party involved in it in the polls for years to come, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    8. Tyler Dellow
      March 27, 2011 at

      @Saskab – Yeah, I don’t see it as being all that likely. That’s a better Liberal number than I think even they’re expecting and you’ve still got the Block, the NDP and Liberals close to all-time highs.

      @Robert F – I kind of think that the Tories might get a majority. I think Ignatieff has a series of horrible choices to make with respect to ruling in and our cooperating with various people after the election and it seems likely to me that the ultimate choice is either going to be a signficantly more left wing Liberal government than is usual, or a Tory one.

      @John Wunderlich – I agree with Lord Bob although if Ignatieff says, “Look, if I get 95 seats and the Tories don’t make a majority, the first thing I’m going to do is try to cut a deal with the NDP and Bloc to support me” then I think he can plausibly claim to have legitimacy.

    9. March 27, 2011 at

      But a lot of people who do vote Liberal, probably including myself, won’t be voting for them because they want the Liberal Party of Canada to run the country. They’ll be doing it because they don’t want Stephen Harper to run the country anymore. I do think that there is a certain appetite this time around for the Libs to form a government any which way they can, moreso than there was the last time the idea of a coalition was raised, and that Ignatieff is going to have to weigh the desires of Liberal supporters who want a Liberal government or nothing and this other segment who just want Stephen Harper out of power.

      I don’t deny there’s an “anybody but Harper” crowd out there. Hell, I live in Vancouver; thinking that Stephen Harper isn’t worse than a million Hitlers is borderline treason here. There are people in Canada who are ideologically New Democrats but will vote Liberal strategically.

      Just not me (if I vote Liberal).

      That’s the problem with coalition talk, or at least the problem with coalition double-talk. If Ignatieff said “if I can form a coalition, I will”, then voters can take that into account. If, as was the case last time around, a coalition isn’t even on the table until after the ballots are counted, there’d be a lot of Liberal/NDP/Bloc voters feeling betrayed. Either way, you can’t say “these parties all have the majority of the vote, so a coalition of these parties is the will of the majority” because, unless the election is explicitly held on that premise, that just isn’t true.

    10. The Other John
      March 27, 2011 at

      An election is a funny creature. Things people think will happen, won’t . I agree with LT that Canada has been, traditionally a Liberal country, but also think the PC’s have done a very very good job encroaching on Liberal strongholds across the country.

      I just hope we get away from a minority government even if only for a single term

    11. Adam
      March 27, 2011 at

      If I vote Liberal, it’ll be because I want the Liberal Party of Canada to run the country. I most emphatically will not want the New Democratic Party of Canada to help run the country

      Democracy doesn’t mean “One large group dictates to everyone else what happens”. That isn’t how Parliamentary democracy works. Everyone votes for who they think is the best choice to run the country, and then the parties need to come together in some manner that allows for the country to be governed. In a minority government, this means that some combination of parties has to work together. Any government that doesn’t represent at least 50% of the electorate is not at all democratic.

      The first-past-the-post system made sense at a time in which there were only two parties, because the winner would inevitably be the one with the majority. In a system with more than 2 parties, people need to learn to work together. In every country in the world except for Canada and the U.S., people understand this.

    12. spOILer
      March 28, 2011 at

      They are all socialists supporting criminal enterprise, so what fucking difference does the stage show make? The fact that the pomp and prestidigitation captivates what are otherwise incisive and erudite minds is unfathomable.

    13. Jordan
      March 28, 2011 at

      Ah electoral reform – the one issue that will never actually happen here in Canada until we see another leader as crazy as Paul Martin. It’s cutting off his nose to spite his face like he did with the campaign financing reform, and gave away the liberal purse advantage that they’ed had for years.

      It would be the same way if there was ever any talk of Proportional representation – why change to a system that other people want when it will certainly hurt your party – if you’re in power in this system, why would you want to switch to a different one that better reflects what people actually want, instead of just managing to squeeze out a win against the guys who are getting less seats than the proportion of their votes would give them?

      Plus, it helps the block, who no one likes anyways… Why change what’s broken in your favour?

    14. March 31, 2011 at

      Ignatieff triggered this election. If he doesn’t beat Harper in seats, he won’t be talking about coalitions, he’ll be talking about resignations.

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