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.