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Get Used to It

by Archives February 10, 2009

In the frantic rush two weeks ago to declare the Liberal-NDP coalition dead, the mainstream media seems to have missed the larger story. Let’s not understate matters: the Canadian political sands have shifted, and there’s no certain telling of where they might settle.
That said it remains a firm likelihood that the turbulence aroused in the wake of the coalition proposal could ultimately prove to be the birth pangs of what might one day become our new status quo.
In sum, Canadians should get used to the coalition idea, for they may be our future.
The federal electorate underwent severe fragmentation with the birth of the Reform Party and Bloc Québécois in the 1993 election. As such, the Chrétien majority governments were perhaps more exception than rule, a blip in the new norm caused by the continued split on the right.
With the right now united and the Bloc as present as ever in Quebec – not to mention the rise of the Greens as a credible force – the prospect of any party ever again achieving majority status grows persistently dimmer. In such a context, Canadians are confronted with a serious choice: on the one hand, rule by minority, perpetual instability, incessant electioneering and elections every 18 months; and on the other, majority coalitions.
In truth, the drama and instability which shook Parliament Hill last month had little to do with coalitions. The political crisis which erupted was largely a manufactured one, deployed by a desperate Prime minister in a cynical and calculated bid to cling to power. From utterings of treason to shouts of coup d’état, his shameless and misleading scorched earth theatrics did much to stir confusion and muddy the waters, but little to alter the underlying truth.
In fact, there is nothing either remotely unstable or undemocratic about government by coalition. On the contrary, they constitute the norm in many of the most advanced and stable democracies in the world, such as Ireland, Germany and New Zealand, to name a few.
So, are coalitions more or less democratic than our current system? Allow me to begin with Harper’s attacks, and to address each in turn.
Firstly, the Prime minister claimed the opposition parties replacing his government would effectively “overturn” the results of the last election. This accusation aims to exploit Canadians’ weak grasp of their parliamentary system, as it wilfully confuses it with the American presidential one.
In fact, the last election’s results did not return a Conservative government, nor a Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Rather, they returned a Parliament of 308 MPs, with Conservative members elected by 38 per cent of the electorate. By tradition, it’s the party winning a plurality of seats which is allowed to govern first and win the confidence of the House of Commons. Should that party lose such confidence – the very bedrock of our parliamentary democracy – then the next largest party may be invited to form a government. All this to say that in Canada Parliament is supreme, not the Prime minister.
Harper also claimed repeatedly, and just as erroneously, that such a coalition would have no right to govern unless it ran in an election, and won, as a coalition. In fact, this is rarely how coalitions function, and in a sense defeats the entire purpose. In most countries where coalition governments are the rule, each political party runs independently of one another so as to gauge the population’s true support for each. After returning each to Parliament in function of their electoral weight, then negotiations begin to arise as a reasonable compromise and present a government of the majority.
As such, it is around this central notion of compromise that coalitions – and governments composed of them – are built. And it is upon such sturdy and healthy foundations that a mature and vibrant democracy can flourish.
Unfortunately, Canadian democracy has yet to attain this level of maturity, at least not yet. Were coalitions to become absorbed into our political culture however, voters would soon come to see that no party obtaining less than a majority could legitimately impose their full platform unmodified, nor should they be expected to.
It is exactly this process of inter-party compromise which Canadians just witnessed for the very first time. In the last election, the Liberals campaigned on a carbon tax while the New Democrats staunchly opposed tax cuts, both positions later dropped in the interests of compromise. Even the Bloc Quebecois was willing to forego demands on Quebec’s powers or status by necessity of finding common ground. In short, with coalitions in play, political parties – and Canadian voters – would develop a firmer grasp of the necessary compromises inherent in governing.
More, the inclusion of small parties like the New Democrats and Greens into the process of decision-making can have immensely beneficial effects on our democracy. Not only would it widen the government’s scope of inclusion and render it more representative, but providing these smaller parties with experience in government would also prove an invaluable course for them in the mechanisms of governance. Such experience would serve to inject a useful degree of pragmatism and nuance into their programs, enriching our national political discourse as a result.

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