Décision 2011: Canadian Politics X

By Akil Alleyne on April 21, 2011

The bell has been rung, and the Tories, Grits, Dippers and Blocquistes are going another round in their bout for parliamentary supremacy. The ruling Conservatives, of course, are hoping that in their five-year quest for a majority government, the third time will prove to be the charm. Yet from the campaign’s outset, there has been one factor the Tories have lustily exploited, one having little to do with their actual fitness to govern. I refer to the specter of another coalition of Opposition parties snatching the reins of power from Tory hands.

In December 2008, the Opposition leaders surprised Canadians by announcing plans to defeat the Tories in a no-confidence vote and take power at the head of a coalition government. This was unprecedented, for no-confidence votes in Canada usually end up dissolving Parliament and triggering new elections. Nonetheless, the furor that erupted over this bold move was misdirected, with too much of the criticism focusing on its supposed unconstitutionality. In truth, it would have been perfectly constitutional forGovernor-General Michaelle Jean to approve the Opposition’s scheme. Such a coalition government, after all, would have held a majority of parliamentary seats, and each of its members would have been elected fair and square. The real fly in the Opposition’s ointment was not the coalition’s constitutional validity, but rather its democratic legitimacy—and even that hinged on the particular circumstances prevailing three Decembers ago.

At that time, a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition government would have come to power through a sort of legalized, bloodless coup d’état. More than half a century has elapsed since Canada was last governed by a single party with the support of a solid majority of Canadian voters. Here was a coalition of parties threatening to seize power without having been elected to govern at all.They derived no legitimacy from their having collectively won a majority ofseats or votes two months before. The Opposition parties did not campaign as a coalition in the October 2008 elections; each party campaigned strictly on its own behalf. As a result, those Canadians who voted Liberal did so in the hope that only that party would form the government; the same goes for those who voted for the NDP or the Bloc. Not a single Canadian voted to elect a Liberal-NDP-BQ coalition to power, for Canadians were never even given that option.

It could be argued that most every Liberal, NDP or Bloc voter in 2008 wouldhave voted for a coalition if given the option. That, however, is a possibility, not a certainty. Moreover, it is based on the false assumption that a coalition would have governed more or less the same way any one of those parties would have governed alone. This assumption is understandable, since all three parties involved lean at least somewhat leftward. Nonetheless, the argument ultimately comes up short. The Liberals and NDP have had plenty of their own disagreements, especially when the former were in power; they are not separate parties for nothing. Meanwhile, it is hardly worth detailing all the monkey wrenches the separatist BQ could throw into the gears of federal policy as part of a governing coalition. Anyway, even if the assumption proved true, that would not justify speculating about how Canadians would have voted underhypothetical circumstances that ultimately never came to pass. In a democratic society, changes of government should be based on how citizens actually vote—not on how they might vote or how they will probably vote.

To inaugurate a coalition government for which no one voted—that no voter even knew was a possibility—would have been to hijack the ship of state. It would have made a mockery of the time-honoured democratic principle that the people should decide who shall govern them. As one Winnipegger told CTVNews at the time, “They don’t care what we said. We voted for a Prime Minister, and they’re saying, ‘You know what? That doesn’t matter—we don’t like him.’ Then why did we have an election?”

In short, the people’s democratic will must be accurately ascertained before it can be obeyed. So was Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff wise to promise not to form a coalition with the NDP and the Bloc, as he did at the outset of this election campaign? Well, yes and no.

The 2008 debacle was wrong not strictly because of the prospect of a coalition government, but because the coalition sought to take power without really earning it. If the Opposition parties truly craved a government with democratic legitimacy at that time, then they should not have mindedcampaigning as a coalition. That way, Canadians would have made informed decisions at the polls, and any resulting coalition government would have been truly chosen by the people. By that standard, Ignatieff could legitimately join forces with the NDP and the Bloc today, as long as he does so up front—and campaigns accordingly. Then Canadians could go into the voting both with their eyes open—and vote accordingly.  As another Winnipegger told CTV News back in 2008: “I’d rather vote than be told, ‘Okay, I’m your leader now.’”

In that case, Mr. Ignatieff might have done better to hedge his bets, rather than paint himself into a corner by publicly foreswearing another coalition caper. After all, the Liberals have been struggling in the polls under his leadership. Meanwhile, the NDP, which has yet to win enough hearts and minds even to dream of forming its own government, might still prove amenable to such an arrangement. Without a monumental misstep by Harper (which, admittedly, is not that big an “if”), Iggy’s Grits may have little hope of returning to power anytime soon without joining a coalition.

Then again, the ink was barely dry on the Governor-General’s prorogation of Parliament in December 2008 before Canadians, true to form, turned their attention to other matters. Since then, they have shown little interest in revisiting the issue, especially given all the other fare on the nation’s public policy plate. Even if Canadians were in any mood for another tilt at this windmill, they probably would not cotton to a coalition with Quebec separatists as parliamentary kingmakers. The Leader of the Opposition cannot be blamed for refusing to give Stephen Harper another argument to deploy against him in this election campaign.

Taking the long view, Canadians’ stalwart apathy on this matter is a crying shame. However democratically suspect and politically foolhardy the December 2008 power play was, at least it created an opportunity to educate Canadians about how their government really works. When Stéphane Dion stepped down as Liberal leader and was replaced by the skeptical Michael Ignatieff, causing the coalition’s collapse, that “teachable moment” was lost. The landscape is littered with inconvenient truths just waiting to be brought to Canadians’ attention. To name a few: Canadians do not really elect their prime minister, but rather vote only for their local MPs; that is how a parliamentary system functions. Those MPs are so crushed in the coils of party discipline that Canadians might as well be voting for whole parties rather than individual parliamentary candidates.Canada’s Constitution does nothing to protect private property from arbitrary seizure by the government; anyone who resists the seizure and bulldozing of one’s house to make way for a shopping mall is more or less out of luck.Perhaps worst of all, nine times out of ten, the prime minister is the only individual in government who really calls the shots.

When next will Canadians pay politics enough attention to learn how dysfunctional their democracy truly is—and hopefully do something about it? The window for the teaching of that lesson is closed, and will remain so for the time being. God alone knows when it will open again.


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