A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Coalition Governments in Canada

Earlier I posted a piece by Duncan Cameron that raised some questions regarding minority governments, here is another opininion regarding coalition governments in Canada origionaly posted in Kerstens Kolumn . This subject will no doubt come up again as minority governments seem more and more probable on the federal scene and should BC go to STV voting (more on that in my next post) then there is an increased probability of minority coalition government there next time around.

[T]here is good reason to believe that the possibility of coalition government will remain with Canadians sometime.” That is what William Cross, a well respected Canadian political scientist, wrote in the Globe and Mail a couple of months ago. Last week Cross also held a roundtable discussion on the issue of coalitions and their future in Canada, a lecture that included Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, Dr. David Docherty as well the coalition expert, Kaare Strom.

The idea of supporting the coalition was quite a contentious issue for Canadians. The idea that the nation would have a PM who they had readily and dramatically rejected just six weeks prior made Canadians extremely uncomfortable. It was a perplexing situation. As Segal described it, “what happened in Canada was a joint partisan disengagement. The Conservatives made the either “miscalculation or awful misjudgement” of cutting public funding to parties.

In response, dramatic action was matched with dramatic and a coalition was forged with lasting consequences for both sides. The Conservative Government, after implicitly labelling Quebecers as separatists in his attempt to defeat the coalition, has lost absolutely any chance at gaining seats in the province. Harper also has to face a much stronger voice and confident leader in Michael Ignatieff, whose rise to power he helped accelerate with this anti-coaliton fervour. On the Liberal side, Stephane Dion’s political career was left in ruins and Bob Rae, who would have been key in an NDP-Liberal Government – possibly even PM after the May leadership race, will now never reach Liberal leadership.

Segal maintained that “both sides lost grip of essential fairness of Parliamentary system.” But was that what happened? Did the Liberals and NDP really lose their grip of fairness? The flip side is that coalitions are inherently fair and democratic. They are prevalent – if not the norm – in many European nations. In Canada, they aren’t as new as the public was led to believe. Consider Docherty’s examples from Canada’s history: the Borden-Union Federal Government that formed prior to 1917 election; in Ontario 1919-1923; the Manitoba Government in 1931 which lasted until after the war; 1941 in BC with Liberals and Conservatives in coalition; and the Liberal-NDP coalition under Bob Rae in Ontario. Certainly, we wouldn’t call these governments undemocratic.

Another argument in this vein is that voters do not choose governments, they choose parliamentarians and that Government, in turn, is chosen by Parliamentarians, not citizens. While this would appear to be the case, in a nation that relies on precedence, or “constitutional conventions” to underlie what is constitutionally appropriate or not, we must consider that precedence has reinforced Canadians not voting for their MP. They vote for the party or for the leader. And it would be inconceivable – if not politically disastrous – to convince them that they shouldn’t do so, that their perceived purpose of vote does not matter or isn’t based on reality.

Another problem that we must consider is when it is democratic for a coalition is formed. Most people can agree that in principle, coalitions can promote democratic principles, particularly greater representation and cooperation. But is there a difference in the democratic worth of a coalition formed before or after an election? If you believe that a voters cannot choose Governments, this is a moot point. But for others, consider, from a Senator who has worked to promote Proportional Representation, that forming a coalition to the exclusion of the largest party and voters not knowing who will be in it before the election is may have be “just as undemocratic as the public funding proposal.”

The idea of coalition thus proves to be just as difficult as it was when it was first introduced. But I would suggest that this is not only okay, but a good thing. We need to continue this dialogue on coalitions because they can improve our democracy. It is hard to find someone to disagree with that a proportional representation electoral system increase the chances of having coalition governments, which in turn would increase cooperation and democratic representation. But the devil, is in the details.

In the end, one thing is clear. Canadians must come to grips with these questions and face them head on. The possibility of coalitions is here to stay. As Cross wrote, while “Canadians have largely rejected the proposed coalition, but they should get used to the idea.”

Mark Kersten has a passion for Canadian politics and is interested in Canada’s place in the world and it’s foreign policy, constitutional law, and intergovernmental affairs. He is currently the Compliance and Information Coordinator for the GPC where his job allows him to see and play in the world of political strategy, messaging and campaigning. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers


Ms. M said...

You know, you hit on something when you said "they're not as new as many Canadians believe". I got a sense this past January that many people are really afraid of a coalition gov't - that somehow the corporate agenda has succeeded in making people fear the idea of cooperative collaboration and instead has sold this ideology of adversarial, power-is-everything control. And Canadians really don't know our own history as well as we ought to - a deadly combination. Time for re-education.

Rural said...

Indeed, and that is why in part I have been trying to post information about the systems we are currently using, for how can we promote chance and improvement if we do not fully understand what we have now and how it evolved. That may not be controversial enough to generate a lot of commentary but is, in my view, essential to the whole debate about our democracy and its gradual decline.