This is why we can’t have cooperative things


Chris Selley blames Stephane Dion for the continued toxicity of coalition governance.

Coalition-demonizers like Stephen Harper tend to take more heat in the media than coalition-boosters like Mr. Dion. And the demonizers deserve what they get. It’s appalling that Canadian politicians and their supporters, who know perfectly well how Parliament works and would happily support a coalition if it favoured their side, will go around talking of coups d’état, pretending as if Canadian voters directly elect their governments…

That said, Mr. Dion and his backers did plenty of harm themselves. His coalition was hamstrung by the explicit support of the Bloc Québécois, but its even more fundamental problem was that Mr. Dion had promised not to form a coalition. This isn’t a minor policy flip-flop. We’re talking about someone promising never to become prime minister under certain circumstances, and then reneging. A promise is not nullified because it would have been awkward not to make it.


This is why we can’t have cooperative things

  1. Well, yeah? Go about supporting an objectively neutral thing in a hypocritical, opportunistic or seemingly corrupt way, and that thing tends to get tainted by association. Pro-coalition parties and supporters have no one to blame but themselves for how toxic the word “coalition” alone became.

    It’s not limited to Dion’s actual decision, either. Everyone who thought that it was a perfect chance to banish Harper for good, and kept doubling down on how awesome coalition government is – even if under the specific circumstances, it would seem to overturn the ‘usual’ common understanding of the connection between winning the most seats and being the government – shares some responsibility. I have to think that enthusiasm for Getting Him at any cost is what caused the backlash.

    • it would seem to overturn the ‘usual’ common understanding of the connection between winning the most seats and being the government 

      The  usual common understanding is wrong… because winning the most seats does not automatically mean you get to form the government. Winning the confidence of the House means you get to form the government.

      • Once you’re explaining to the proles exactly why – due to technical issues they don’t understand or care to – black is actually white, they’re unlikely to agree. Being condescending in that explanation, as many pundits and proponents really are, only makes it worse.

        You can’t effectively govern without the consent of the governed, and that remains true even if their refusal to consent is irrational. It doesn’t matter how right you are legally, and doesn’t affect the underlying validity, either. We’re talking about popular acceptance or rejection of coalition government as a concept

        • All very good arguments for election reform

          cartoon life dougsamu.wordpress.com

  2. I’ve said this many times before: Chris Selley kicks ass.  He’s one of the brightest stars in the celestial sphere of Canadian punditry. Dion really does deserve blame for reneging on his “No coalition” promise, and for obfuscating about the role of the Bloc (an informal Coalition partner, yet a necessary one).  Harper and some of his ministers deserve blame for hyperbolic “coup d’etat”-style rhetoric and for generally demonizing the concept of coalitions, which are perfectly valid in our Parliamentary system.

    If Dion’s coalition gambit had succeeded, the Bloc would have been given a new lease on life.  One of the most commonly stated reasons Quebec voters gave for switching support to the NDP was that the Bloc had become “inutile” (useless).  

    If the Bloc had been put it a position where it was propping up a government, with an effective veto over everything, it would have used this leverage to Quebec’s advantage and proven itself very useful indeed.

    • You mean as compared to the CPC minority where the Bloc had an effective veto?

      The only way the Bloc would have a veto under the coalition is if the CPC gave it to them. And that’s ignoring the two years the the Bloc signed away it’s veto power for.

      That what all you anti-coalition guys keep hoping we’ll forget.. that the Bloc agreed to *not use* their veto power for two years.. hamstringing themselves.  I realize the common response is “Well they were probably lying” to which my instant rejoinder is “stop projecting your own party’s behaviors on to others.. especially where there is no evidence.”

      If the coalition had succeeded, it would have been the death-knell for them — hell, at this point I argue that the coalition was the death-knell for them anyway, because simply being seen to agree to the coalition idea, to put aside their ability to vote down the government for two years, made it clear to people in Quebec that they’d simply transformed into another federalist party.

      Selley also conveniently lays aside that the “under certain circumstances” was with a group seeking to raise business taxes — something the NDP agreed not to pursue as part of the coalition.

      • I think it’s awfully naive to assume that the Bloc wouldn’t have tried to leverage the situation to their advantage.  To believe that, you’d basically have to ignore the Bloc’s entire record.   The Bloc would have had enormous power, propping up a shaky Coalition that didn’t even have a plurality of seats, let alone a majority.  There’s a reason that Parizeau and other hard-core separatists were popping champagne corks when the coalition was announced. They correctly identified the Coalition as a huge gift for the sovereignist cause.

        • You’re conveniently ignoring the fact that among the political parties on the hill, the Bloc is the one with the strongest record of doing exactly what they say they were going to do.

          I think it’s awfully cynical of you (not to mention hypocritical to your chosen alias) to completely ignore the Bloc’s record, and that of Duceppe, to accuse them of doing what the CPC would have done — flat out lying to attain a sort of power (which, if you think about it, they had with or without the coalition.) So as I said, “Stop projecting your chosen party’s failings on to another.”

          • Obviously you hate the CPC, Thwim, but you shouldn’t let this antipathy affect your judgment of the Bloc! ;-) (I say this as lighthearted banter.)

            The Bloc have shown time and time again that they were willing to use their leverage in a minority Parliament to extort more taxpayer money for Quebec.  The price tag for their support of the government’s Feb. 2011 budget?  5 billion dollars more for Quebec. 

            If the Bloc had been propping up Dion’s incredibly flimsy coalition (with not even a plurality of seats, it would have been the flimsiest, least legitimate coalition in the history of Westminster parliaments) you can rest assured that billions of dollars would have been showered on Quebec to keep the Bloc happy.  Then the Bloc would have turned to their supporters and pointed to how useful they were, based on the river of gravy flowing into the province.  Their unprecedented leverage would have made them stronger than ever before.

          •  . . . never mind the additional billions that would have been spent generally to keep the NDP on board.

          • So let me get this straight.. you’re using evidence that they’ve always done what they’ve said they’re going to do as support for your argument that in this particular case they’d do the opposite?

            Really, your paranoia of the Bloc seems pretty irrational at this stage.

            But even ignoring that, you still haven’t clarified how the Bloc could have a veto unless it was supported by the CPC. So are you also suggesting that the CPC would not have supported anything unless it contained massive tax-payer give-aways to Quebec?

            Actually.. considering the recent 2.2 billion announcement in a time of supposed “austerity” you may be right on that one.

    •   “Harper and some of his ministers deserve blame for hyperbolic “coup d’etat”-style rhetoric and for generally demonizing the concept of coalitions, which are perfectly valid in our Parliamentary system”
      He did much more then that. He called into question – actually lied/misrepresented our parliamentary system for expediency’s sake. By any definition that is demagoguery of the lowest order. If he had simply attacked Dion for lying to the public he would have been on solid ground. He may not be the first but in my book he’s one of the worst offenders to ever hold his job…in fact he more or less repeated his performance in the last election…intentionally misrepresenting the fact that the party who wins the most seats only has first crack at winning the confidence of the house. Maybe he’s just ignorant – i doubt it?
      The bloc had no effective veto over anything, so your hypothetical bloc new lease on life is entirely moot. It is and will likely remain an unknown and unknowable.

      • The bloc had no effective veto over anything, so your hypothetical bloc new lease on life is entirely moot. 

        Of course they did.  The coalition depended on the Bloc propping them up.  Without the support of the Bloc, there wouldn’t be a coalition, because the LPC and NDP seats combined were still fewer than the CPC seats.

        • I’m surprised to hear this sort of twaddle from you CR. You know very well there was a signed and publically available document that commited the bloc to supporting the coalition on any matter of confidence for 18months. Even that was misrepresened by the tories and their hangers on. There were two separate agreements, only one of which mentioned non liberals being in cabinet. This was often deliberately confused and misrepresented by tory partisans online or anywhere the subject was debated.
          I’m not arguing the coaltion wasn’t a disasterously handled affair – it was and Dion must share in the blame. But there was another possible outcome to a resurgent bloc; it was possble that being part of the govt would work against them[ i’m sure they didn’t think that] and for the libs. If it had been successful[ big if] it might have been possible for the coalition minus the bloc[ or not] to have gained traction inQuebec in a future election – this would have been at least as big a win for Canada[ i would say more so] then the current Orange crush. As it is we have a federal govt that is largely reviled in much of Quebec at least in part over they’re handling of the coaltion fiasco, since Harper’s theatrics may have played well in Calgary and the rest of Canada, but hardly in la belle province.

          • I have no doubt that the Bloc would have supported the coalition on matters of confidence for those 18 months, as I am sure every matter would have been worked out amongst all three parties well in advance.

            No need for a public disagreement when the Bloc can privately dictate the minimum acceptable terms on an issue by issue basis.  Otherwise known as a veto…

          • I doubt it. The economic crisis would have imposed a discipline of its own. Furthermore you’re not giving  the coalition any credit at all – they weren’t utterly stupid, merely incompetent as it turns out. There was a lot of experience on board there. Ducceppe, Layton and Dion were hardly likely to paint themselves into such an obvious corner without any forethought- give then some credit. The bloc may be a separatist party but they haven’t survived this long may making too many obvious errors – neither have the liberals for that matter.

  3. How did promise-breaking work for Harper?

  4. Ok Selley is out to lunch here. I put the blame for the demonization of coalitions SQUARELY on the 4th estate. At the exception of a few, the bulk of the press gallery repeated the lies told by the government. I don’t expect any less from the Harperites but I sure expected the press gallery to shout loud and clear that coalitions are a LEGITIMATE form of government, even with the support of the democratically elected Bloc Québécois

    And this goes for Macleans too. Y’all know who you are!

    • So it’s the press’ fault for not more loudly advocating for your preferred outcome?

      The question of which party or parties is in government is a political question, even when it’s also a procedural one. Coalition government is a valid parliamentary custom, but not the only legitimate option. It’s not the press’ job to push for a coalition only because it’s valid – and it’s not going to happen as long as they want to keep the sheerest veneer of objectivity.

      • Not my “preferred outcome,” AVR. The truth. The lie told by our PM was that the party that wins the most seat gets to form the govt and, as such, a coalition govt formed by the parties with less seats is undemocratic and an affront to voters, especially if the said coalition would be supported by the Bloc.That is a lie and Harper, who is anything but dumb, knew that it was a lie because he tried to achieve that coalition himself.That Harper would say this crap is to be expected.  What was unacceptable was for the press gallery to repeat it. Why is this even a debate?

        • Because anyone is, in fact, allowed to make arguments about what constitutes popular support. It’s the consent-of-the-governed thing again. Harper’s line was that it was undemocratic for a “coalition of losers” to take power. That’s not something that’s actually covered by our parliamentary tradition explicitly, so it falls wholly in the realm of opinion and rhetoric. There is no exact legal definition of “undemocratic” (or “democratic”, for that matter) for the purpose of interpreting constitutional law – it’s a value judgment based on some written law and a lot of unwritten precedent and custom. Accordingly, you can’t actually say that statement is a lie; the most you can say is that our democratic parliamentary traditions have accepted that situation in the past.

          Put another way: that something is possible and not specifically forbidden doesn’t mean it’s specifically allowed, and that argument originated in the middle of that grey area.

          • More sophism…The phrase “coalition of losers”clearly is meant to be read as a challenge to the long standing convention that losers, under agreed set of circumstances[ NC vote], can infact try and gain the confidence of the house providing that only a short period of time has elapsed since the last election and its aftermath.

          • If the electorate doesn’t believe it to be legitimate, that doesn’t matter.

            Politics is what you can get away with. It turned out that they couldn’t get away with a coalition under those circumstances.

      • “The question of which party or parties is in government is a political question, even when it’s also a procedural one. Coalition government is a valid parliamentary custom, but not the only legitimate option”

        Sophism from you is hardly a surprise. The only question is was the coaltion a valid constitutional attempt to form a govt – the only correct answer to that question is affirmative. Other questions are important ie., Dion lying to the public. But hardly a factor that would outweigh the law of the land and accepted parliamentary convention; that would be a political question, one the public would eventually get to have their say on loud and clear at a subsequent election. Harper considered this himself, but chose[ or was pushed] the easier way – to become a demagogue.

        • No, that wasn’t the question. That was never the question. As long as you believe it was only ever about technical validity, you’ll never understand why you lost.

          This is in fact how constitutional change has frequently occurred, for most of the history of the British parliamentary tradition – not by sweeping legislation or landmark lawsuits, but by argument and behaviour slowly influencing the boundaries of what is and isn’t permitted over time. I’m not prepared to say this has created a new unwritten custom where coalitions are regarded as illegitimate – not yet – but a hundred years from now, if politicians keep arguing it and the electorate agrees, it well might.

          • I did not say it was only about technical[ nice euphemism on your part for consititutional valid convention] validity. Of course popular political legitimacy has to be considered; but this is the political question.
            I don’t disagree with your description of how constitutional change can occur except that it should occur within the confines of acceptible parliamentary debate, public consultation and hopefully wriitten resourced argument – in other words it should have something of a history – not as a convenient prop for an opportunistic PM who was clearly on the ropes. Harper has no prior history on this question; indeed he seems to have been a fan of coaltions throughout his career, even while a member of Alliance.
            And it was merely an act of convenience/ expediency since Harper was clearly prepared to enter into some form of coalition himself when it suited him. In fact this last point gives the lie to any claim of principle on his part. Save your organic contitutional change argument for a politician who is acually worthy of it.

          • I don’t disagree with your description of how constitutional change can occur except that it should occur within the confines of acceptible parliamentary debate, public consultation and hopefully wriitten resourced argument

            See, this is a very revisionist view. So many things have happened wholly outside “the  confines of acceptable parliamentary debate” in Anglo-Canadian constitutional history (at least per the opinions of contemporary opponents) that it’s completely unrealistic to demand that now. Do you think Magna Carta or the Petition of Right were acceptable on their face to John or Charles I? It’s like saying you support free speech, but only free speech that you agree with. It just doesn’t fly.

            Finally, the motives of the actors who cause constitutional change are more or less irrelevant. What matters are the consequences; you can hate Harper all you like, but that doesn’t invalidate anything he argued if the electorate disagrees with you.

          • It is not at all a revisionist view. It is the view of someone who believes process matters – for all parties. To compare MC or the PoRs to this squallid little affair is frankly silly. It sounds like the principle of the winner of the election always getting to run the show matters to you – that’s fine. I just don’t believe it is Harpers; at least not until he needed it to be.
            The motives of the actors may well be irrelevant to a degree but what matters are not merely the consequences but how they are brought about – again process matters. As i’ve said absent any history at all of Harper opposing coalitions of losers i’m forced to conclude it was crass opportunism – it was the only, or the most effective weapon he had handy.
            Your principle thesis doesn’t hold water. If i run under the rubric of say a FPTP system i may well yell and scream that it is inherently unfair to award all the cookies to the guy who only collared the minority of the vote – why doesn’t my vote count? Yet i am bound to argue this case lawfully and consistently until i can find a way to democatically change it. I cn’t or shouldn’t, particularly if i have the power of a sitting PM, try to subvert the system while it is operating under lawful rule.
            I don’t hate Harper[ though i may complain incessantly and too often]. I simply detest the way he operates. It’s a moral question for me at least. If i’m sometimes inconsistent in my outrage i plead human fallibility, not malice.

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