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Why Stephen Harper is mum on coalitions

Paul Wells asks the Prime Minister about something yet to be discussed on the Conservative campaign


 
Conservative leader Stephen Harper and wife Laureen arrive at a float plane dock on Schwatka Lake, near Whitehorse, Y.T., after a boat ride on Friday, September 4, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Conservative leader Stephen Harper and wife Laureen arrive at a float plane dock on Schwatka Lake, near Whitehorse, Y.T., after a boat ride on Friday, September 4, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

There’s something Stephen Harper hasn’t been saying on the campaign trail, and on Friday I decided to ask him about it.

My three days on the Harper tour, now concluded, were a period of relative plenty. In three days I asked the PM a question every day, because my employers paid the high daily rate for inclusion on the media tour, and with every campaign event now webcast live, few other news organizations have bothered.

On Friday I asked why Harper hasn’t been saying something in this campaign that he said at every stop, at some length, in the 2011 campaign. In fact the 2011 campaign was to a very great extent designed to put a single choice to voters. They could have a Conservative majority government, he said again and again back then, or they could have a coalition government built by the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.

Here’s how he put it in St. John’s in the campaign’s first week in 2011. “There won’t be a Conservative minority government after this election. There will either be Mr. Ignatieff, put in power by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, or there will be what Canada needs — a strong, stable, national majority Conservative government.”

In other venues he explained why this was the case. The 2008 coalition assembled around Stéphane Dion had collapsed in part because the opposition had already participated in two confidence votes over the Throne Speech. The Liberals had taken care not to vote against the Harper government, so it was able to continue. That meant that when the coalition did assemble, the Governor General was able to do what governors general normally do: take the advice of the guy who was obviously the prime minister, Harper.

Next time, Harper said (back then), the opposition would not wait and blow its chance. It would organize at the very first opportunity to deny Harper the confidence of the Commons. The whole thing would be settled within days, and if Harper did not have the horses he could not win. Simple as that.

Every poll in this campaign has shown that no party should expect to command a majority in the Commons. So why is Harper not saying the same thing now? Does he still believe there cannot be a Conservative minority government?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know, Paul.

“As you know the NDP have continued to promote the idea of a coalition of anyone. Not just the Liberals and them but the separatists and anyone else. That’s been their idea for a long time. It’s one reason I don’t think you can trust NDP ideology with the governance of this country.

“The Liberals have been more equivocal. So I don’t know the answer to that. What I would say is very simple. We have been one of the most stable countries coming out of the shadow of the global financial crisis. Part of the reason we have been one of the most stable economies is not just [that] we’ve been pursuing good economic policy but because we’ve had a stable political situation. I don’t think Canadians should take the risk of falling into the hands of an unworkable coalition nobody voted for. So I don’t know whether that’s the choice, but I know that the only choice that leaves us moving forward is a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government.”

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At this familiar refrain, the audience burst into happy applause. But there was nostalgia in the air because Harper has not called for a Conservative majority since 2011.

The reason is obvious even if he did not acknowledge it. In 2011, warning against the coalition was an important motor in the drive to secure a majority. Harper saw in the polls during the 2008 coalition crisis that support for Conservatives roared to heights he’d never seen it attain, well over 40 per cent in many polls after he had fallen nearly 10 points short of that score in the election. A good many undecided voters — not all or even most, but a robust slice of the electorate who could consider voting for any party — thought Dion was a train wreck, that co-operating with the NDP made the whole thing more ungainly, and that needing the support of the Bloc made it worse still. By about 2010, after a brief honeymoon, they decided Ignatieff was at least as bad as Dion.

What’s more, they had never seen a Conservative majority, and Harper was careful to couch it in the most beguiling terms — strong, not vacillating; stable, not nutty; national, not beholden to one region. “A majority in a box,” one Conservative campaign staffer told me later.

None of this is true now. First, the Bloc won’t be propping anything up. Second, the leader of a non-Conservative government may not be the Liberal, it could be Tom Mulcair, who is unexciting in this campaign precisely because he’s trying to look as though he’s already been the prime minister for a few years. And even Justin Trudeau, perhaps astonishingly, has weathered two years of Conservative ad barrages with his voter credibility worn but not shattered.

Related reading: How Tom Mulcair plans to win

Then there’s the other half of the equation. Voters have seen a Conservative majority. They know that, being human, it was not always strong, not consistently stable, and that it had no more success pleasing every part of the country than governments ever do.

Harper drove to majority support by promising an ideal and brandishing a menace. The number of voters persuaded by either the carrot or the stick has declined. So he’s dropped the whole pitch.

That doesn’t mean he was wrong in 2011, however. Can a Conservative minority government exist, in a Parliament where Liberals and New Demorats outnumber Harper and his colleagues? We may yet find out.

Related reading: The Maclean’s Primer on coalitions


 

Why Stephen Harper is mum on coalitions

  1. 2015 Elections . Time to ask questions!!!
    During elections voices are heard. Questions teach. Questions open doors to learning and discovery for both the one who asks and those to whom the question is directed. Ask your candidates when they come around, speak up at debates, send them an email or letter, or put up a window poster. Be informed. Vote for honest politicians. This is how I see the issues and questions. Use what you wish. Ask questions. Pass this on.
    I have an interest in international foreign policy and peace. I believe we need a country and a government of honest ethical MPs that understand national wellbeing, namely:

    • Good honest governance (Ethical, respectful, and not corrupt)
    • Meets security needs (Domestic and for international peace and stability)
    • Meets social needs (Health, education, housing, human rights)
    • Meets economic needs (Jobs and livelihood)

    Governance questions:

    • Q. Foreign policy: Canada is an export nation and does not have the population or GDP to defend itself. (We depends on oceans, neighbors and alliances) The security and prosperity of the world is the security and prosperity of Canada. Canada had a strong peacemaking tradition, now has a militant foreign policy with a military intervention predisposition How best do you think we can contribute to international peace security and stability? What would you do?
    • Q. Canadian history shares in two Nobel peace prizes. Now Canada shockingly lost a security council seat, cannot be trusted to be impartial by the global community, and is more often than not is an outlier on international issues. Would you support a department of peace, as a precursor to military intervention and DND?
    • Q. The government has a Federal Accountability Act for elected members and a PSDPA Public disclosure protection ac for public servants, and yet suffers ethical lapses. Decorum in parliament and between parties in public is disgraceful. The people want honest government not bickering, insults and power obsessions. Decorum can be seen as courtesy, compromise, collaboration and cooperation”. Canadians deserve no less. What are your views on this and how will you conduct yourself if elected?
    Security questions:
    • Q. The true cost of war. In the Iraq Afghan wars. US 5,800 dead/51,000 wounded/ over a thousand suicides/20% PTSD. Canada 158 dead/1859 Wounded/28% PTSD/160 suicides serving members (2004-2014). What about veteran suicides? Why are only serving member suicides being reported? The causalities of this war are far from over. What would you do about this? About the truth and honoring and reporting PTSD and all suicide names as the true cost of this war?
    • Q. P5+1 and Iran nuclear agreement. Canada refuses to support the agreement and has adopted a wait and see approach, preferring to be on the sidelines. What would you propose Canada do?
    • Q. Civilized people talk. As a result of the p5+1 agreement, the UK recently reopened its embassy in Iran. Canada refuses to do so or relax sanctions. What would you to?
    • Q. Russia and the Ukraine. The Canadian response is to promote sanctions and a confrontative approach, and fuels risks of another version of the cold war. Who speaks for peace and diplomacy with Russia? How do you think Canada can best contribute to a peaceful resolution of this crisis other than confrontation and violent language?
    • Q. Electoral reform. We live with an electoral system where 30% to 40% of the vote can result in 100% of the power. How can we achieve a system where the country is governed by a true majority of people and representative of the demographics of Canada and our first nations? What are your views on this?
    Social needs questions:
    • Q. Youth radicalization. At a series of interfaith meetings on this subject the message about youth was loud and clear – “pay attention to youth”. It became apparent that the problems of radicalization are not best solved by policing but by meaningful jobs, hope, a supportive family and community social environment, and the creation of a positive identity and future. What are your views?
    • Q. We are a nation of a rule of law. We expect Canadians to obey the law. We expect Canada to honor agreements and treaties. This includes treaties with our first nations. What are your views regarding FN treaties, their land and right to respecting their consent?
    • Q. We are a nation of growing ethnic and religious diversity. We have a government trafficking in the politics of fear regarding terrorism and risking creating undercurrents of intolerance. Two terrorism fatalities in Canada in recent years pales in comparison with 172 gun homicides in 2012. Death by terrorism in Canada is less by far than most other risks of death by violence. What are your views on this?
    Economic needs questions:
    • Q. As the price of oil falls, the consequences of becoming a petro economy is becoming apparent, namely, as we are in a current recession. What would you propose?
    • Q. Canadian aid and development policy in Africa has become highly connected with the interests of Canadian mining companies and protecting mineral and mining profits when prices rise. Some reports put well over twice as much wealth is extracted, than our foreign aid given. This is hospitals, education, and much of the future of these countries taken by this industry. What are your views on this? Do you agree or disagree?
    Good luck to us all.

    • Thank you for one of the most intelligent, well-thought-out posts I have seen on this election.

  2. I think the lengthy campaign was chosen, in part, to ensure a minority conservative government could survive. The other two parties will be too broke for another election. Assuming the LPC are third, they will not form a coalition with the NDP, and if they are second, the NDP will not form a coalition with them.

    • Actually, your observation that the other two parties will be broke after a lengthy campaign would be a compelling reason for them to collaborate to ensure a stable coalition that would endure long enough for one/both to re-load. That would be an argument for them to forge a coalition, not avoid one., i.e., mutually-assured survival.

      OTOH, a Con minority could be short-lived because the government would be prone to dropping the writ at the earliest opportune and advantageous moment.

      • It might, but they are pretty far apart on several issues, although a coalition with Trudeau would give Mulcair the cover he needs to go into the deficit he cannot avoid if he wants to keep his election promises (though I am prepared to admit I am wrong on this if he is truly able to cost out his platform in a way that shows no deficit).

        But I just do not think it will happen. Neither party wants to be the junior partner, and Trudeau has said he will not join a coalition and I do not see how he can renege on that promise without being punished next time around.

        I think this is all working out as planned for Harper. Now that the LPC are regaining ground I expect to see a lot more attack ads focused on Trueau.

        • I sense that the ABC sentiment is so widely and passionately held that whichever of the other parties refuses to participate in a Harper-ending coalition will pay a dear price for their intransigence in a subsequent election, handing the outcome to the other “progressive”.

          But, like you, I could also be misreading the prevailing climate.

          • I tend to agree with you, ND. It may not take the form of a formal coalition, but I think either party would agree to back the other informally – to offer support and confidence – to keep Harper out. Backing Harper or needlessly forcing an election would likely be the kiss of death for the party that did so.

          • I cannot see a coalition. I can see an accord.

    • I think you are wrong.

      Don’t individual riding campaigns get 50% refunded on their expenses? Thus the refunds for an 80-day campaign will pay for 100% of a 40-day campaign at the riding level.

      At the national level, all the parties should be able to raise money for the national campaign, particularly since January 1 will strike, and every old donor can be hit up again.

      • Only if – like the CPC – they had sufficient funds for the 80-day campaign to begin with. I expect a lot mortgaged their refunds to get loans to carry them through the extra-long campaign. i.e. those refunds are likely, in many instances, already spent.

        • I think I read somewhere that the ridings could not get loans. But even so, your overall point is correct. The CPC riding associations are well funded. They will be able to spend to the max and get a healthy refund. The opposition riding associations do not have sufficient funds to spend to the max for a 37 day campaign, let alone a 3 month campaign. At the end of this election the CPC will be able to fund a 37 day campaign with their refund alone.

          This is why Harper has the upper hand even if he only wins a minority. He was able to force the LPC to vote for his legislation for years by making the vote one of confidence. This time around it is the NDP who are in jeopardy of that happening, as I believe the LPC is better funded and better able to raise money.

          • If Harper gets in with a minority, the other parties could find it gets easier to raise money, if that’s what’s seen as giving Harper the edge. The parties are getting the hang of it now, maybe citizens aren’t on top of it yet.

          • Has the Conservatives tactic – make every vote one of confidence – ever been used in other parliaments? Could not the majority, i.e., the opposition, pass a motion stating that only votes on money bills or on a motion expressly and uniquely related to the house’s non-confidence in the government, are considered a confidence vote in the next parliament?

  3. They could work out an “Accord” like the one Peterson and Rae signed in 1985. The PCs actually won a slim minority in that Ontario election and the Liberals and NDP came to an agreement that was not a coalition but where the NDP, still on the opposition benches, agreed to support a minority Liberal government for a set period of time. The PCs were promptly voted against in a no-confidence motion and Peterson became Premier.

    • I think the variables are too wide and most commentators are commenting as they see the world today. The thing is that the corruption of particular senators who were once in the media does not surprise anyone who has had anything to do with the press. Nor do the momentary ups and downs of the economy mean anything compared to the figures available just before ballotting and on balance they look to be better probably than the first two quarters. Nor will the hoo-haw over refugees last too long as long as the gov moves to speed up its processes – I found the explanation of an immigration lawyer and his favourable comparison of the Canadian record impressive.

      As for the first commentator’s excellent questions, I don’t think any of the opposition parties have any useful answers. While the parties might coincide in vote to defeat a minority government, that gets us nowhere and as one said the Cons have more ordinary people willing to cash up. All in all, a wait and see situation, as weak as that is.

  4. The dumbest thing the various opposition leaders did in the lead-up to the 2011 election, was to jump on Harper’s anti-coalition bandwagon. “Who me? I would never engage in something as nefarious as a coalition!” Allowing Harper to set the agenda, and then seemingly endorsing the view that coalitions were wrong, simply allowed Harper to drum into the Canadian subconscious, that any way but his way was cheating. We need to recognise that it was a hoax that other leaders fell for. Furthermore, we need to enforce the punishment of the real crime of stealing elections, as grand larceny and treason.

  5. Paul – re your last sentence ‘We may yet find out.’: oh no, we won’t, not if the 3rd-place (27.7% Sept 7) standing continues.

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