Don't call it a coalition

But Andrew Coyne believes Harper has every right to point out the real choices voters face

Don't call it a coalition

Adrian Wyld/CP

The first mistake people make when they talk about the coalition question is to talk about coalitions, when they usually mean something quite different. So let’s clear this up right off the top: a coalition government is a very specific arrangement, in which two or more parties agree to share executive power, that is to sit in the same cabinet, and divide the ministries among them. Just because two parties co-operate on something, or support one another in the legislature, does not make it a coalition.

For example, if the Conservatives were to win the most seats in the election, but not a majority, and if Michael Ignatieff were to enlist the support of Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe to defeat the Conservatives in the Commons soon after, and if the Governor General, rather than call new elections, asked him to form a government, that would not necessarily imply a coalition government. He might govern as a minority, issue by issue, as Stephen Harper has for the last five years. Or he might strike a more formal agreement, such as the Liberal-NDP accord that brought David Peterson to power in Ontario in 1985. Neither would be a coalition.

So when the Liberal leader disavows, as he did on the campaign’s first day, any intention of forming a coalition government with the NDP, or any “formal arrangement” with the Bloc, that does not mean he has ruled out taking power by the process described above. By the same token, that Harper, when opposition leader in 2004, schemed to defeat Paul Martin’s Liberal government by exactly the same process with exactly the same people, does not mean that he was bent on coalition, either: or at least, there is no hard evidence that he was.

And when Harper keeps accusing Ignatieff of plotting a coalition, notwithstanding Ignatieff’s explicit denials, he is relying on the same confusion of terms: when vast numbers of Canadians tell pollsters they do not believe Ignatieff on this point, I suspect they mean they believe he will try to take power if he can, not that he will literally form a coalition. (Though it does not help his position that Liberals, Ignatieff included, denied having any plans to form a coalition before the last election, only to do so soon after.)

Not that there would be anything wrong with it either way. Which is the second mistake people make: to discuss all this in moral terms. Harper is the worst offender, decrying any transfer of power between parties that is accomplished without an intervening election as “illegitimate” and worse. But his critics fall into the same trap, denouncing Harper for “fear-mongering” about a coalition they had just finished defending as legitimate.

So let’s get this straight, too. There is absolutely nothing wrong with opposition parties voting together to defeat one government and (provided the Governor General approves) installing another, whether this takes the form of a coalition or not. That’s the way our system works. There are particular issues surrounding the Bloc that would make it ineligible as a coalition partner. And certainly now that he has ruled out a coalition, Ignatieff has an obligation to be true to his word.

But the general principle, that the prime minister is the person who commands the confidence of the House, whether he leads the largest, second-largest, third-largest or any other party, is unassailable. If a majority of the House were to back Ignatieff over Harper for prime minister, under our system of government that is all there is to it. We do not elect a prime minister: we elect a Parliament.

So yes, Harper is quite wrong to pretend that this is anything but a legitimate constitutional option, and yes, he’s also a perfect hypocrite on the point. But so what? The issue is not Harper’s moral standing, any more than it is the morality of coalitions. If it were, Harper would not keep bringing it up.

You don’t have to think it would be immoral for Ignatieff to topple Harper at the first opportunity after the election to acknowledge that it is a very real possibility, if not a probability: it is hard to see a new Parliament being any more willing to put up with a Harper minority than the last one was, at the end.

Well, so what, again? Lots of people, possibly a majority, probably think that’s grand. So why is it Ignatieff doesn’t want to talk about it, and Harper does? Because the issue isn’t what most people think about this, but what some people in particular do: the groups of voters each man has to reach. And it isn’t whether such an event is right or wrong, in some cosmic sense, but how those particular target voters feel about it. The question is not moral, but strategic.

Look at it first from Harper’s point of view. For years he has been unable to get above 40 per cent in polls, the 40 per cent that typically spells the difference between minority and majority government. Indeed, every time he seems headed in that direction he falls back. There is a certain group of voters, it seems, who are comfortable with a Harper minority, but are uneasy at the prospect of a Harper majority. So long as that is the choice, they will opt for the Harper minority—that is, by voting Liberal.

What Harper is trying to do is to persuade these voters that that choice is no longer open to them. It died with the defeat of his government. Even if Harper were to be re-elected with a minority, it would soon be defeated again: or so he will argue. So the choice is no longer between Harper majority and Harper minority, but between Harper majority and Liberal minority—a Liberal minority pulled to the left by the NDP and the Bloc. Again, for many voters, that may sound non-threatening, even appealing. But for the centre-right voters Harper needs for a majority, it may be enough to tip them into his camp.

Harper hurts his case by being so over-the-top about it. He doesn’t have to claim that Ignatieff is lying when he flatly rules out a coalition. He just has to point out what Ignatieff hasn’t ruled out: defeating Harper in the House. He doesn’t have to argue that it’s “illegitimate” to bring his government down. He just has to make the case that it’s likely. So he’s “guilty” of the same thing? Who cares? He wins as long as the subject is being discussed.

Now look at it from Ignatieff’s perspective. If there’s nothing wrong with taking down the Harper government after the election, why is he at such pains not to talk about it? (Even his statement disavowing coalition government makes no mention of it, only explicitly referring to what would happen if the Liberals formed a minority.) Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s devastating to him strategically. Not only does he risk losing those centre-right voters to Harper but, worse, it knocks the props out from under the central strategic objective of every Liberal campaign since King: scare voters to the left into the Liberal camp to keep the Tories out. If it doesn’t matter who wins the most seats—if the Tories can win the election and still be kept out of government—then left-leaning voters can vote NDP without fear.

The problem is not as acute for Ignatieff as it was in the coalition scenario—the NDP’s position would not be as strong as if it had seats at the cabinet table, nor could there be as much assurance that the Governor General would call upon the Liberals, without the same guarantee of stability. But it’s still there.

If you’re waiting for Harper to stop talking about this, then, because it’s boring or it’s unfair or he’s a hypocrite, keep waiting. He’s going to keep reminding voters about it—his voters, the ones he needs—until election day. And if he doesn’t, Layton and Duceppe will: to remind anti-Harper voters that they have options, that they do not have to “keep hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something Worse.”

As well they should. I hear people complain that this is irrelevant, or a distraction from the “real” issues, that it’s time to “move on” or “let it drop.” Sorry, no. It’s perfectly legitimate for any candidate to talk about the choices in front of the voters, even as he seeks to frame that choice to his advantage. Harper’s point, that his government won’t be around for long if it’s elected with less than a majority, may be arguable. But I don’t hear the other guy arguing it.

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