UPDATED: Do only winners get to head coalition governments? - Macleans.ca

UPDATED: Do only winners get to head coalition governments?

The 2008 coalition might have succeeded had it moved much faster

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[UPDATED BELOW]

Let’s assume that the Liberals and NDP are not going to merge anytime soon, certainly not before the next federal election. It’s a safe bet: the leaderships of both parties categorically deny they have any interest in the idea, which you may have noticed has been discussed a bit lately.

But let’s also assume that a coalition of the two parties following the next election is a serious possibility. It’s a fair speculation: the leaderships of both parties have said it’s legitimate and left the door wide open, and the recent formation of a British coalition government seems to have made the concept less controversial.

The next question is when would such a coalition be a likely option. The most probably scenario, I’d say, would be a Liberal minority win after which the NDP signals that it would offer consistent support in the House only in return for a formal role in the government. That would be novel in Canada, but now not all that surprising.

There is, at least in theory, another path to coalition, one that would be contentious. In this scenario, the Conservatives win, but not by much, and the Liberals and NDP move right away after the votes are counted to form a coalition that might either defeat the Tories swiftly or never allow them to form a government in the first place.

In his joint news conference last week with British Prime Minister David Cameron, in the garden of 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went out of his way to declare that such a coalition, led by the second-place party, just wouldn’t be right.

“Winners are the ones who form governments,” Harper said. “In the end, the coalition in Britain, and I think it’s important to point out, was formed by the party that won the election.” (Of course, the second-place Labor party had also negotiated with the third-place Liberal Democrats about a possible coalition. It just didn’t work out.)

So is Harper’s winners-only dictum correct? It’s obviously in his interest for it to become an accepted convention, since his Tories have no obvious coalition partner among Canada’s three left-tilting opposition parties. By saying only winners get to head coalitions, he’s effectively saying, no coalitions if we have the most seats.

But that does not seem to be accepted by ranking Liberals, although they mostly don’t want to talk about it. Last week I interviewed Alfred Apps, the Liberal president, for a story that appears in the issue of Maclean’s that’s out today. He reflected on the fall of 2008, when the Liberals and NDP, with Bloc Québécois backing, formed a coalition to oust the Conservatives, only to be stopped when Harper suspended the House before they could vote him down.

In theory, at least, Apps suggested a coalition might have succeeded had it moved much faster. “If following the last election the NDP and the Liberals had gone immediately to the Governor General,” he told me, “and said, ‘We’d like to form a coalition and we’d like you to call on us to form the government rather than Mr. Harper,’ and they’d had their act together to do that, that might have led to Mr. Harper being defeated right out of the blocks.”

UPDATE:

There’s been some reaction to the quote I use just above from Alfred Apps. The Conservative party is reportedly suggesting that it amounts to Apps saying Liberals should have tried to stop the Tories from forming a government after the last election.

Apps has protested that that’s not what he meant at all. He’s on solid ground making that objection. He was speaking theoretically, as I wrote, rather than lamenting a missed political opportunity.

I interviewed Apps on the question of a possible Liberal coalition with the NDP following the next election. He repeatedly circled back to his main point that the time for talking about coalitions is after the votes are counted. He suggested that what happened recently in Britain makes sense: after the UK election in which no party won a majority, both the first-place Conservative and second-place Labor parties discussed possible coalitions with the third-place Liberal Democrats.

To give more context, here’s the fuller quote from my taped interview with Apps:

“I guess my point is when people talk about coalition, I don’t know what they mean. I know what they mean when the public has decided [in an election] and the question comes [up]…

“If following the last election the NDP and the Liberals had gone immediately to the Governor General and said, ‘We’d like to form a coalition and we’d like you to call on us to form the government rather than Mr. Harper,’ and they’d had their act together to do that, that might have led to Mr. Harper being defeated right out of the blocks.

“But that’s not what happened. A government was formed. A coalition was proposed that created a backlash among Canadians. It’s not like what happened in the UK is what I’m trying to say. It looked like a coalition that was being formed to launch a coup against the government…”

I think it’s clear that Apps was comparing and contrasting the coalition attempt in Canada in the fall of 2008 with this spring’s post-election coalition talks in Britain. He did not say that, under the circumstances, the Liberals should have tried to block the Tories from forming a government in the fall of 2008.

But he was suggesting that if such a move had made sense politically, it would have been legitimate under our parliamentary system—just as presumably it would have been viewed as legitimate in Britain had Labor struck a coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, rather than, as it actually transpired, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats arrived at a deal.