“Because minority parliaments have become so frequent and are likely to remain so in the future, it is high time that we Canadians become savvy on how best to live with them. The parliamentary crisis we entered into after the 14 October  election indicates that we – the politicians and the people – have a whole lot of learning to do.” – Peter H. Russell, “Learning to Live with Minority Parliaments” – Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis
It came as no surprise when Harper came out in full swing against a possible Liberal-led coalition when he launched his election campaign last Saturday. Harper, more than any other politician it seems judging from his past position on the issue, understands fully the significant role coalition governments will play in a parliament destined to be splintered by political parties.
His tactic reveals two things. First, the coalition option scares him. It’s his Achilles Heel in his quest for majority rule, especially when contempt of Parliament charges and other controversies hang over his head. His tactic: go on the offensive. His message: give me my majority or suffer in hell with a fractured ‘pinko –separatist’ opposition.
The other revelation is that by declaring coalition off the table for the Liberals, Ignatieff has exposed himself as no match to Harper’s scheming. Evidently he has not thought the matter through. He also seems to think a Liberal minority is within his grasp. In short: he’s not living in reality. The problem of course is that he’s sparring with a politician who is.
The media have done their bit, drudging up video of Stephen’s younger self predicting a future minority Liberal government aligning with opposition parties to make its government work. During the late 1990s when the politically fractured right were figuring out how to take on the majority Liberal government, Stephen and future chief of staff Tom Flanagan mulled over all options available to political parties, including coalition government.
Back then when they were touting themselves as purveyors of all things populist, Harper and friends bandied about the concepts of coalition governments, elected Senates and free votes as antidotes to the perpetual Liberal majority (a.k.a. benign dictatorship).
Clearly things have changed. Harper pressed for democratic reform when the chips were down. Once in power, his populist notions such as free votes and Senate reform took a backseat. Indeed, he broke his own law of fixed elections in 2008 when he felt his chances of winning a majority were pretty good, and has kept a tight reign on his own MPs.
And now he’s meddling with the rules of our parliamentary democracy in a bid to hang onto power. Parliamentary expert, Peter H. Russell refers to this meddling as ‘Harper’s new rules’. In 2008 when Dion and Layton signed an accord to form a coalition with support from the Bloc, Harper and Flanagan, once endorsers of coalition governments, laid out some new rules. They went as follows:
• Parliamentary elections result in the election of a Prime Minister.
• The Prime Minister cannot be changed without another election being called.
• Coalition government cannot be formed unless it is announced as a possibility in the election campaign.
This is an extraordinary turnaround from their earlier visions of parliamentary reform, and completely antithetical to the rules of our parliamentary system. Canadians elect members of parliament, not prime ministers. Not even governments. Coalitions can form after an election, and be served up as an option if a minority government loses the confidence of the House.
The big elephant in the room of course is an apathetic electorate. Do they understand or even care why they are once again headed for the polls, if they decide to drag themselves there? The last election saw our lowest turnout at 58.8%.
How convenient for Harper to turn to them and say: see – the opposition rejected our budget because they don’t want to work with us and want to force an election.
The Conservative attack ads this past winter and popularity in the polls suggest something else. Really, it is up to a minority government to behave like one. It’s up to them to work together with the other parties to secure support. Period. If they don’t it’s usually because they want an election. Riding on his popularity in the polls, clever Harper presented a budget no party would want and made it seem that the opposition failed to cooperate, bringing on an unpopular election.
The other aspect of all this is that the Conservatives behave as if they have a mandate to rule. They received the most votes, didn’t they? So what if they received only 37.6% of the popular vote. Perhaps this is another new rule to add to the list. The problem is that this feeds into the common misunderstanding that Canadians elect governments and not parliaments.
By swearing off forming a coalition government if the Conservatives are handed another minority, Ignatieff has painted his Liberals into a very tight corner. Harper’s government has been found in contempt of Parliament, a first in our history. Harper has also declared that his government will not alter the budget it presented last week if it were to win a minority. So – where does that leave us? Back to the polls?
If the Canadian electorate are sick of elections every few years, they better start warming to the idea of a Liberal-led coalition. Meanwhile, Ignatieff and his Liberal team need to figure out how manoeuvre themselves out of the tight corner they found themselves in, and bring in strategists who can out-smart Harper.
Harper understands perfectly well the situation he’s in. Everything he worked so hard for is in danger of taking a hit. He will not go down without a fight, which means vilifying a coalition government, particularly a Liberal one. Caving into this tactic will neither serve the left nor democracy. It’s up to the engaged electorate to give them the political will to stand up to Harper and do what they must do to restore stable governance. Write or call Ignatieff and Layton. Let them know you support a coalition.