Michael Ignatieff gave Canadians a lecture in Politics 101 the other day — simple facts on how Parliament works — but this may have been enough to derail his campaign.
When he sat down with CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, Ignatieff must have known he’d be asked how he’d handle minority government if that’s the outcome of the May 2nd election.
It’s a topic of high interest because of Stephen Harper’s hammering on Coalition as a fate to be avoided only by electing “a strong, national Conservative majority.”
The political realist that he is, Harper knows if he’s returned with less than a majority, he’s likely to fall on the first vote of confidence in the new Parliament. He’s warned he’ll bring his budget back just as it is, and seems reconciled to the Governor General calling on the Liberals to form a government when it’s defeated in the House. The Globe and Mail today puts it this way:
Stephen Harper has no plans to compromise on his next Throne Speech or his next budget if he wins only a minority government, because he believes it wouldn’t matter. “
That circumstance would be a bit of a replay of the 1926 “King-Byng” affair. Prime Minister King asked for an election, Governor General Byng denied him that and called on the Conservative leader, Arthur Meighan, to form an administration. Its defeat within a few days left the Governor General with no choice but to allow Meighan an election. King won by campaigning against the Governor General’s “interference.” In fact, Byng was perfectly justified in what he did, as Bruce Hutchison explains in his definitive biography, The Incredible Canadian (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Ignatieff’s remarks shouldn’t have set off the fuss they did, or given Harper a new opening to demand a majority. Anybody who’s been to high school in Canada should know, as Ignatieff explained, that a government rules only with the consent of Parliament. But that didn’t deter Harper from raising the spectre of Coalition once again. He claimed we’d end up with a government about whose program we know nothing and that we’d be open to higher taxes, another referendum on sovereignty, and whatever other ill wind might conceivably blow through Ottawa.
Of course, Harper’s ravings are all nonsense. The Liberal program has been clearly spelled out in the campaign. Ignatieff has said he would consult with the other parties if he became a minority Prime Minister, which is what Harper should have been doing the past five years, and hasn’t.
The media are nevertheless duty-bound to report whatever is said in the campaign. And so Harper gets another chance to rail against the ghost of Coalition, despite Ignatieff’s clear disavowal of such a course. And while the media are harping on the subject, the Liberal attempt to focus on health care is knocked off the rails.
It says something that both parties are reduced to campaigning on fear. Harper on the fear of cooperation among the Opposition parties. Ignatieff on the fear of what Tory tax cuts could do to the government’s ability to fund healthcare.
Amid it all, support grows for the NDP. I am among those who agree with Jack Layton’s stance on Afghanistan — there’s little we can accomplish and we shouldn’t be there. But the rest of the NDP program makes little economic or constitutional sense, as Jeffrey Simpson notes in this analysis.
So what do you fear the most?
With the election campaign underway, party strategists are bidding to frame the “ballot question” that Canadians will be looking to answer when they cast their votes.
Conservatives would like the ballot question to be a choice between a Harper Majority and an Opposition Coalition — an”unholy alliance” of Liberals, socialist NDPers, and separatists of the Bloc Québécois. The Tory message is a powerful one and it is clear it has set the tone for the first few days of the campaign. It’s also a clever way to dodge answering the real questions facing the electorate.
Conveniently forgotten in the hurly burly is both the budget and its “little goodies” and the historic vote on which the Harper regime fell — branded as the only government in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament.
The media have taken up the cry of Coalition, demanding a more explicit answer from Michael Ignatieff than he has so far chosen — or been able — to provide. And they’re not likely to let up.
Mr. Ignatieff needs to dispose of the Coalition conundrum once and for all.Given how the Conservatives have managed to distort the issue, painting the prospect of a Coalition as something that would rob voters of whatever choice they might make on election day, he is going to have to find a way of putting the issue to rest.
It’s well-known he was a reluctant supporter of the Stephan Dion bid to push aside Mr. Harper after the 2008 election with a Coalition of Liberals and the NDP, backed by a pledge from the Bloc for a year of support. The Bloc’s involvement enabled the Conservative to tar the Coalition as a bed-in with the separatists, something they (horror of horrors) would never allow.
Of course, Mr. Harper conveniently overlooks that he tried to get exactly the same deal from the NDP and the Bloc in 2005 during the Martin minority.
Coalition government is totally consistent with our parliamentary system. And Mr. Ignatieff can answer the question clearly and unashamedly. Being the gifted writer that he is, he should have no difficulty. Here’s how he might put it:
“The party that wins the most seats on election day will form the government. Our aim is to see that this is the Liberal party. Whatever government is formed, it will have to meet Parliament and win a confidence vote. And if it cannot, the Governor General will be obliged to give the next largest party — Liberal or Conservative — a chance. In either case, it would be entirely proper for either one to seek the support of another party if that is necessary. That’s the Canadian way.”
Beyond that, he need not answer hypothetical questions. What party would he ask for support, what terms would he offer, would he take members of another party into his cabinet? All those are questions that could be equally directed to Mr. Harper, and they are questions that need not and could not be answered ahead of the fact.
Most European countries, including the United Kingdom, are governed by coalitions of parties. Canada had a coalition government during the dark days of the First World War.
Mr. Ignatieff needs to put the Coalition question to rest. Then we can get on with discussing the real issues of the campaign — including economic recovery, health care, the outlook for our involvement in Libya, and the future of the nuclear industry in Canada.
Until then, the spectre of Coalition is a giant distraction, working to the advantage of the Harperites who would prefer not to have to answer to their own undemocratic and spendthrift ways.
Talk of a Liberal-NDP coalition/merger has been squelched — for now — by Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton. Both say it’s off the table. They’re wise to have said so, but trust me, the issue’s not going to go away.
The Old Warrior, Jean Chretien, gave coalition talk a new lease on life with comments he made after the unveiling of his portrait on Parliament Hill. “If it’s do-able, let’s do it,” he said. And he revealed that he’d had coalition talks with NDP influentials over the years.
It didn’t tale long for Chretien’s old campaign strategist, Warren Kinsella, to take up the call. He asserted that “serious people” from both camps are discussing the where, how and why of a Liberal-NDP link-up. He even had a name for the new animal - the Liberal Democrats.
Kinsella’s been around long enough to know how difficult it would be to forge a new party out of the Liberals and the NDP. His book, The War Room (Dundurn Press, 2007) spilt some of the secrets he’s harbored from his days as special assistant to Chretien when the Liberals were riding high at the expense of a divided right.
Now the shoe’s on the other foot. The right is united in Stephen Harper’s Conservative dynasty. The difference is that Harper’s never been able to get a solid hold on more than a third of the electorate.. So why do the Liberals have to ponder the possible delights of a merger with the NDP?
It’s because of Ignatieff, stupid. Once hailed as a new messiah, he’s never been able to nudge the Liberals into more than an also-ran position against Harper’s furies. The splurge of speculation about coalition/merger seems to have been set off anti-Ignatieff elements in his own party. Shades of what Chretien’s backroom boys tried to do against John Turner in the 1988 election. This time they’ve a different target.
Ignatieff is further embarrassed by an Angus Reid poll asserting that a Liberal-NDP coalition led by him would go down to defeat, while if Jack Layton was the leader it would defeat the Conservatives.
Chantal Hebert, writing in the Toronto Star, correctly points out that Ignatieff is the guy at risk. She thinks his reluctance to support a merger now gives the NDP a great incentive to hold back, expecting it could extract a better deal after, not before, the next election.
Hebert has examined the entrails of the 2006 election and come up with the conclusion that had the two parties been in cohorts before the vote, they would have won 42 more seats than they did, producing a Liberal-NDP majority. But that assumes voters would have cast their ballots the same way they did when the two were at each other’s throats. Not a safe assumption.
Another poll, by CP-Harris, confirms a splintered electorate. The biggest faction, 28%, favors a pre-election non-compete pact between the two parties.
Both approaches — strategic voting in an election, or taking your chances at forming a governing coalition after the election, carry their own risks. The advantage to a pre-writ saw-off, obviously, is that it could prevent the election of some Conservative MPs who might win as a result of vote-splitting on the left.
Ignatieff is right, however, to resist a coalition or merger at this stage. The time’s not right for it, especially when the Harper government is falling victim to yet more blunders. Eventually, stunts such as the ludicrous $1 billion security bill for the G8-G20 will get to voters. If he can hang on long enough, Ignatieff may not need a coalition to move into 24 Sussex Street.
It’s Election day in Canada — and what a difference a couple of seats might make!
At the Democratic Space site, the prediction is 126 seats for the Stephen Harper Conservatives and 128 for the Liberals and NDP combined. That sets up some interesting possibilities. Let’s suppose, as the site forecasts, that the election gives the Liberals and the NDP more seats than the Tories.
First, Harper’s failure to significantly improve his party’s position would put his long-term leadership under a cloud. He almost quit in a hissy fit after the 2004 vote. The knives could be out — except that Harper’s kept such a tight grip on his erratic crew that he’s really got no rival at this point.
Second, all the pronouncements of a Liberal wipe-out will have proven vastly overstated. Ninety-two seats isn’t that far off the 95 the Liberals held when Parliament was dissolved. Dion’s performance in the last two weeks of the campaign will have earned him another shot at 24 Sussex.
Third, Jack Layton’s “I’m running for Prime Minister” is taking him down a long road, judging from the miniscule progress he’ll have made (six more seats according to Democratic Space).
What effect will a combined Liberal-NDP edge over the Conservatives have on the next parliament? As I’ve written before, that’s all it took in Ontario in 1985 for David Peterson to oust the front-running Conservatives under Frank Miller.
The Liberals and the NDP also won more seats than the Tories in 2006. But with Paul Martin’s resignation, there was no taste for an accord with the NDP.
Now, with two-thirds of Canadians having voted for a candidate other than a Conservative, Dion and Layton will have a responsibility to consider how their two parties together could best serve Canada in this time of economic crisis.
Both will know full well that even with a free hand, the change in the economy means they’d not be in a position to fulfill their election commitments. This would force Layton to tone down his spending plans, and Dion to reflect on his Green Shift priorities. Factor in these considerations and you have two parties that could work together in a “Crisis Coalition.”
What other choice would Dion have? He certainly wouldn’t want another election right away. How long could he survive by allowing Conservative legislation to go through unchallenged?
In a House of five parties (or four and maybe one Green and a couple of independents), a Liberal-NDP fusion, accord or call it what you want, would still be a minority.
There’s only one issue that greatly separates the Bloc from the Libs and the Dippers — separation. But even Duceppe admits that’s not on the table.
On culture, social justice, Afghanistan, healthcare, economic security — there’s very little difference. Gilles Duceppe wiill have no hunger for another election. He may well have run for the last time.
A Liberal-NDP “Crisis Coalition,” supported by a two-year commitment from the Bloc to let the pair govern, no longer looks as far-fetched as a couple of weeks ago.
What a difference a couple of seats might make!