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Canada: Coalition Is Not a Dirty Word

Canada: Coalition Is Not a Dirty Word

Last week Stephen Harper’s scandal ridden Conservative government was defeated after being found in contempt of Parliament. All three opposition parties voted that they had lost confidence in the government, which signalled the end of the Conservative minority government and the beginning of a spring election campaign for Canada (vote on May 2, 2011).

This turn of events has thrilled those who oppose Harper, who revel at the possibility of replacing him. However, this joy and optimism inevitably leads to a question of “how?”

The recently defeated Conservative government was a minority government, holding only 143 of the 308 seats in Canada’s 40th Parliament. There are three other parties represented in the Parliament, namely the Liberals (77 seats), Bloc Quebecois (47 seats), and the New Democratic Party (36 seats). There are also two independents and three vacant seats. The result is that the Conservatives needed at least one other party to support their budgets, laws, and so on. It also means that all three opposition parties needed to work together to defeat the Conservatives on any issue, as no two opposition parties together had enough seats to beat them.

What if that happens again?

If the next election yields a similar result and none of the other parties agrees to prop up the Conservative party, then the other parties may need to work together to form the government. This has kicked off discussion about the possibility of a coalition government in Canada.

Experts agree that a coalition is a legitimate form of government. If the Conservatives can’t win the confidence of the Parliament, then other parties would be given the opportunity to try to form a coalition government.

Even when a coalition is not necessary, the government can be stabilized by entering into a formal coalition with other parties to ensure that the government remains in place for a certain period of time instead of facing possible defeat with each key vote. Coalitions of this sort are often formed in other countries. 

What do Canadian party leaders think?

The discussion about the possibility of a coalition led reporters to push the party leaders to obtain their opinion on it. Generally, their opinions and promises seem to be as follows:

  • Liberals (Michael Ignatieff): Ignatieff issued a statement on the first morning of the campaign. In his statement he indicated that if he is given the opportunity to form a minority government, he would not consider entering into a coalition government with the Bloc Quebecois or the NDP. Reporters then began asking what would happen if the Conservatives had the highest number of seats, but couldn’t obtain the confidence of Parliament (i.e. no opposition party would work with them). Would Ignatieff consider a coalition under those circumstances?   Again, he confirmed that no — they would not. He also ruled out any type of formal arrangement with the Bloc Quebecois, meaning that the only way that the Liberals could obtain the confidence of the house in a minority government is if the NDP had enough seats to make up the difference and agreed to work with them. 

Canada has only had one formal federal coalition government in its history (from 1917 to 1920). Our lack of experience with coalitions combined with political fear mongering about coalitions is making this into a much bigger issue than it needs to be. The opposition parties agree on a lot more points than they disagree on. They would probably be able to achieve a lot by coming up with a joint plan of action after the election and committing to working together on it (while leaving their differences on the sidelines). Most of our politicians, however, seem to be intent on keeping all of the power for themselves and accentuating the differences between the parties.

If we end up with anything but a (hopefully unlikely) Conservative majority government and these politicians stay true to their word, we appear to be bound for a perpetual stalemate.

Are Canadians really scared of coalitions? Or are Harper and Ignatieff just trying to convince us that we are?

Related posts:

Scandal-Ridden Canadian Government Likely To Face May Election

Medicine For All Bill Dies In Senate At Urging Of Conservative Government

Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.

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Photo credit: Medmoiselle T on flickr

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9:45AM PDT on Aug 22, 2011


9:42AM PDT on Aug 22, 2011


8:02PM PDT on May 6, 2011

I thought it was disgraceful that Canada's Prime Minister would knowingly mislead the Canadian public on the legality of a coalition government. Under constitutional law, this is a perfectly acceptable way of governing. As long as a party or coalition of parties has the confidence of the house, they should govern.

4:38PM PDT on Apr 1, 2011

This is an expensive game for the public but this is the result we should not complaint about. Conservative goes Marjory and Green need get at least 1 seat by using campaign fund more wisely to get limited result.

7:56AM PDT on Apr 1, 2011

I don't like Harper and anytime there is fear set around something like a coalition and it makes the governments uncomfortable then perhaps it is a good idea. I vote Green but it is generally a throw away vote cause of counting system in Canada. Will be interesting to see what becomes of things.

11:20AM PDT on Mar 31, 2011

I fear a government led by Harper with a majority in parliament. I realize Ignatieff does not have the look of a leader but neither does the 'Pillsbury Dough Boy' aka 'the School Bully' who thinks he is an 'emperor.' The words 'Three Headed Monster' and 'Coalition of the Dammed' mentioned by above Tom Y. are muck-racking and hate mongering in purest form and were hate terms invented by "electrified right-wing hanger-on'rs to strike fear into the minds of the ignorant, uninformed masses, the adolescent less-informed voters so susceptible to mass media propaganda and advertising. 'Get the masses to think your view is the consensus and they will go with it.' This a most effective tool of propaganda.
A Coalition Government is in essence and is by its very name, a 'Co-operative Government' has not yet been given a chance. It exists in other countries and works. It might just be the best type of government for Canada.
Fully agree that repercussions from the recent recession were averted in Canada due to legislation enacted by the Liberals -- a historical Fact -- and credit should not ever be given to Harper or his right-wing cronies who are obsessed with giving perks and passing legislation to the benefit of lobbying Corporations and sucking-up businesses with unlimited resources to 'influence pedal' with mega tax-deductible $$$, and always requited donations -- OR just plain 'brown envelop cash' while ignoring the downward plight of the working class and the working poor.

7:30PM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

Nothing wrong with a coalition...

2:44PM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

While Harper knows full well that coalitions are a legitimate form of government, many Canadians do not. He is using wide-spread ignorance of our political system to his own advantage. I wish more Canadians would give coalitions a chance, and I'm frustrated that Ignatieff has ruled them out too - a coalition might be the government's only chance of sitting in the House for a full four years.

6:58AM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

Heather G.

It wasn't really Harper that got us through the economic crisis. It is the bank regulations that were introduced by the Liberal government before him that saved us from the worst of that crisis.

9:52PM PDT on Mar 29, 2011

The majority of Canadian votes go to the centre-left parties which, presumably, means the majority of Canadians favour centre-left positions. However, because these votes are split three ways, the majority of Canadians are not actually represented by the government. A coalition would redress this issue. It's time for Ignatieff to stand up to Tory fear-mongering and join the NDP & the Bloc in a coalition government so Canada can have a stable government that represents the majority of us.

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