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:
- Conservatives (Stephen Harper): Harper has been criticizing coalitions and trying to convince Canadians that a Liberal government would attempt to form a coalition with the separatists (the Bloc Quebecois who wish to see Quebec separate from Canada) and the socialists (the NDP). Interestingly, Harper was prepared to enter into a coalition with those same two parties in 2004 in order to topple the Liberal minority government.
- 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.
- NDP (Jack Layton): Layton has not ruled out any type of coalition or cooperation and he has also reminded us of the discussions Harper had previously with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois on the topic of a coalition.
- Bloc Quebecois (Gilles Duceppe): Duceppe has also reminded us of the coalition discussions with Harper in 2004. He isn’t ruling out any type of coalition or cooperative arrangement, but has said that his party would not have any Ministers in a coalition government because they are a separatist party.
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?
Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.
Photo credit: Medmoiselle T on flickr