A coalition government would mean a more mature Parliament – and could even strengthen national unity.
The federal Tories have definitely been given their electoral marching orders by the party’s campaign strategists. Whenever, wherever possible, drop the word “coalition” (complete with the scare quotes) into each and every stump speech and media scrum. Make it seem that the Liberals are already in bed with the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois, and suggest that the country will inexorably fall apart with a coalition government should Canadians be so thoughtless as to not elect a Harper majority.
Indeed, according to the prime minister, such a “reckless” coalition will inevitably generate high taxes, slow job growth, kill jobs, and be bad for families. Are you kidding me?
It’s time for the other party leaders to challenge this fear-mongering head-on, and in the process educate Canadians about the role of coalition governments in parliamentary systems. First, they happen all the time in parliamentary democracies, and countries with routine experience of them generally don’t implode. Second, they tend to be quite focused and productive in terms of legislative output – because all coalition partners have to work out deals and compromise with each other in order to make the government work.
Third, the more parties involved in governing, the better behaved politicians usually are because there are quite a few of them left holding the bag in terms of public accountability. Fourth, coalition governments ensure a much broader level of pan-national representation at the executive level, and that’s where the power usually is (regardless of the actual legal location of sovereignty). Fifth, by giving a slice of governance to minority parties, such parties become more mature and responsible through the experience (in effect, they grow up a bit).
Finally – and this is the very best part – coalition governments can help generate a sense of national unity. In Canada there can never be too much of that. Indeed, given what we know about coalition governments elsewhere – in Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and now the United Kingdom – this seems exactly what the Canadian parliamentary system needs at the moment.
Imagine a scenario where Canadian politicians were forced to work together more than scream at each other, where those on the outside got a taste of governing and therefore figured out how tough it is when you have to rule on behalf of all Canadians, not just those who routinely vote for you, and a more balanced cabinet was possible with a larger talent pool to draw from, with greater representation from those often perennially underrepresented: women and minorities.
Of course not all coalition governments work well; some fall apart, often for exactly the same reasons minority governments fall apart. Sometimes consensus-based politics does not yield clear-cut decisions. Ideologically rigid parties or those inhabiting an extreme end of the political spectrum can hold the mainstream hostage on issues near and dear to them. But these situations are contradicted by the many successful coalition governments worldwide.
Moreover, Canada actually has previous experience with coalition governments. Canada’s first government under John A. Macdonald was a coalition government, lasting from 1867 until 1872. In fact, a coalition government has been increasingly likely since the traditional three-party system at the federal level collapsed with the dual challenges posed by Reform in Western Canada and the Bloc Québécois. That was 1993. We have not had a seriously national government since then.
Because of the unpredictable nature of our first-past-the-post plurality system and the fact that, yes, electoral campaigns do matter tremendously in swaying voters (usually the relatively large block of undecided voters), Canadians cannot plan in advance to generate a coalition government. But we should certainly not live in fear of one because of the shrill rhetoric of a government bent on obtaining a majority at all costs.
Photos courtesy of Reuters.