A Grand Coalition?

Throne Speech

So the game of political chicken is on, egged on in no small part by the bellicose Conservative supporters, and such luminary Liberals as Warren Kinsella (now, intriguingly, back in the game), who all seem to think that if we go to the polls within three months of the last election, their party will win.

A note to said supporters: I’m a political non-partisan, I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for in the next election, though my default position of late has been Green. However, if it seems as though my ire has been raised higher by the Conservatives, blame your bellicose supporters. Simply put, I do not like this arrogance, this haughtiness, this sense of entitlement that I see in some of your supporters’ posts and comments, that so often characterizes the Liberal approach. Every time I hear phrases like “bring it on” and the like, every time I hear discussion of what is supposedly a belt-tightening move listed in terms of doing “strategic damage” to the opposition, I want to metaphorically kick your party in the nuts. And I don’t think I’m the only Canadian to think so.

If an election is called over the issue of public campaign financing, I think most Canadians can see Harper and Flaherty’s move for what it is: a cynical attempt to consolidate power outside of the ballot box. I think most Canadians can see who isn’t considering the good of the nation and working with the other parties to deal with the coming economic downturn in the spirit of the mandate that the electorate handed down this past October.

But I digress.

If the Liberals stand up and vote with a full caucus against the Conservatives’ economic update, I have to say that it would make a nice change from their strategy of the previous parliament of ducking votes of confidence and propping up the Conservative government. At least I can say, even if the move is a risky one, they had the guts to stand on their principles, for once. But if this matter comes to a vote — and it’s almost certainly a vote of confidence in the government — and this government falls, will we really be in election mode?

Chet Scoville thinks so, but I note that this government has not passed that timepoint I call the Clark Barrier. Constitutionally, after the prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons so close after an election, the Governor General is within his or her right to turn to the Leader of the Opposition and ask him to try and form a government and get a throne speech passed. If this is done, then the Leader of the Opposition becomes the new Prime Minister, with the confidence of the House.

Constitutionally, the Governor General has the power to do this throughout the five year mandate of a minority parliament, but tradition tends to dictate that if a minority parliament lasts a year or more, and then falls, new elections are called. The shortest-lived minority parliament that fell, taking the country to the polls, is the one run by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives in 1979. He lasted about nine months, so nine months would seem to be the minimum length of time a government can last before new elections are held (although, truthfully, the balance between government and opposition in that parliament was so razor thin — thinner than it is now — it seemed unlikely that an opposition coalition was possible, which meant a new election to clarify the seats in the House)

Beyond nine months, a decision by the Governor General to try and hand power over to the Leader of the Opposition would traditionally be seen as undemocratic. This was demonstrated during the King-Byng affair in 1926 when Prime Minister Mackenzie King resigned rather than face a confidence motion and demanded that new elections be held. The Governor General, Lord Byng, who noted that the country had been through elections twice so far that decade, decided that the Leader of the Opposition Arthur Meighen should have a crack at governing instead. King managed to engineer the early fall of the Meighen government and then campaigned against Lord Byng — who had been appointed to his position by the British Parliament — saying that his act was an attempt to thwart the Canadian democracy by the British monarchy. King won an increased mandate (albeit a minority one) and governed for the next four years.

So it would be a bold move if Governor General Michaelle Jean turned to Stephane Dion and asked him to form a government, but there is precedent. In 1984, the Ontario Conservatives won a minority of 51 seats at Queen’s Park, followed by 49 seats for the Liberals and 25 seats for the NDP. Premier Frank Miller tried to form a government and get a throne speech passed, but the Liberals and the NDP voted against thanking the Lieutenant Governor for the throne speech — the very first vote of confidence in the House. With the fall of the government on its first act of parliament, the Lieutenant Governor turned to Liberal leader David Petersen and asked him to form a government, which he did, with the support of the NDP. It governed for the next two years.

There is, of course, the Liberal leadership question to be addressed, but if the Liberals are really going to go this course of risking an election before the year is out, I’m pretty sure there is a provision in the party constitution for situations like this. I’m pretty sure the party executive could meet, haul in its leadership contenders, and shanghai a winner into place in time to do some campaigning. The prospect of sudden death does tend to invigorate the limbs.

The idea that the Liberals could sit alongside not only the New Democrats but the Bloc Quebecois in a coalition government is almost comical, but whoever the leader of the Liberal party is, all he would have to do is secure enough support to get a throne speech passed, and he becomes Prime Minister, with the confidence of the House. From that point on, he’d need to keep the phone numbers of Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe on speed dial, but a particularly adept leader could conceivably govern on a case-by-case basis, negotiating hard and fast with the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois to keep the coalition going. Assuming that Layton and Duceppe were willing to play ball, and could keep their caucuses in line.

But stranger things have happened. And this opposition can’t help but notice that they’ve worked together far more often and more credibly than they’ve been able to work with this government. They (and Canadians) need only ask themselves, over the past two and a half years, which party has consistently refused to cooperate with the running of parliament? Which party has refused to consult with the others, even though they hold a minority of seats? Which party has refused to play ball, in the face of not one but two elections wherein the Canadian electorate refused to give a clear mandate to a single winner?

It’s not been anybody in the opposition, that’s for sure. A better opposition leader, perhaps, might be the one currently sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair.

Further Reading

Update, 3:00 p.m.

According to Canadian Press, the Conservative Party are starting to back down on their plan to eliminate public campaign financing. If so, credit to them for listening and playing the proper role of a minority government, and credit to the opposition for standing up for themselves. More like this, please, and I’ll feel more comfortable about the next couple of years.

Now, about that stimulus package…

Update: 3:10 p.m.

But coalition talks continue, along with a motion of non-confidence. Well.

Hey, if you guys can work it all out, more power to you!

And to anybody who complains about this: put a sock in it, please. This would be an unusual parliament. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that it would be the most unusual parliament in the history of Canada. What it wouldn’t be is illegal, or unconstitutional.

And it would speak for 63% of voting Canadians.


A couple of mistakes in this article:

  1. The Ontario election where the minority switch occurred was in 1985, not 1984.
  2. Clark’s government wasn’t the shortest lived minority government, not by a long chalk. Diefenbaker’s 1957 government didn’t last as long, and of course technically Arthur Meighen’s government lasted all of three days. However, I think my point stands. Diefenbaker’s government didn’t fall to a vote of non-confidence. Rather, the prime minister reacted to Liberal demands to hand the government over by calling an election. And I consider Arthur Meighen’s minority government to be somewhat attached to the Mackenzie King minority government that preceded it.
  3. I typed in the Ontario election results from memory. The actual results were PCs 52, Liberals 48 and NDP 25.
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