Someone on my Facebook - someone of the Conservative persuasion - posited that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff should be asked in tomorrow night's English-language Leaders Debate about why he wants to ruin Canada by having a political threesome with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe. The rhetorical flourish of that question is mine, but the intent is the same: A vote for the opposition parties is a vote for some kind of Voltron government that's both unlawful and unwanted.
Except that it isn't. Not only is a coalition government perfectly legal and constitutional, but I think it's what Canadians have been asking for the last seven years. If you just scoffed, I don't blame you. A Globe and Mail/CTV poll from last week showed that 49 per cent of respondents had a negative or somewhat negative reaction to the idea of a coalition government; 40 per cent had the opposite reaction and the rest was made up people who were uncertain.
While a poll can certainly be scientific, I have a much more scientific polling option: the results from the last election. I have put to a couple of the candidates, namely Bobbi Stewart and Frank Valeriote, their point of view about a coalition. My thesis is that the way Canadians have been voting in the last three elections (and seemingly for the fourth) it seems that what they're looking for is a coalition. If you think about it, the parties are more or less breaking down regionally. Tories cover the Prairies and the West, as well as southwestern Ontario; Liberals take urban and suburban areas in southern Ontario, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg and the Maritimes; the NDP in denser urban areas, coastal B.C., urban Manitoba, northern Ontario and parts of the Maritimes; and the Bloc takes most of Quebec outside Montreal and Quebec City.
So what's wrong with this picture? Well, you'll notice that aside from the Bloc Quebecois, there's not a regional area in this country where the parties don't have influence (and some would argue, especially in the coalition debate, that the Bloc's influence does extend beyond the Quebec border). Even the northern territories are evenly split with one riding each for the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP.
To me, this suggests that the country is rather schizophrenic about where it wants to be. They like the idea of economy-centric priorities and tax cuts, but there still remains that concern of an un-Canadian social policy that many think lingers immediately behind a Conservative majority in the House. People like the Liberals fine, but without a strong voice and constitution they come across as U.S. Democrats: a party of big ideas incapable of executing. Everyone loves the NDP, but the fiscally-conservative half of our collective brains remember how NDP governments provincially have chased a road of good intentions down a financial rabbit hole.
Still, what if we took the qualities we liked from all the major parties, and combined them into some kind of super-government. On the campaign trail, Prime Minister Stephen Harper paints a picture of disorganization and instability. On the stump, he's been equating the need to give his party a majority as a matter of national security. “These series of minority Parliaments, in my judgment, is becoming a dangerous game for this country," Harper said in Guelph last week. "This election needs to put an end to that political uncertainty and focus on Canada’s security.”
Harper can make an argument for that, although I think its fundamentally wrong. A majority government unchecked could just as well be a force for instability, and the truth of the matter is that the current election began with the government's refusal to be completely open and honest with the Opposition - even in a minority situation. The more troubling aspect, to my mind, is the inference that a coalition is illegal or that somehow it constiutes a conspiracy to usurp the will of the Canadian electorate.
In Guelph, Harper asked: why Ignatieff was forcing an election. “We all know why," he told the crowd, "because Mr Ignatieff doesn’t think he needs to win this election. He thinks he needs to just hold us to another minority government and after the election, he can make a deal with the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois even if he lost the election.”
Leaving aside Ignatieff's election day proclamation that he had no intention of forming a coalition government, he didn't have to go to an election to get it. A vote of non-confidence doesn't mean an automatic election, it means that the party that forms the government no longer has the confidence of the majority of Parliament. The Governor-General can turn to the opposition parties and ask them if they can see clear to form a government of their own before dropping the writ.
As for Ignatieff and his coalition promises, I can say that from my point of view it's short-sighted. In 2008, the Conservatives formed the Government of Canada in spite of the fact that 62.4 per cent of those that voted, voted for any party or candidate besides Conservatives. Many of those coveted victories by the Conservatives in southern Ontario were won by razor thin margins, and not because the Conservatives were so successful in converting voters, but because a lot of Liberal voters stood at home. I understand that from Ignatieff's point of view, he can't kick off his campaign from the position of "here's something I can do if I don't win," essentially a defeatist position, but by discounting it completely, he opens himself up to the very charges Conservatives are levying against him if he ends up going through with it after Election Day.
To discount a coalition for any reason is simplistic. It fosters a zero sum approach to politics I find distasteful, and it further fosters partisanship and general extra-party negativity. An election victory does not mean universal acceptance of your agenda, especially in a minority situation. But compromise is seen by some politicians as weakness, and if you're weak you can't lead. This is the spirit of Harper's march against the coalition; a campaign against compromise, participation, and engagement.
“You are here for one thing," he told the gathered Guelphites last week. "You are here for Canada. And your fellow citizens here in Guelph and throughout southwestern Ontario believe deeply in this country, and they are not going to choose members of Parliament who are going to sign on to Mr. Ignatieff’s reckless idea that he can lose the election and then run the country with the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.”
Well, if the polls show anything right now it's that they are, and they might. "Reckless" though it may be, if the election were held tomorrow, it'd be another minority Parliament that sits. And maybe that's how Canadians want it. Ultimately though, it seems silly to base your campaign on hypotheticals when there are much more tangible issues on your agenda, like accusations that all that money on the G8 was misspent, or that political staffers in Ottawa may come off financially better secure if their party loses than if they win.