Making coalition government work

When she was elected NDP member for Edmonton Strathcona in the last election, Linda Duncan probably did not think she would shortly be a cabinet minister. But as the only non-Conservative member from Alberta she is certainly entitled to a cabinet post in the coalition Liberal/NDP government likely to be formed - as early as next week - because Stephen Harper has misunderstood how parliamentary democracy works.

The people elect the parliament, but governments are formed (and undone) by parliament. Winning the largest number of seats only entitled the Conservatives to form a government, and only at the invitation of the Governor General. Losing the confidence of the House of Commons, as the Harper government did when its economic update failed to recognize a worldwide economic slump and the need for stimulus, and promoted restraint instead, opens the door for a coalition government to take power - at the invitation of the Governor General.

For the Governor General to invite a coalition government to take power she must be convinced the coalition will be stable enough to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. The Liberals have 77 seats, the NDP 37; together that is not enough for a majority. Indeed the Conservatives, with 143 seats, outnumber the 114 Liberal and NDP members combined. Thus, the statement by the Bloc Québeçois (49 seats) declaring its willingness to support, on an issue by issue basis, a Liberal/NDP alternative to the Harper regime looms as important, and may prove decisive in issuing an eventual invitation to the Liberals and NDP to form a government following the expected non-confidence vote December 8.

There is every reason for a coalition government to be formed: Harper and his party have lost their legitimacy as a government. No amount of backtracking can conceal their intentions to limit the right to strike, undermine pay equity and, especially, ignore the international commitment taken as a G7 member nation to stimulate the economy. The Liberals have issued a statement entitled Canada First saying it is time to put the interest of Canada before partisan party interest, and Jack Layton has initiated coalition talks, with Ed Broadbent acting as party emissary.

What is needed to make a coalition government work? First, an agreement to work together for a minimum period, say two years. Second, a common set of priorities for action. Third, an understanding of what needs to happen on both sides, so as to preserve the government, and not compromise either political party.

Setting aside party differences should appeal to the 62.4 per cent of Canadians who voted for a party other than the Conservatives. As to Liberal and NDP partisans, signing a two-year armistice, in return for rescuing Canadians from the embrace of the Conservatives, represents an attractive trade-off.

Priorities are the real issue. For the NDP, entering government on condition that the next parliament is elected under proportional representation would make sense. But how much would it have to give up to have that option accepted? For the NDP, reversing the militarization of world politics is a party imperative. Though, as the minority partner, the NDP is poorly positioned to demand a new Canadian Afghanistan policy (to replace military duty in Kandahar province until 2011) it can push for modifications of overall NATO strategy.

The most important priority is to deal with the economy. The NDP should fight to have the recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) economic and fiscal update serve as the starting point for devising a new approach. The economic slide needs to be stopped by enriching Employment Insurance along the lines proposed in the CCPA paper. Boosting other automatic stabilizers, such as pensions, minimum wages and student awards, is the best way to provide the spending power needed from government to counter deflationary pressures.

To move the country forward, the coalition government can start by to adopting infrastructure projects put forward regularly by the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. The NDP proposal to "poverty proof" communities should be among the first policies announced. Agreement on investments for social housing and alternative energy should be quickly reached.

There are serious issues such as regulation of banking and finance where government needs to know more, and recourse to outside committees of enquiry would be advised. Other areas such as anti-scab legislation need immediate attention.

A coalition government would need a new deputy minister of finance, and a new secretary to the cabinet, since they bear some responsibility for the failed economic update document.

The NDP was founded as the CCF in 1932. With the depression as a back drop, people's movements came together in Calgary and agreed to plan a better world. The party today needs to agree to take seats in cabinet, and form a joint caucus with the Liberals for a two-year period. All must pledge to make the new government work because, if it fails, both parties will bear the blame. A Conservative party, likely under a new leader, would be the beneficiary.

The NDP needs to show it can govern nationally. The Liberals need an anti-depression policy. Canadians needs the two to make whatever concessions are necessary in order to make a coalition government work.

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