Can the coalition survive?

| December 8, 2008
As Dion waves goodbye as Liberal leader, will the Liberal-NDP coalition hold together? (Photo: Kim Elliott)
What a difference a day makes.

Last Wednesday the pundits were ready to write Harper's political obituary. But on Thursday afternoon Harper had schmoozed the Governor General into giving him a parliamentary time-out, thus preventing the potential coalition forces from bringing his government down this week on a vote of non-confidence. By Friday the polling industry weighed in with surveys suggesting that Harper was a big gainer coming out of the battle and that the coalition option was deeply unpopular with Canadians.

With that, senior Liberals like John Manley and Keith Martin began openly questioning the coalition idea, with Manley calling for an end to Dion's caretaker leadership immediately. At this point, it is anyone's guess whether the coalition can stick together until an opportunity to defeat Harper finally comes in late January.

So what happened? How did Harper, the intemperate bully boy who started the fight in the first place with his surprising attack on party financing rules, and whose party gained a paltry 38 per cent of the popular vote, become the poster boy for democracy and Canadian unity?

Surely this one was a no brainer in terms of who is right and who is wrong? After all, Harper clearly came out swinging against all the opposition parties a week and a half ago with his do-nothing budget and attack on the all-party agreement on party financing rules, despite his status as a minority government. And the combined popular vote of the Liberals, Bloc and NDP amounts to a solid majority - 62 per cent.

How could their attempt to take power be seriously characterized as undemocratic under these circumstances? Well, as we know, it has been. Working out how the Conservatives have managed to perform this miracle is instructive about the lay of today's political land, both in terms of what voters are doing and the current dynamics of our party system.

The first issue involves the voters. According to pollsters they don't like the coalition plan and think Harper should remain Prime Minister. But how can that square with the recent election results where a majority did not endorse Harper's team as their choice to govern? Well part of the answer involves who can 'mobilize bias' in civil society.

The first inkling of strong opposition to the coalition plan came from talk radio phone-in shows, just the ones that are highly over-represented with Conservative listeners who appear to have little to do but call in all day and rant. These responses then set the 'frame' through which others respond, particularly those whose political views are less defined or committed. On the other hand, these right wing commentators obviously did strike a chord with many others when they claimed that nobody got a chance to vote for this coalition plan.

No doubt, there might be many Liberal or NDP supporters who were not pleased to discover they were now cooperating with their former opponents. But the problem with this outrage is that 'the people' didn't get to endorse an Harper Conservative government either. Harper didn't so much 'win' the election as not lose it.

As the party with the most seats, and no clear governing alternative in sight after election day, he got to keep the reins of government for as long as he can win votes in the House. Conservative operatives and a largely compliant media managed to turn his rather lacklustre election results into a 'win', one that they now claim the other parties are trying to wrestle away undemocratically. Nice trick - you have a minority of the popular vote and legislative seats but somehow you are the democratic champion when the majority disagrees.

Conservatives can get away with such claims and indeed even generate sympathy from non-supporters by exploiting the Canadian public's deep ignorance about how our political processes and institutions work. Voters heard that the Conservatives 'won' a minority government - doesn't that mean they 'earned' the right to govern? The short answer, of course, is no. The right to govern under our system goes to whomever can corral a majority of votes. But countless academic surveys demonstrate that Canadians do not understand the basics of how our democratic and parliamentary institutions work.

For instance, nearly a majority think that when one party wins a legislative majority under our system that means that a majority of voters support them. But this is actually seldom the case. Most often, 40-45 per cent of the popular vote is enough to get 60-65 per cent of the seats or more.

So coalition supporters have their work cut out for them in the weeks ahead. They have to try to educate the public about majorities and minorities and think creatively about how to cast the Conservatives in the light they deserve - as the petulant and undemocratic minority they are, one that increasingly wishes to impose its will on everyone else.

Yet even if the pro-coalition forces could craft a killer campaign, it is not clear that they can succeed. The second major issue weakening the coalition plan is the nature of the coalition itself. As its critics claim, it really is inherently shaky and unreliable. But not for the reasons that Conservatives and most media pundits declare.

We have heard a lot about the how the Bloc's involvement in propping up the coalition is a threat to Canadian unity etc. These are bogus arguments and those making them are, again, just exploiting poorly informed voters, this time English Canadian voters with a grudge against the French on the their cereal boxes. Both Liberal and Conservative minority governments have been happy to accept support from the Bloc when it suited them and the country didn't fall apart.

No, the instability in the coalition agreement stems entirely from within its main player, the Liberal Party. The problem boils down to this - the Liberals are a right wing party and their logical ally, both in terms of elite and voter preferences, is actually the Conservatives. To ally with the social democratic NDP and Bloc puts enormous pressure on the party as many of their voters and elite supporters simply want a kinder, gentler conservative party.

To place the Liberals on the right goes against a lot media conventions, which tend to call the party centre or centre-left, as well as myth-making by Liberals and the Canadian left. Yet academic studies of voter preferences reveal that the second choice of most Liberals is actually the Conservative party, and that most Conservative voters also rank the Liberal party number two.

Political practice might also debunk the 'Liberals as centre left party' thesis as Liberal and Conservative political elites regularly join forces provincially when faced with a strong left opponent, as we have seen in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec. Federally, the Liberals moved to the right of Mulroney's Conservatives under Chretien and his finance minister Paul Martin in the 1990s and helped entrench the neoliberalism responsible for much of the financial chaos today.

No, calling the Liberals 'left' is like calling the Democrats in the U.S. left because they are not as far right as the Republicans.

Normalizing the Liberals as 'left' also conveniently sets them as the acceptable limit of what 'left' can then be. This is just the sort of 'left unity' that a host of right wing pundits were helpfully pedalling shortly after the last federal election. Norman Spector, Rod Love, John Robson - to name just a few - all offered insights to 'the left' about how they could unite as the Conservatives had done under Harper.

Of course, the kind of unity they envisioned would see the NDP and Bloc surrender to the Liberals, narrowing the policy space of our parties to right and far right. And, of course, when a real coalition did come along last week, one that didn't completely submerge its social democratic elements, needless to say these right wing pundits were no longer cheerleading.

The combined force of Liberals, NDP and Bloc have the votes and could still topple Harper next month, if they wish. But this may not come to pass. Part of this involves the Conservatives ability to frame the coalition as 'undemocratic' and 'unpatriotic'.

The gravest threat to the coalition plan right now comes from right wing Liberal voters and political elites. Because of our winner-take-all voting system, the Liberal Party can't just join a 'grand coalition' with the Conservatives as we have seen in a host of European countries that use proportional voting. But they can't work too closely with the NDP or the Bloc either or risk losing support to the Conservatives and any hope of forming a national government on their own. It will take some deft politicking to hold all this together in the days ahead.

Of course, the coalition arrangement does raise important questions about where we are with our party system. We do need a fundamental realignment. But the change that needs to take place involves joining English and French social democrats, not social democrats with Liberals.

If the NDP and Bloc could figure out a way to reconfigure 21st Century social democracy to suit Canadian circumstances, they might just hive off the leftist rump of the Liberals and govern the nation in their own right.

Dennis Pilon teaches politics at the University of Victoria and is the author of The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada's Electoral System.

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