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What would a coalition government mean for progressive politics in Canada?

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While the federal election is still ten months away, there is already speculation that a likely outcome of the vote on October 19, 2015 is a Conservative minority government that could be displaced by a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Both NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Green Party leader Elizabeth May appear to be open to forming a coalition government with the Liberals to unseat a Conservative minority government, but Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is ruling it out - for now.

Mulcair says, "We’ll have to wait and see. We’re going to be gunning for a majority NDP government." But he adds, “Don’t forget, we’re the ones who made it a priority in 2008 to put the coalition idea on the table. We wrote it and signed it and the Liberals walked away from it.” Mulcair has also previously expressed his openness to a coalition. In February, he said, "We’ve always said we’re ready to work with other parties. We’re a progressive party. We want to get results."

And while reported less in mainstream media, May has said, "Greens are in coalition governments around the world. This would be extremely doable in Canada too."

For his part, Trudeau says, "There are some very, very big impediments to forming a coalition with the NDP. Which is why I am against it... With regard to constitutional issues and Quebec, I don’t think we should be making it easier for the country to separate."

That said for now, what might we see with a coalition government?

In November, the Link reported, "If the Greens hold the balance of power after the next election then it is these issues—the reform of the voting system and a far greater commitment to sustainable energies—that would have to be in any coalition agreement the Green Party would support."

It is likely that the Liberals and the NDP could agree on holding a national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women (both parties have already indicated their support for an inquiry), stopping Harper's plan to increase the eligibility age for Old Age Security from 65 to 67, scrapping Harper's changes to Employment Insurance, blocking the Northern Gateway pipeline, increasing monitoring of fracking (though not a moratorium), and possibly on other progressive issues (like holding mining companies accountable for their actions outside of Canada and not extending the current military mission in Iraq).

Areas of contention would likely include proportional representation (which Mulcair and May support, but Trudeau opposes), the Keystone XL pipeline (which Mulcair opposes and Trudeau supports) and the $36 billion that Harper would cut from health care (Mulcair says he would cancel this cut, Trudeau has not indicated a position on this yet).

Murkier issues (where neither party has an optimal position) that would require mobilizations by civil society would likely focus on the Canada-European Union 'free trade' agreement, the Energy East pipeline, and the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Trudeau has indicated his support for CETA, but the NDP is still developing their position on the agreement. While Mulcair has encouraged the European Union not to ratify CETA if it includes an investor-state clause, NDP trade critic Don Davies maintains that while his party does not believe the investor-state dispute settlement provision is needed, "it is only one component of a trade deal and we assess them as a whole."

With Trans Mountain, Mulcair says he would not be "ruling out support for the Kinder Morgan project in advance of its assessment by the National Energy Board", while Trudeau says, "I am, however, very interested in the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the Trans Mountain pipeline that is making its way through. I certainly hope that we’re going to be able to get that pipeline approved."

And on Energy East, Mulcair says, "New Democrats support increasing west-east capacity, which would make Canadian energy security a top priority and assist with maintaining and creating high-paying, value-added refining jobs here at home [but that it] will not obtain the social licence [it requires] without having a rigorous review process in place to ensure environmental sustainability, community partnership and long-term prosperity of our economic development." Trudeau says, "The project has still not attained the level of support it needs to go forward. I hope they will develop a means to reassure and demonstrate that this can be done in a responsible fashion. But they aren’t there yet, far from it." As Quebec public opinion solidifies against the Energy East pipeline, both leaders - undoubtedly recognizing the 78 seats at play in Quebec in the next election - are slowly shifting their positions to be more in sync with the voting public in Quebec.

In short, a coalition government would likely provide a mixed bag of policies - in many ways better than what we would get with a Conservative minority or majority government - but also far short of what the majority of Canadians would like to see. There would be the need for a strong civil society movement to hold a coalition government accountable to the public interest and to push it to better positions on pipelines, 'free trade', health care, water protection and more.

We are also acutely aware that just six weeks after the federal election the United Nations climate summit will convene in Paris. This will be a critical meeting as the hope is it will produce a meaningful global climate agreement to limit global carbon emissions. And just six months after the election - in May 2016 - is the deadline for the cabinet to approve or reject the Energy East pipeline. And at some point in between those dates, perhaps January or February 2016, is the time frame for the ratification of CETA.

Canadians appear ready for the political moment of a Liberal-NDP coalition government. The National Post reports, "A recent EKOS Research poll suggests Canadians are now open to the idea of coalition government too, with 54% supporting a hypothetical Liberal-NDP coalition over a Conservative minority government."

The Council of Canadians also supports the idea of a coalition government. We supported the formation of a Liberal-NDP coalition government in 2008-09 and just prior to the May 2011 federal election, Maude Barlow stated, "We continue to believe that the best likely outcome is a coalition government - based on a progressive policy platform."


Further reading
In 2015, a coalition government is totally plausible. But is it desirable? (Andrew Perez op-ed in the National Post)
Bad blood makes Liberal-NDP coalition unlikely (Chantal Hébert column in the Toronto Star)
Five questions for Justin Trudeau, a year later (November 2014 blog by Maude Barlow)
Preparing for a coalition government debate (December 2014 blog)

Photo: Could Mulcair, Trudeau and May form a coalition government in October 2015?

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