You could hear the sound of Liberal backroom operators gnashing their teeth from Halifax to Mississauga to Port Coquitlam.
One day, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau answers a hypothetical question about a possible Liberal-NDP coalition with a confusing sort-of, maybe, not-sure response.
Trudeau tries to explain that while he’s not opposed to a coalition with the Official Opposition, he is dubious about what he calls NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s “old style.”
The press generally reports this as meaning Trudeau would go for a coalition, but not as long as Mulcair leads the NDP.
That’s not exactly what he said.
The Liberal Leader expressed a measure of interest in the possibility of coalition, and merely added the qualification that he had some reservations about the NDP leader’s “style,” which he contrasted, unfavourably, with his own (one presumes more “youthful”) style.
It was quite obviously an unrehearsed, if somewhat confused, expression of Trudeau’s sincere view.
When he got to clarify his position the next day, however, Trudeau turned 180 degrees.
This time he had been carefully coached.
The Leader of the third party’s new position is that he is “unequivocally opposed” to any coalition, full stop.
In making it at all perfectly clear Trudeau added that he had erred, earlier, in answering a “hypothetical” question.
Of course, he actually answered that same hypothetical question the second time; he merely changed his answer.
However, in his second attempt to address the coalition hypothesis the Liberal leader did achieve at least a moment of pellucid lucidity when he said:
“I trust Canadians’ capacity to determine who will sit in their Parliament.”
Winning a plurality of seats does not mean a party can govern
We Canadians do not directly elect a government. We elect a parliament, and whichever party and leader can command the confidence of Parliament gets to govern.
Those who wring their hands at the prospect of the Harper Conservatives winning a plurality of seats next election should take a deep breath and calm down.
In such a circumstance, Prime Minister Harper would, yes, have the first crack at forming a government. But the combined opposition forces could make it clear to their voters and to the Governor General, from day one, that they would never, ever, under any circumstances, vote confidence in the Conservatives.
If the opposition parties were then to come to some sort of agreement — either a coalition or an agreed-to legislative program — they would have a strong case to take to the Governor General.
Trudeau is bang-on when he says, in essence, that the Parliament Canadians elect reflects the popular will.
The expression of the popular will, next time, could dictate either a formal coalition among the current opposition parties, or some sort of explicit agreement for one party to pursue an agenda that a majority of Members of Parliament could support.
The latter scenario is what happened in Ontario in 1985.
In the election of that year, the Conservatives under Frank Miller had won the largest number of seats, a plurality but not a majority.
David Peterson’s Liberals were a close second and the NDP led by Bob Rae a respectable third.
Miller could not get Rae’s NDP to agree to prop up his party. Peterson could, and so his Liberals took over, with explicit NDP support — and, of course, the blessing of Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor.
What happened in Ontario 30 years ago is a possible scenario after the next federal election.
If the Conservatives have the largest number of seats but are quite far from a majority, the second place party — whether the NDP or the Liberals — could govern as a minority, with the explicit support of the third place party.
Or, the opposition parties could go further and agree to share power.
That would be a coalition government, with a program agreed to by all participating parties, and with MPs from all parties occupying cabinet seats, committee chairs and parliamentary secretary posts.
Such an outcome would be a refreshing change for Canadian democracy, which has grown stale as a result of our system of periodically elected, one-party quasi-dictatorships.
Canadians may be tiring of one-party rule
When the Liberals were the one-party, in the 1990s and the early 2000s, they became smug and arrogant.
Liberal leaders too easily came to identify the interests of the country with the interests of the Party.
Thus, we got the sponsorship scandal.
That nasty business, do not forget, arose out of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s legitimate concern with the dangerous rise of separatist sentiment in Quebec.
After the near death experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Chrétien believed he had to do something to burnish the federal government’s image in his home province.
One of his ideas was for the federal government to seek opportunities to sponsor community events in Quebec.
That seemingly benign plan turned into a glowing opportunity for a number of Party officials to feather their own and their Party’s nests.
As for the current Harper Conservative regime: its penchant for secrecy, arrogance, hyper-partisanship and indifference to evidence is all too well known.
We have discussed at other times, in this space, how Prime Minister Harper often seems — not entirely unlike the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin — to consider himself to be almost exclusively the leader of his Party rather than the country.
The Conservative leader has turned his Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) into a nest of partisan Party apparatchiks, all well paid by the taxpayers. (See under: “Duffy affair, and the PMO’s involvement.”)
A lot of Canadians might be weary of electing serial dictatorships, especially given the fact that our first-past-the-post system normally gives one party the majority of seats without anything near a majority of votes. Harper’s 39 per cent of the popular vote last time was far from exceptional.
Many Canadians might now believe it would be healthy for our struggling democracy if we got an election result that did not dictate a winner-take-all government — and who could blame them?
Trudeau seemed to sense that truth when he said he “trusted Canadians” (for which they are, no doubt, truly grateful) to select their Parliament.
But it makes no sense for Trudeau to rule out any possible post-election options even before a single vote has been cast.
Photo: flickr/Alex Guibord