Harper has used three points in his (and his party's) framing of the biggest threat to a Conservative minority government after the next election.
Harper Frame 1: Losers don't get to govern
First, he has picked up on the framing used in Britain after the hung parliament was elected, that a coalition between the Labour Party and the Liberal-Democrats would be a "coalition of losers", and – in typical Harper fashion – put a false twist on the parliamentary convention by claiming that winners get to govern, and not losers:
Preaching from the British Prime Minister's residence, Harper emphatically stated: "The verdict of public opinion was pretty clear. Losers don't get to form coalitions. Winners are the ones who form governments."
This distortion of our parliamentary conventions by our prime minister (ironically in London, the seat of the Mother of all parliaments), is false, inaccurate, and malicious, as Eric Mang points out:
Cameron didn't get first dibs on forming a coalition and, unlike Harper claims, did not "win" the election. Labour leader Gordon Brown could have hammered something out with the Lib Dems, would have needed the support from a few other parties who had a handful of MPs elected, and stayed on as PM. But Clegg and Cameron were able to come to an agreement and didn't need the support of other parties such as the Democratic Unionist Party (8 seats) or the Scottish National Party (6 seats). I'm aware that what transpired was more complex and nuanced than this, but Harper purposely dismisses how the coalition was actually achieved.
Coalitions, which have been formed in legislatures across Canada, are critical to our Westminster system. I've quoted this illuminating passage from Eugene Forsey's "How Canadians Govern Themselves" frequently, but here it is again: "If a cabinet is defeated in the House of Commons on a motion of censure or want of confidence, the cabinet must either resign (the Governor General will then ask the leader of the Opposition to form a new cabinet) or ask for a dissolution of Parliament and a fresh election."
The Conservatives could, especially in a minority position, lose confidence of the House and the NDP and Liberals could form a coalition. Harper knows this and sees it as an ever-looming threat.
But by misleading Canadians, by questioning the legitimacy of a coalition government, Harper hopes to staunch any notions of a coalition by having it savaged in the court of public opinion.
Harper is wrong to deliberately distort the way our parliament works – either he is doing this out of ignorance (in which case his government lawyers should be fired for dereliction of duty in not advising the prime minister of what our conventions are), or deliberately, in order to mislead Canadians about how their parliament functions.
He should be called to account for spreading such false descriptions of our parliament's method of operations. It is not appropriate for a prime minister of Canada to mislead the public – we have had recent example of that, and it should be a lesson to all public officials, and especially to all prime ministers.
Ignatieff has tackled this "losers don't get to govern" framing head on in his latest statement on coalition governments in our democracy:
In his first extensive comments on the issue, Ignatieff said he has no problem with the principle of coalition governments.
"Co-operation between parties to produce political and electoral stability is not illegitimate. It's never been illegitimate, it's part of our system," he said, noting that coalitions have been formed in parliamentary democracies around the globe.
Harper Frame 2: The Devil Bloc
Secondly, Harper has deliberately distorted the record by saying that the LPC-NDP coalition agreement struck under Dion was a coalition involving the Bloc, separatists intent on breaking up the country. There was no such three party coalition, and for PM Harper to continue to deliberately mislead Canadians about this fact is inappropriate in a prime minister. A separate accord was entered into with the Bloc, under which the Bloc agreed to support the LPC-NDP coalition government in confidence votes for a period of 18 months.
Then, referring to the Three Stooges coalition that resulted in the Canadian parliamentary crisis of 2008, Harper went on: "This coalition in Britain doesn't include a party dedicated to the breakup of the country. And these were the two problems in Canada. The proposition by my opposition was to form a coalition for the purpose of excluding the party that won the election, and for the purpose of including the party dedicated to the breakup of the country."
Ignatieff has also addressed the involvement of Bloc MPs in supporting minority governments (as the Bloc has done with the Tory minority government):
For instance, while Liberals and Bloquistes can work together on some issues, Ignatieff said the fact that the Bloc is dedicated to the break-up of Canada "sets limits to what you can do" with the party. That suggests he might balk at a coalition that required the Bloc's support, such as Dion's 2008 deal.
Harper Frame 3: Liberal coalition switcheroo
The third framing of the issue by the Tories is a more difficult one to confront. It is to accuse the Liberals of trying to dupe the voters by deliberately not talking about coalitions until after the election, but then springing it on the public. The essence of this attack is to impute deceipt to the Liberals (pretty rich when we consider the deceptive and inappropriate statements by our current prime minister on this issue). This line of attack is to point out that the failure of the Liberals to discuss cooperative agreements with the NDP before an election while saying that it is an issue to be addressed only after the election in essence amounts to asking voters to give the Liberals a blank cheque when they vote, because after the election the Liberals plan on getting together with the NDP and the Bloc to form a cooperative group.
There is some merit in this attack by the Tories. Clegg in the UK spoke before the election about certain bottom line positions which the Liberal Democrats would need to be met after the election if either the Tories or Labour wanted to talk coalition because of a hung parliament.
Coming out before the election with a statement of basic principles, in some detail, of what the Liberal Party of Canada would require in a collaberative governing agreement should the need arise, is the most effective way in my view of blunting this attack. Without a plausible response to this line of Tory framing will allow the Tories to cloud the issue, demonize the LPC by pretending that voters are being faced with the old switcheroo, and pretending that the Tories are above all this (because their position on how they will govern if, as is likely based on the polls for the past year or so, they are returned to power as a minority government, has not been aggressively explored by either the media or the three opposition parties - in essence, they are being given a free ride on this issue by lazy journalists).
Majority view of Liberals on strategic candidate support
However, in his statement, Ignatieff put forward a position for the Liberal Party which is clearly not reflective of the majority of Liberal voters, as evidenced by the latest Angus Reid poll. Ignatieff had this to say on the issue of Strategic Candidate Support agreements (or election ceasefire, as Professor Byers puts it):
He was equally dismissive of any non-compete agreement with the NDP.
In the 2008 election, Dion and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May struck a limited non-aggression pact in which each party agreed not to run a candidate against the other's leader. May did not win her seat and Dion, although he won his own seat, led his party to its worst electoral showing in history.
"Look how well that went," Ignatieff commented wryly.
He said such non-aggression deals are a betrayal of grassroots activists, many of whom have slaved for decades to promote their respective parties.
"These parties, they're not the playthings of party leaders. They are traditions, they are lives and they're identities and they're loyalties."
Furthermore, he said such deals are "a form of disrespect to voters" who deserve the chance to vote Liberal in each of the country's 308 ridings.
According to the latest Angus Reid poll, a majority of Liberal supporters are in favour of such a Strategic Candidate Support agreement by the Liberal Party with the NDP:
When the results are compared to voting intent, "merging" the Liberals and NDP is supported by a majority of Liberals (54 per cent), materially more popular than among NDP supporters (40 per cent support) (to put this number in perspective, when Angus Reid last asked about such a scenario in October of 2009, they got 43 per cent of Liberals in favour, and 50 per cent opposed); an even larger majority of Liberals (57 per cent) are in favour of "strategic candidate support" between the NDP and Liberals (compared to 44 per cent support amongst NDP supporters). Both parties are equally enthusiastic about a "shared power" scenario (72 per cent LIB, 70 per cent NDP).
So, 57% of Liberals support a strategic candidate support posture by the LPC and the NDP in the coming election.
This shows that such strategic voting agreements are not, as Ignatieff put it, a form of disrespect for voters.
At least not in the eyes of the majority of Liberals.
Future polls on strategic candidate support
We will have to wait for the next set of polls by Angus Reid (and hopefully other pollsters, once they realize that the public wants this kind of information far more than the blah-blah-blah 'so many will vote CPC so many will vote LPC' type of results most pollsters seem to revel in.
The Cat's bet is that the Angus Reid findings about the majority views of Liberals on a strategic candidate support thrust before an election will be confirmed by future polls.
In which case our Liberal leadership and MPs should reconsider this aspect of Liberal strategy as well. If most Liberals favour a strategy which results in the Tory government being turfed out, the Liberals returned to power in a power sharing arrangemen with the NDP, and the country governed for the next 3 to 5 years on an agreed progressive set of policies, then our leadership classes should get in line. Their job is to make it happen: get rid of this right wing, narrow minded, undemocratic Tory government and replace it with something that will govern the country in a much better way for ordinary Canadians.