Friday, June 04, 2010

Sloppy coalition talk

Here is one example of sloppy coalition talk (inexactness, lack of precision in the use of the correct terms, blurring different events into one through vagueness of articulation) from Scott Reid in the Globe & Mail:
Who would suggest the party should now sacrifice its identity in the face of an opponent who has three times proven unable to secure a majority mandate? A Prime Minister who has rarely been able to rally more than 34 per cent of public opinion to his side?

And here's another one, from Steve Janke in Angry in the Great White North:

For the NDP, a coalition with Michael Ignatieff's Liberals has no upside.
And here's one with a common misconception (belied by the latest Angus Reid poll which shows how many voters might support a merged LPC-NDP party – an extreme result unlikely to happen) – also from Angry in the Great White North:

I have to commend some elements of Wheeler's idea. In particular, he makes it clear that under no circumstances can this coalition be stealthily sprung on Canadians, but that the Liberals and the NDP must declare their intent to create such a coalition as a means of ignoring the results of a democratic election and constructing a win out of a loss. Honesty like that will be rewarded with Canadians casting votes for anyone other than the Liberal or NDP candidates in their ridings (for the simple reason that their respective party platforms are fictions to be rewritten after the election during coalition negotiations), but honesty is still a good thing, even if it hurts.

Let's be clear about the issues, about the framing by commentators and journalists who wish to harm the Liberals and the NDP and protect the Harper Tories from any meaningful threat to their minority government, and about the wide array of choices facing the Liberals and Dippers.

First, be exact in your language. There are many different types of cooperative arrangements which the LPC and NDP could enter into. They range from a full merger of the two parties to an ad hoc post-election legislation by legislation support of a minority Liberal government by the NDP (similar to the way Harper's minority government has governed for 4 years).

The (Unlikely) Full Merger Model:

The full merger model would indeed involve a change in identity of both the LPC and NDP, and a permanent change as well. It would require a melding together of the two parties into one party, with each party's supporters having to agree in advance on the exact terms of the merger, including items such as who would be leader and deputy leader of the resulting single party; what policies the single party would have; and how candidates would be selected to run when the next election came. The only feasible way to have such a full merger is to have it happen before an election, as it would take time and would need to be voted on by members of both parties after the single set of policies was hammered out. Although such a full merger model is theoretically possible, it is infeasible in today's political environment, and also is not necessary. To speak of possible cooperation arrangements as always implying or requiring such a full merger is sloppy thinking. Any such full merger would also have to be concluded before the next election, so that voters clearly have a choice between the new merged party, the Tories and the Bloc.

The Wishful Thinking Model (aka as The Ostrich Model):

As apparently advocated by Michael Ignatieff, the LPC and NDP could wait until after the next election. If the Tories gain the most seats but less than the 155 required for a majority (as most polls indicate will happen barring some unforeseeable event), Harper as prime minister has the right to seek the support of either the NDP, the Bloc or the LPC to vote confidence in his minority government, and to support him on individual pieces of legislation on a case by case basis.

If they do, the Tories will continue as the government.

If, however, none of the opposition parties supported the Tories in the first vote of confidence, then the Governor General would call on Ignatieff, as leader of the party with the next largest number of MPs, to attempt to form a government. Ignatieff might seek to govern as a minority government in exactly the same way as Harper is or would: on an ad hoc basis, for each confidence vote or legislation for as long as he can survive. This method (the minority government model) does not require any written agreement of support from any of the other three parties (Tories, Bloc or NDP).

The Cameron-Clegg Model:

If, however, Ignatieff wishes to provide a more stable minority government for the country, with the prospect of having some major policies pass in the House, then he would be entitled to seek some written agreement with either or both the NDP and Bloc. This agreement might mean NDP members in an LPC-NDP cabinet, but need not. The NDP could simply agree to support the minority Liberal government for an agreed period of years, provided certain agreed policies were implemented by the Liberal government. The NDP might bargain for the right to vote against certain legislation, provided this was not a confidence vote.

It is unlikely that the NDP would enter into such a written agreement without getting something in return. This something could range from participation in the government (seats in the Cabinet, deputy PM for Layton), as well as agreement by the Liberals to put forward and support certain policies dear to the NDP. Both parties could retain the right to vote against legislation tabled by the coalition government in the House, or campaign against referenda, but the deal, which would be for an agreed period, would require the NDP MPs to be whipped to support confidence votes in the government. This is the Cameron-Clegg model of coalition.

Note the following important points about a Cameron-Clegg model of coalition: both parties retain their identity (there is no no merger of two parties into one party); it is for an agreed period (5 years); it requires the new government pass legislation for proportional representation of the House but allows the Tory MPs to campaign against the referendum; it commits MPs from both parties to support the agreed upon policies, while allowing the MPs to oppose legislation not agreed upon and which does not constitute a confidence matter (generally, non-money legislation).

This Cameron-Clegg model is the most likely result of any cooperative talks between the LPC minority government and the NDP if Harper fails to gain the confidence of the House after the election.

The Cameron-Clegg model does not require the LPC and NDP to negotiate the terms of the cooperation before the election (although Clegg did indicate during the campaign what his bottom lines for support of the Labour or Tory parties might be).

However, expecting the Bloc to abstain from supporting the Harper minority government after the next election is unrealistic, unless the Bloc has good reasons for thinking that a minority Liberal government is better, or Harper has driven it to seek to throw the Tory government out of power (as it did once before); see my earlier post on this.

So it is most likely that the Bloc would support Harper on a case by case basis, leaving Harper to rule as a minority government Prime Minister, while the NDP and Liberals rage, rage, rage against the dying of their hopes, but to no avail.

The most realistic way to change the unstable minority government situation we now have and face, is to do what is needed to remove the Tories from power and replace them with a government committed to a centre-left (or progressive) platform.

And the way to do that is for the LPC and NDP to negotiate a Cameron-Clegg model of coalition (both parties continue; shared cabinet posts; agreed set of major initiatives) before any election. Such an agreement could include an election ceasefire as advocated by Professor Byers (the most realistic student of realpolitiek of all academics commenting on our atomized political system), but does not require such an electoral ceasefire (in fact, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition does not have a ceasefire included).

The ceasefire might cover all ridings not currently occupied by an MP from the LPC or NDP, or selected ones (but enough to give a fighting chance of a majority).

Including such a ceasefire might well result in a majority (155 plus) of seats for the LPC-NDP government, which would remove the need to have Bloc ad hoc support in confidence motions. 

The agreement would last for one parliamentary session, after which both parties would – if either party so wished – revert to fielding a full slate of candidates in each of our 308 ridings.

What would the LPC and NDP gain from such a pre-election electoral pact?

For one thing, voters would have a clear choice going into the election, denying Harper the ability to distort our constitutional law by talking loosely about coalitions of losers.

Also, both the NDP and LPC would have hammered out an agreed set of programs which the new government would implement. Just check the coalition agreement between the Tories and Liberal Democrats for some indication of how extensive such a program might be.

And we can be pretty sure that the agreed upon program will be far better for Canada than the policies of the Harper government.

The major reason for entering into such a pre-election Cameron-Clegg model would be to set before the Bloc the alternative they will face come the the first confidence vote on the Harper minority government. This will substantially lessen the chances of the Bloc supporting Harper's minority government rather than the LPC-NDP government.

For one thing, it is highly unlikely that the LPC will be able to move fast enough after an election to hammer out an agreed set of programs with the NDP, given the LPC's record so far of glacial response to political challenges, and to the need to actually agree on some policies to present to the voters.

So, realistically, Harper will be our prime minister for the next decade unless the LPC and NDP start talking now about the shape of a Cameron-Clegg model of coalition, and an electoral ceasefire for the next election.

Is it feasible? If the latest Angus Reid poll shows a good chance of a government change with a full merger model of the LPC and NDP, imagine how many more would support a Cameron-Clegg model which retained the separate identities of the two parties, spelled out what the common program would be, also spelled out the policies of each party which would not require all LPC and NDP MPs to vote in favour of, and was for an agreed period.

What is needed to bring about a Cameron-Clegg model of electoral and governance cooperation between the LPC and NDP?

These steps:

Make sure the language used (framing) regarding the exact nature of the cooperative pact (or partnership, as Bob Rae describes his deal when he threw out the Conservative government of Ontario) is clear.

Do not let the Tory spinners muddy the waters with inexact language and framing (starting with Harper's regretable mistatements of our constitutional rights, which is surely inappropriate for a prime minister of Canada).

Start working on the major elements of a common program, by going through the NDP policies (check their website) and the 2009 policies in the LPC website, and finding those major issues where both parties – and the country – would benefit from positive steps to implement them in the next five years.

And keep the discussion of alternatives to our current stalemate (a collective pox on all your houses voiced by voters) alive and well.

For my part, I would recommend a commitment in the common program to immediate electoral reform (using transferable votes in each province to make sure each MP is elected by choices of at least half of the voters casting votes) – the deal Cameron cut with Clegg – followed by a quick study of a mixed proportional representation method to be submitted to a referendum, and to apply in every province where a majority of voters support it.


  1. "What is needed to bring about a Cameron-Clegg model"
    1. Ignatieff has to win a minority government
    2. now Libs don't need

  2. Unless something changes dramatically, I fully expect Harper to achieve a majority next time around. You've not done your post the justice it deserves to leave out that possibility.

  3. Fat chance, Anon. Harper has a granite ceiling - every time he gets up to it, enough Canadians seem to get concerned and his support drops off. Too many Canadians just do not agree with the direction his government is taking the country - poll after poll shows this. The huge mass of citizens on the left of the Harper Tories wants something better for their country, and it ain't Harper's team.

  4. Wilson, most polls show the Tories as the likeliest party to win the most seats, but not enough to put them into majority territory of 155 plus. But if the Bloc and LPC and NDP do not vote confidence in the Tories, then it will be the LPC's turn (Ignatieff's, to be legally correct) to form a government which enjoys the confidence of the House. But for that to happen, the Bloc must not vote confidence in Harper. So far the Bloc has said it will support Harper or Ignatieff or Layton - whoever gets first crack at being the government - on a case by case basis if it thinks the budget or legislation is in the interest of Quebec. This is tantamount to Duceppe announcing before the election his unilateral decision to form an ad hoc unwritten case by case coalition with Harper (how else would you characterize his clear statements?).

    So we go into the next election with a unilateral declaration of coalition support from the Bloc (separatists) to Harper...

    Unless the LPC and NDP give the Bloc something to chew on and make them take this pre-election unilateral declaration of support off the table. Only a clear set of progressive principles that would govern a replacement government will do this.

    Hence the need to have pre-election talks and negotiations between the LPC and NDP. To think otherwise is to assume that Duceppe's unilateral declarations of support for Harper are meaningless, something I would not believe one should ever do with any statement by Duceppe.


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