Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Coalition or no coalition? What will happen on October 20 & the need for a short leash

The Mulcair or Trudeau Short Leash

Polls show the Conservatives slipping, and the NDP and LPC in a dead heat for the role of replacement government, but neither of those two parties expected to gain a majority of seats in the House (170 seats).

And this has given rise to intense debate about coalitions.

Trudeau is right in one sense when he scoffed at Canadians wanting a coalition government, as reported in Huffington Post:

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says Canadians don't want a coalition if a party wins a minority government after the election.

Trudeau was in Amherst, N.S., on Tuesday, where he was asked whether he would entertain the idea of forming a coalition government after Oct. 19.

"We will always be open to working with others,'' Trudeau said.
"But the fact is Canadians aren't interested in formal coalitions. Canadians want a clear government with a strong plan and come Oct. 19, that's exactly what they're going to get if they vote for the Liberal party.''

We do not have a long history of formal coalition governments; you can count them on one hand.

But Trudeau is dead wrong if he thinks either the NDP or the LPC can escape the wrath of Canadian voters (and leaders of those parties the wrath of their party members), if, for any reason, Harper does not win a majority of seats in the House (170 seats), and those two parties do not forthwith end any attempt he might make to continue as prime minister with a minority government.

If Harper does not honour his promise to step down on October 19 if his party does not win the most seats of the three major parties in the election, then you can bet any amount you want to that the pressure on Trudeau and Mulcair to vote no confidence in the Harper minority government at the first opportunity, will be intense.

And neither man will dare to resist that pressure, because that would be the end of his career, and most likely the end of his party as a significant force in our Parliament. The huge numbers of voters who have in poll over poll indicated that they want a change of government on October 20 bears this out. If either Trudeau or Mulcair think they can disregard this clear intention of the bulk of voters, they are deluded.

What really will happen on October 20?

The best way to describe what will take place is to set out a series of questions, with my answers, and my explanations.

Q1:      Will the Harper government be replaced as the government of Canada on or after October 20?
A:        Yes.

Why?  Candidates from both the NDP and LPC are being elected to Parliament to make this happen. Any NDP or LPC MP who thinks this is not the most important reason he or she is being elected, would have to be a total idiot.

Q2:      Will this require a formal coalition agreement between the NDP and LPC to be negotiated and entered into?
A:        No.

Why?  A coalition government is one in which MPs from the two parties signing the coalition agreement jointly form a government, and the cabinet has MPs from both parties. The coalition agreement sets out the main issues that the two parties will support legislation in the House to enact, while the parties retain the right to vote as they wish on all other issues. The coalition agreement usually has a set term. The coalition agreement between the Conservatives in the UK and the LibDems is a good example. But cooperation between two parties in the House does not require a formal coalition agreement. It can be achieved in two other ways, described below (accord, and case by case).

Q3:      Will this require a non-coalition written agreement to be entered into between the NDP and LPC?
A:        No.

Why?  Both the NDP and the LPC can vote against the minority Harper government in the very first confidence vote, being the Throne Speech. They do not have to enter into any agreement to do so before that vote. If Harper does not gain the confidence of the House (170 MPs) for his minority government, he will visit the Governor General, who will decide on the next step.

Q4:      Will the leaders of the NDP and LPC have to work together to present a case to the Governor General that whichever of these two parties has gained the most votes, be given the chance to attempt to form a government that has the confidence of 170 MPs?
A:        No.


If Harper steps down as Prime Minister if his party does not win the most seats of the three parties; there will then be no need for the LPC and NDP to work together to do anything. Harper will visit the Governor General to advise him of his decision to step down. During his visit, the Governor General will most probably ask Harper who should try to gain the confidence of the House as prime minister. Given Harper’s statement to Mansbridge, Harper would advise the Governor General to ask either Mulcair or Trudeau (whichever one has the most MPs) to try gain the confidence of 170 MPs in the House. However, the Governor General is not obliged to accept any advice from Harper, nor is be obliged to ask the leader of the party with the largest number of MPs to try to form a government that has the confidence of the House. In exceptional cases he could choose someone else; however, convention would require him to choose the leader with the most MPs to take the first crack at forming such a government. I cannot think of any circumstances currently that would be so exceptional that the Governor General would not comply with our conventions.

If Harper has the Throne Speech, and fails to win 170 MPs confidence in the House, then Harper will visit the Governor General to advise him of the result. Harper may request the Governor General to call a fresh election, but given that the Throne Speech will take place within 6 months of the election, our conventions would require the Governor General to refuse this request, and to ask the leader of another party to try to form a government that has the confidence of the House (170 MPs).  Absent exceptional circumstances, this will be the leader of the party with the most seats in the House.

Q5:      Will the leader of the NDP or of the LPC chosen by the Governor General to try to form a government, need any written or unwritten accord or agreement with the other party or with the Conservatives, in order to form a government?
 A:       No.


That party leader may try to govern as a minority government, and try to gain the confidence of the House (170 MPs) in a Throne Speech, for other financial measures that amount to confidence votes (such as a budget), and simple approval of all other legislation tabled by the government.

The other two parties would consider every such vote on a case by case basis. This is what Trudeau is offering to do if he does not win the most seats of the three parties.

This is exactly what happened when Jack Layton supported Harper to vote out the Martin government. And what happened when Michael Ignatieff turned his back on his signature of the 2008 written accord entered into between the NDP and LPC, and thereafter voted in favour of Harper’s government in a large number of confidence votes.

Why is a short leash needed?

If there is no written agreement between the LPC or NDP that sets out what measures the parties will support the other in a confidence vote, then whichever party becomes the minority government to replace the Harper government, will have to obtain agreement on a case by case basis from the other two parties if it wants to survive confidence votes.

This is a short leash. The minority government will need support from either of the other two parties, or be voted out of power, leading to another election.

If either the NDP or LPC do vote non-confidence in the other party without very clearly defensible reasons, that voters will understand and accept, then the party voting out the minority government will face the wrath of the voters at the resulting election. If the decision to sink the minority government does not make sense to enough voters, we could expect voters to move en masse to support the minority government in the new election, to make sure that it gets a majority of seats in the house (170 plus).

However, the threat of the short leash will also play a role in keeping the minority NDP or LPC government in check. It will take a brave man to ignore the other party when deciding on its budget and other confidence measures.

In my view, the main reason for any formal accord or case by case support, is to gain enough time for our electoral system to be reformed, so that the first past the post system is scrapped.

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