Canada’s Coalition Chaos

Canada’s Coalition Chaos

After three years of exploiting a divided left, Canada’s Conservative prime minister is fighting for his political life. A progressive proposal to establish a coalition government has sparked a historic battle for public opinion.


Canada is a country founded on principles of “peace, order and good government.” Lately, it has seemed to possess none of the above. In the two months since Canadians re-elected the Conservative Party to power in a federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dramatically misinterpreted his mandate to govern. After three years of exploiting an enfeebled opposition, he now finds himself fighting for his political life.

On December 1, Canada’s three opposition parties presented a plan to topple Harper’s minority government at a press conference in Ottawa. The leaders of the center-left Liberal Party, the social democratic New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Québécois publicly signed a coalition accord and informed Governor-General Michaëlle Jean that their parties have lost confidence in the Conservatives’ capacity to govern. Harper is now struggling to fend off the opposition’s bid to form a Liberal-New Democrat coalition government with the support of the Bloc caucus.

Harper has only himself to blame for his current predicament. The Conservatives were re-elected in October with a mandate to stabilize the country’s increasingly vulnerable economy, but returned to Parliament without a stimulus package. Instead, they unveiled a series of vehemently partisan proposals. These included a two-year ban on strikes by public-service unions and a plan to eliminate public subsidies for political parties, a cut that would disproportionately affect their parliamentary rivals. Faced with the prospect of functional bankruptcy, the opposition parties “realized that there was no way work to work with Harper, that he was bent on their destruction,” says Richard Mahoney, former president of the Ontario Liberal Party and a longtime Liberal strategist.

Just as Harper has been flummoxed by the forcefulness of the opposition’s response, the Canadian public has been taken aback by the chaos engulfing its normally steady political system. Rarely has a government failed to win the confidence of Parliament so soon after an election, or faced such a bold alternative to replace it. The country has not had a coalition government on the federal level since 1917, during the dislocations of World War I.

But the concept of coalition government has gained increasing currency in progressive circles in recent years. Despite sharp divisions between the Conservatives and the opposition parties on subjects like the environment, aboriginal issues and the economy, excessive partisanship on the center-left has allowed Harper to impose his agenda on Parliament. In an indication of the progressive momentum generated by the current multiparty alliance, Canada’s largest union federation, the Canadian Labour Congress, has launched a radio ad campaign promoting pro-coalition rallies all across the country. Their message is clear: Harper has failed to make Parliament work or address the country’s economic needs.

Armed with a well-funded political machine, Harper is pulling no punches in his efforts to discredit his progressive challengers. Speaking before the House of Commons on December 2, he accused the Liberals and New Democrats of a “betrayal of the best interests of our country” for proposing to govern with the support of the Bloc Québécois, a progressive party that advocates for Quebec’s sovereignty. While this strategy plays well with Harper’s base in Western Canada, “pitting one region of Canada against the next is a dangerous thing,” notes Jodi White, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum and former chief of staff to Conservative Prime Minister Kim Campbell. “There’s a great deal of concern that [the government] is playing politics with the danger of separatism.”

A more fruitful strategy has been to tap into Canadians’ confusion over the arcane, often counterintuitive underpinnings of their political system. “The fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy is that the government must command the support of the House of Commons, but I think many Canadians do not have a clear understanding of how this works,” says David Smith, a constitutional scholar at the University of Saskatchewan. “To the degree that it does impinge on [popular] consciousness, it seems that the guys who lost the election are now going to form a government.” In their public statements over the past two weeks, Harper and his allies have done little to disabuse the public of this notion.

But “the biggest challenge to the coalition ultimately isn’t the question of its legitimacy, it is our leadership issue,” says Richard Mahoney. A national poll released on December 2 suggested that a slim majority of Canadians supported the proposed coalition, but an even larger number said they would be uncomfortable with Liberal leader Stephane Dion as prime minister. In an effort to bridge this enthusiasm gap, the Liberal Party expedited the process of replacing Dion, who had already been slated to step down next spring. Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff, a widely-known public intellectual, has now been installed as the party’s interim leader.

Ignatieff has summed up his position on the progressive alliance as “[a] coalition if necessary, but not necessarily [a] coalition.” His hesitation to unequivocally endorse the proposal may reflect public opinion polls indicating that support for the coalition is waning. This has been particularly pronounced since December 4, when Harper postponed a vote of confidence on his government by convincing Canada’s governor-general to “prorogue,” or shut down, Parliament until the end of January.

The need for progressive unity is still great. Harper continues to admit no errors in judgment and has not proposed any new economic measures. At a time of rising unemployment across Canada, he seems, as New Democrat leader Jack Layton put it, “more interested in his job than protecting your job.” Even if the opposition alliance backs down from its plans to topple the government, it can still use the threat of a coalition to gain important concessions when the Conservatives return with a new budget on January 26. In the meantime, the battle for public opinion continues.

“These last few weeks will have a fairly long reach in terms of their influence on Canadian politics,” predicts David Smith. The current progressive alliance may well augur a growing–and necessary–unification of the Canadian left in response to the Conservative Party’s resurgence over the past three years. The confidence votes and coalitions that may lie ahead would serve as a fascinating window into the strengths and weaknesses of Canada’s parliamentary democracy. As Richard Mahoney puts it, “it’s a time when the basics of our system are going to be tested like never before.”

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