Note to coalition: Just because you CAN replace the government doesn't mean you SHOULD replace the government

By Harold Jansen on Dec 1, 2008

Wow: events on Parliament Hill are developing quickly as Canada enters almost uncharted waters: the Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc have signed a deal on a proposed coalition. Given how coalition governments are foreign to Canadian political tradition, it's a remarkable thing to see this come about in such short order. I'm surprised to see this. I knew the opposition parties would be galvanized by the end of the vote subsidy, but I thought once the Conservatives withdrew it, they would relent. I was wrong. The Conservative move started a series of events in motion that have created a momentum of its own.

As I argued yesterday, I don't see anything constitutionally improper about the Governor-General asking M. Dion to form a government if the Conservatives are defeated on a non-confidence motion in the House. It's well within her rights to do so. (Incidentally, Roger Gibbins suggests an interesting third option to Michaelle Jean: say no to both an election and to the new coalition).

Now that the move is both politically and constitutionally possible, it's time for the parties involved to take a deep breath and ask if this is really something they want to do. There's a significant downside for both the Liberals and the NDP. For the Liberals, the problem is that their leader is someone who was repudiated by voters and who enjoys little support in his caucus. The internal leadership politics of the party are going to complicate matters tremendously. Will a coalition survive the ascendacy of Michael Ignatieff (or, less likely, Bob Rae) to the Prime Ministership? The Liberals will likely once again get consumed with government and neglect the badly-needed task of party renewal. Although the NDP gets to have federal cabinet posts, something that's never happened before, there's a downside to this. As my colleague, Peter McCormick, reminded me, the record of what happens to an NDP government when propping up a Liberal goverment is not encouraging: usually, they get wiped out. A lot has made of the 1985 Ontario example where a Liberal minority displaced a Conservative minority because it had the support of the NDP. The NDP should fast forward two years to 1987 when David Peterson and the Liberals slaughtered both the NDP and the Conservatives. Look at 1974 federally: the same thing happened. Historically, Liberal-NDP deals haven't worked out well for the NDP.

Finally, the optics of this are terrible. Whatever might be said about the constitutional propriety of what they're doing, most Canadians don't understand the political nuances of constitutional monarchy and the Parliamentary system. This will look bad. What will be particularly appalling to many is that the Liberals and NDP are going to need the BQ's support to stay in power. It's not hard to see what the Conservatives will say: the Liberals' lust for power is so great they'll streak a Faustian bargain with the Bloc to regain power.

My recommendation is for the Liberals and NDP to back away slowly. Reach out to the Conservatives and get a compromise on the economic plan. Find something you can all live with. The events of the last few days have established an alternative to the Conservatives that can force the government to live up to the short-lived promise of civility and respect in the House. For the last two years, the Conservatives have had an effective majority; they now have been reduced a minority government in practice as well and have to work with the opposition. That's a huge gain for the opposition and a reassertion of Parliament's authority. Be happy with that and let's get on with things.

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