Lessons Lost?: Mantioba's Coalitions

By Jared Wesley on Dec 4, 2008

We've heard a lot about Canada's limited experience with coalition governments in the past week.  Engaged citizens today are as familiar as ever with the 1917 Union Government, the 1925-26 King-Byng Affair, and the Ontario episode in 1985.  One prominent example of Canadian coalition government has been lost in all of the talk, however.  And there are important lessons to be learned from it.

Before dismissing this entry as parochial musings of a political historian, consider the many parallels between the careers of two party leaders:  Stephen Harper and John Bracken, Manitoba's premier from 1922 to 1943.  Both men earned reputations as astute political tacticians, each orchestrating the creation of a new "fusion" party (Bracken, the Liberal-Progressives, and Harper, the Conservative Party of Canada).  Both men faced potentially catastrophic global crises - Bracken, the Great Depression and World War II, and Harper the most recent global recession.  And both men led legislatures deeply divided along partisan lines.  Yet, in terms of their responses and fortunes, the political lives of Bracken and Harper could not be more different.  The former governed Manitoba for over twenty years by reaching across party lines, while the latter has staked his political future on a high-stakes game of partisan chicken.

If it is not too late, Stephen Harper may have a lot to learn from John Bracken. I am not referring to Bracken's approach to the economy (although, according to critics, both men appear to share a common allegiance to crisis capitalism).   Crucially, Brackenism reflected a conscientious effort to strike a balance between: (1) change and stability; (2) left and right; and (3) partisan and pragmatic politics.  All three approaches would prove useful in today's House of Commons.

On the first count, Bracken faced significant, if often muted, opposition throughout his time in office.  Criticism ranged from suggestions that his party was moving too quickly, or too slowly, in addressing the challenges facing Manitoba society.  Bracken responded by charting a cautious,  "progressive-minded," middle course.  As Bracken said of his government's "progress" after fourteen years in power, "the measures presented have been many, they have been progressive in character without being radical and they have been carefully designed to meet the best interests of the Province as a whole."

Second, Bracken also positioned himself in the centre of the Manitoba political spectrum, promoting his programme as a ‘commonsense' solution to the ills of society.  While denigrating "social experiments of an unsound or costly nature," Bracken's pragmatic approach did not dismiss government enterprises out of hand.  "In this connection public ownership has its place and is to be encouraged whether it can serve the community better than private or co-operative enterprise."  This balanced approach reflected Bracken's search for the progressive centre.  According to late historian W.L. Morton, "It was not that the principle of private enterprise had been replaced by that of socialism; neither extreme of doctrine entered into the matter.  It was rather that government and people had formed a working partnership to conserve and develop the wealth of Manitoba's rugged natural heritage.  That partnership was the result of the easy and intimate union of a democratic people with a government they made their own in outlook and manner..."  It was a popular message, indeed.

And third, under Bracken, the Manitoba Liberal-Progressives treaded the middle ground between old-line Canadian party politics and the anti-partisanship of the early-twentieth century progressive movement.  Indeed, Bracken's monopoly of the progressive centre in Manitoba was facilitated, in large part, by his flexible approach to partisanship.   The premier promised a "non-partisan business administration rather than a political one" as a means of ending "party warfare" in favor of "a Government which will represent as far as possible the unprejudiced, non-partisan thought of the Province."  According to Bracken, "We are not here to play politics or to represent a single class, but to get down to the serious business of giving this province an efficient government, and in that task we will welcome all the cooperation offered to us from the opposite side of the House."

Over his two decades as premier, Bracken managed to fuse his own party to the Liberals, co-opt much of the Conservative Party, and create ‘crisis coalitions' during the Depression and World War II.  Such maneuvering allowed the government to cut a wide ideological path throughout much of the 1930s and 1940s, while sheltering the Liberal-Progressives from partisan attack.  In this sense, the term "non-partisan" is somewhat of a misnomer.   Bracken's approach was as much tactical as it was populist, reflecting his strategy to maintain power in a multi-party system during periods of intense political and economic crisis.

Through appeals like these to both elites and voters, Bracken maintained his "nonpartisan" coalition in the face of the Depression and in the midst of World War II - key turning points that had sparked changes in government throughout the rest of Canada.  Moreover, according to most statistics and most historians, Manitoba emerged from each of these crises in better economic and political shape relative to their neighbors.  That Bracken was able to contain not only the old-line Tory and Liberal parties, but both Social Credit and the ccf within his various coalitions - all in the same government from 1940 to 1943 - is as much a testament to the appeal of his non-partisan message, as his skills as a tactician. 

As the hours pass, it has become increasingly apparent:  none of the main players in the current political drama appear "built" for a crisis environment the way Bracken was.   Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.  Each cut his teeth in the bygone era of hyper-partisan, majority governments in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.  What Canada needs is another John Bracken.  It's not clear whether he or she will emerge before the House reconvenes in January.

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