Are coalitions Canada’s future?

'Folky' shirt and amuses bouches

With consolidation having gone as far as it can on the right, and with continuing weakness within the Liberal Party, Canada doesn’t seem likely to see an end to minority governments soon. In other states where majorities are rare, the most common governing dynamic seems to be that of coalitions, such as you see in Germany and elsewhere. As such, I find it a bit odd that Canadian political parties have been so vociferously opposed to them, with both Harper and Ignatieff renouncing and denouncing them. The alternatives before us seem to be independent minority governments constantly making ad hoc deals to avoid no confidence votes or more durable alliances between major and minor parties. The latter option seems rather more politically mature, even if it will involve changes in how governance in Canada is carried out.

On a separate but related note, the Canadian political process is an exceedingly blunt instrument. Our elections only make it possible to convey a tiny amount of data – which candidate in your riding you prefer – and extrapolate from that the composition of parliament, the selection of the prime minister, and all sorts of assumptions about what Canadians want and what they have rejected. Opinion polls do provide some guidance, though they are not always well designed or interpreted, and they can be easy to manipulate by crafting questions strategically.

While Stephane Dion had some good and genuinely progressive ideas – most notably, shifting taxation from income towards greenhouse gas emissions – there isn’t much inspiring stuff in the current platforms of any of the parties. Given that, perhaps even a coalition government would simply continue to muddle along with some changes in tone, but few in substance. Perhaps if the Liberals showed a bit of courage and took a position on a big issue such as the deficit, an election would be a more meaningful prospect. For instance, given that the deficit is largely the result of the stimulus that was supposedly required to correct for the explosion of the markets, it would seem sensible that corporations should carry most of the burden of paying it off.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

36 thoughts on “Are coalitions Canada’s future?”

  1. I love minority governments, if only because it lets me watch Big Tough Politicians occasionally throw themselves at the mercy of an opposition party or two.

    It also makes me feel better about the possibility of one giant majority government completely fucking things up for four years and having to make the next government spend most of their time undoing all the mistakes. What a giant waste of time.

    Finally, it makes government unusually sensitive to public opinion, and sometimes also unusually responsive.

  2. I actually think that they are a bit doomed to failure, actually. In Canada, at least. Eventually everything would become partisan and ugly. I would choose a minority over a coalition anyday, although when the minority is as ridiculous as the one we have, I understand why a coalition looks like a sexy alternative.

  3. I don’t think we can have stable coalitions in Canada while we still have first-past the post elections. Even if the distribution is now similar to a proportional representation system, the possibility of winning a majority keeps politics partisan and ugly. If a few percentage points in the polls only translated into a few percentage points more seats in the legislatures, politicians would cool-the-frick-down on petty issues, and work together to get things done.

  4. For instance, given that the deficit is largely the result of the stimulus that was supposedly required to correct for the explosion of the markets, it would seem sensible that corporations should carry most of the burden of paying it off.

    Arguably, consumers were also a major cause of the financial crisis, by saving too little and taking on too much debt.

    You could justify raising their taxes to pay off the deficit, also.

    That being said, the financial crisis was mostly caused by things outside Canada: structured mortgage securities and low interest rates in the US, as well as trade imbalances between the US and major exporters.

  5. Do you think the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords show that the Canadian constitution can never really be amended?

    Such a change would almost certainly be necessary to more to a PR parliament.

  6. This is not democracy

    The idea of representative democracy is simple. Citizens elect their representatives. The majority win the right to make decisions. Or as Ernest Naville wrote in 1865: “In a democratic government, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.”

    Does Canada actually have representative democracy? In the 2008 federal election:

    * 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.

    * In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.

    * Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.

    * New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

    What about majority rule? Canadians are usually ruled by majority governments that the majority voted against. In some provincial elections, parties coming in second in the popular vote have won majority control of the legislature.

  7. “Do you think the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords show that the Canadian constitution can never really be amended?”

    No? What about the amendment to the Constitution that happened only a few years before that?

    Also, either of those accords could have gone through.

    Also, PR would not affect the provinces so much, so it might be easier to get their approval.

  8. I don’t know how easy it would be to get the province’s approvals.

    During the last Ontario provincial election in 2007, there was also a referendum question on adopting the MMP system (a proportional system) , including elections ontario giving both sides (no to MMP vs. yes to MMP) monies to advertise, etc.

    It is no surprise that MMP lost big time, mainly because of the FUD spread by the anti-MMP side and equally a bad job educating the public about MMP by the yes side as well. 63% against MMP to 37% For MMP.

    BC has also had 2 similar referendums for the STV system that also failed. (Sure the 2005 referendum actually “won” and got 58% in favour, just short of the 60% needed to take effect, but the revote in 2009 resulted in only 39% in favour, a substantial drop).

    I would say if Canada’s two most left leaning provinces can’t support a proportional system, then it would be tough to get others on board.

  9. Minorities are unstable in Canada, and coalitions almost impossible, because our winner-take-all voting system pushes parties towards forcing the next election. As few as 38% of the votes will get you a “majority” government and unbridled power for the next four or five years.

    Proportional representation forces politicians and political parties to share power. That’s why they hate it, and that’s why they sabotaged reform efforts in the provinces.

  10. Can’t conflate the provinces with their populations- what matters is how pr Federally would affect the interests of the provincial parties.

  11. I think federal PR would have a big effect on the provinces, by changing the overall political dynamic in Canada.

    Right now, there are huge regional disparities when it comes to federal representation. For instance, the strength of the bloc in Quebec, the weakness of the Tories in major cities, and their overall strength in the west.

    With PR, there would be a lot more diversity.

  12. Fair Vote Canada presents this David Letterman-style list of electoral low points in recent decades. We begin with number ten and work our way down to number one.

    10) In the 1990s, Canada ranks 109th among 163 nations in voter turnout, slightly behind Lebanon, in a dead heat with Benin, and just ahead of Fiji.

    9) In 1984, the Progressive Conservatives win 50% of the votes but gain nearly 75% of the seats, close to an all-time record for the largest percentage of unearned seats in any federal election.

    8) In 2004, more than 500,000 Green voters fail to elect a single MP anywhere, while fewer than 500,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada alone elect 22 Liberal MPs.

    7) In 2000, twenty-two candidates become MPs despite winning less than 40% of the votes in their ridings.

    6) The 2004 election produces a House with only 21% women MPs, with Canada now ranking 36th among nations in percentage of women MPs, well behind most Western European countries.

    5) In 1993, the newly formed Bloc Quebecois comes in fourth in the popular vote, but forms the Official Opposition by gaining more seats than the second place Reform Party and third place Tories.

    4) In 2000, 2.3 million Liberal voters in Ontario elect 100 Liberal MPs while the other 2.2 million Ontario voters elect only 3 MPs from other parties.

    3) In 1993, more than two million votes for Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives translate into two seats – or one seat for every 1,000,000 votes. Meanwhile, the voting system gives the Liberal Party one seat for every 32,000 votes.

    2) In 1984, when competing for the Liberal leadership, Jean Chretien tells reporters in Brandon, Manitoba, he would introduce proportional representation “right after the next election” if he became prime minister.

    1) In 1993, Jean Chretien wins the election and begins his ten-year reign as prime minister. In three elections, he never wins more than 42% of the popular vote, but still forms “majority” governments thanks to the current voting system. He never gets around to introducing proportional representation.

  13. Theres nothing about pr which says the existing number of seats per province would have to change. Also there are many seats in cities because there are many people there, so I don’t see what the issue is there.

  14. Cities and provinces would cease to be represented by monolithic blocks from one party.

    It’s hard to predict what all the consequences of that would be, but it seems likely that it would affect the provinces and the operation of Canadian federalism.

  15. Minority governments in Canada are much more likely because of the first past the post system and the concentration of Bloc seats.
    My math may be off. However, assuming 309 seats, a party to form a majority must get 155 seats or 51%, already a challenge where there are 4 or 5 parites in first past the post system.

    One party, th Bloc Quebecois, has no interest in being a national party. It only runs candidates in Quebec and its mandate is to serve Quebec rather than national interests. I think the Bloc has around 43 seats.

    Therefore assuming that the Bloc maintains 43 seats, one of the other 4 parties to form a majority must know win 155 of 266 seats , which is 58% of the seats. A party with only 112 seats or 42% of the seats can retain control if it avoids having the Bloc vote against it. To do so and maintain being in government , that party will be more likely to accede to the specific regional interests of the Bloc. Therefore the Bloc is able hold power well beyond the voter percentage that it holds nationally.

    On the other hand a Green supporter has little influence. There may roughly be an equal number of Green supporters as Bloc supporters nationally as Bloc supporters. The Green support is national and its interests are national. However, with no seats, the Green play no role in either supporting or bringing down a government.

    This situation seems unfair.

    I was a strong supporter of the Single Transferable Vote Proposal which the Citizen’s Assembly had recommended for British Columbia. Unfortunately it lost.

    It seems that STV was either not understood by or too unfamiliar for the voters at large or not in interests of the political parties. Unfortunately, it was rejected convincingly this time at the polls (although it was quite close to passing the first time).

  16. Have any countries made the transition from first-past-the-post to proportional representation?

  17. “Minority governments in Canada are much more likely because of the first past the post system ”

    This seems wrong. With PR, there are lower entry difficulties to new parties. Presumably there would be more parties, and it would be more difficult to get over 50% of the seats without first past the post. I mean, assuming that any alternative to first past the post is “closer” to PR, i.e. STV.

  18. Minority governments are common under pr, but they are not so unstable as under fptp because there is no incentive to rush into an early election. New Zealand has had a string of minority governments since they switched to proportional voting in 1993, but they have all lived out their full term of three years.

    Also common under proportional voting are majority coalition governments, true majority governments that actually represent a majority of voters.

  19. “Minority governments in Canada are much more likely because of the first past the post system and the concentration of Bloc seats”


    I agree that the traditional first past the post system is more likely to result in a pure majority gvt than PR. You may have overlooked my reference to “the concentration of Bloc seats”. It is the concentration of Bloc seats that makes minority governments more likely than in our system prior to the Bloc.


    I found the ten examples in the David Letterman like list quite interesting , especially the last two
    2) In 1984, when competing for the Liberal leadership, Jean Chretien tells reporters in Brandon, Manitoba, he would introduce proportional representation “right after the next election” if he became prime minister.

    1) In 1993, Jean Chretien wins the election and begins his ten-year reign as prime minister. In three elections, he never wins more than 42% of the popular vote, but still forms “majority” governments thanks to the current voting system. He never gets around to introducing proportional representation.

    Even more extreme examples couild be found in provinical elections for example when the NDP were reduced from a minority government to two seats about 9 days ago.

    I also find another problem is the ability of a majority government to choose the moment of the next election when its popularity is highest.

    Maybe a partial remedy to these problems are fixed election dates – say every 4 years.

    Any thoughts?

  20. Oleh,

    In my understanding strictly fixed election dates are unconstitutional because the Prime minister can’t give up his right to ask the GG to dissolve a parliament. He can pass a law fixing election dates, but the GG can’t cite that law as a reason not to dissolve parliament when asked.

    You are right about the Bloc, although any regional party could have the same effect. The Bloc could be somewhat marginalized by proportional representation, but it still seems doubtful that any one party would hold more than 50% of the seats.

    The key advantage of PR over our system in cases of minority Governments is not “how the votes are turned into seats right now” – but how slight changes in the poll can change seat distribution in the future. First past the post makes parties frantic at the margin.

  21. BC and Ontario have “fixed” election dates in that the next election automatically is set for four years after each election. However, an early election can still be triggered by a vote of non-confidence.

    It’s a good idea. Why should the government get to know the election date before the other parties?

    Harper brought in the same thing at the federal level, but then ignored his own law and called an early election anyway. Now he’s complaining about too many elections.

  22. Fixed elections aren’t a good idea. Or rather, it’s ignorant to believe it’s a law when it isn’t really one. I doubt highly that the lieutenant governor could refuse Gordon Campbell a request to dissolve the legislature – and even if he tried, he could just have his own party vote against a bill to trigger an election. Sure, there would be political costs to doing this – but when the cost of failing to comply is a political one rather than a legal one you can’t say that a “law” proper is involved.

  23. I agree that fixed dates run somewhat contrary to the Westminister Parliamentary tradition. Governments serve while they retain the support of Parliament, though there is the five year upper limit.

  24. The plan to return to surplus must be clear. This will come as news to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who reported this month that deficit reduction would not be achieved through higher taxes or cuts in transfers to individuals and other levels of government. This leaves only discretionary spending; if defence, tax collection and security are excluded, this comprises less than a quarter of the budget. The Liberals are little better, with Michael Ignatieff saying “wait and see” on deficit reduction, while pledging no new taxes.”

  25. Ottawa moves to reshape the House

    Legislation, potentially to be introduced as early as this fall, would see Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia gain seats in Parliament

    John Ibbitson

    Ottawa — From Friday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Thursday, Sep. 24, 2009 08:44PM EDT

    Democratic Reform Minister Steven Fletcher is in the advanced stages of preparing legislation that would reshape the House of Commons, adding dozens of seats to the three fast-growing provinces that are now seriously underrepresented.

    Legislation could be ready this autumn, said a government official speaking on background, or in the new year.

    The new seats would most likely be concentrated in the burgeoning suburban and exurban ridings that ring Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Voters in these ridings – typically younger and multiethnic –would finally wield a political clout that has been denied them in previous elections in favour of voters in mostly white rural ridings.

    “We never had a debate and said that new Canadians, visible minorities, people who live in the GTA [greater Toronto], Calgary, Edmonton and the Lower Mainland [of British Columbia], young people, gays and lesbians – that they should all have less representation,” observes Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, a new Toronto-based think tank that examines the impact of public policy on the province of Ontario. “If we had framed it that way, no Canadian would support it.

  26. Canada’s deadlocked politics
    The perpetual campaign

    Sep 24th 2009 | OTTAWA
    From The Economist print edition
    Forever on the brink of an election

    Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, inherited from Britain, no longer suits what has become a four-party system (with a fifth group, the Greens, unrepresented in Parliament as its vote is spread too thinly). Although support for independence in French-speaking Quebec has declined, many Quebeckers still see sending the separatists of the Bloc Québécois to Ottawa as the best way to defend their interests. The Bloc holds 47 of Quebec’s 75 seats but refuses to take part in government; its strength makes it hard for anyone to win a majority. The spate of elections means that two-thirds of MPs have now served for less than five years. They have never experienced the stability of majority government, nor its relative civility—at least compared with today’s hyper-partisanship.

  27. “The great political irony for the Conservative Party is that, while it must avoid estranging core conservatives at all costs, extreme core conservatives keep the party from winning a majority. They are the social Darwins.

    Eight per cent of those polled by Mr. Turcotte and Mr. Gregg strongly agreed with the statements: “I believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and “people who are poor have no one to blame but themselves.”

    Most of the time, these right-wing nuts are ignored. But whenever Mr. Harper appears to have enough support to form a majority government, the base starts to get excited and aggressive, and social Darwins “bare their teeth and embrace things that the majority of Canadians don’t want to see,” says Mr. Turcotte. This frightens enough centrists to keep the Liberals in the game and the Conservatives confined to minority governments.”

  28. “The prime minister has profited from a weak opposition. You can be a four out of ten and if the opposition is a three out of ten, you win every time. The Liberals haven’t got their act together since the sponsorship scandal. Stephane Dion was a man of integrity but you need more than integrity. Mr. Harper has also profited from an unprecedented division on the left of the spectrum. The Greens now take up ten percent of the acreage and of course there is the NDP and the Bloc. You’ll recall in the 1990s the conservatives faced this problem on the right and it cost them dearly until the merger. With so much division. Mr. Harper only needs 35 percent to win and his base constitutes about 30 per cent.

  29. What you don’t know about Stephen Harper

    His backroom battles, diplomatic scraps, betrayals and secret insecurities

    1. CRISIS POINT: The day he almost gave up power

    Stephen Harper’s life and work made no sense to him if he wasn’t the prime minister of Canada. Having the title wasn’t his goal. He needed to hold on, long enough to change a country. Everything he had done in politics since 2002 was designed to unite his base and divide his enemies. Now his enemies were united. He was lost.

    It was Monday afternoon, Dec. 1, 2008. On Harper’s desk sat a copy of the coalition deal Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe would sign in a public ceremony a few hours later. Its demure title blackened his mood even further: “A policy accord to address the present economic crisis.” The first paragraph gave the game away: this was about a “new government.” Not his.

    At times like this, other leaders have been visited by close friends or trusted confidants who helped them look past the crisis of the moment toward history. But Stephen Harper has no close friend in politics, so the three men waiting outside his door would have to do.

  30. Unencumbered by duties in Ottawa, and worried about the possibility of a Conservative majority, I started talking to other Liberals about finding a fix. The source of our inspiration was an unlikely one, to say the least: Stephen Harper. We had noticed that even with his principal opponent down on the mat, he kept going on about the looming Liberal-socialist-separatist coalition, in his attack ads, in the House of Commons, in every focus-grouped talking point. Harper’s criticism of coalitions was peculiar, because the Conservative Party was itself the result of a successful merger, and he had been its chief architect. In fact, if history is to remember the prime minister for anything, it would be for bringing together the warring factions on the right.

    We knew why Harper fulminated against a coalition on the left: he feared it. Polls indicated that Canadians were mostly supportive of the concept, provided it didn’t involve the Bloc. And a coalition on the left could defeat Harper, just as one on the right had taken down Paul Martin in 2006. It was simple — or maybe not. It took three election losses (in 1993, 1997, and 2000) before the Reform, the Alliance, and the Progressive Conservatives realized they would benefit from a merger. Would it take just as long for the Liberals and the New Democrats to come to the same conclusion? Based on our own recent experience, probably.

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