As the recent match-up of Britain’s Tories and Liberal-Democrats demonstrated, coalitions are sometimes necessary — even in countries with little in the way of a coalition tradition.
In Britain, which faces a crisis of public spending and deficits, no party emerged from the recent election with a majority. But the country needed the tough decisions that minority governments are often incapable of making. In this case, a coalition was a reasonable response.
So the question for Canadians is not “is a coalition possible,” but rather, “what important public purpose would it serve today?” Proponents of coalition have signally failed to give a satisfactory answer. “Because we hate the Tories” hardly qualifies.
The attempts at justification to date have been pretty feeble. A majority of Canadians oppose the Tories, but a much larger majority oppose the Grits, to say nothing of the NDP. And it is not at all clear that the support levels for each party can simply be added together as if one were mixing red and orange paint to produce a lovely tangerine. It can instead resemble mixing half a cup of coffee with an equal amount of tea to get a drink unpalatable to lovers of either.
The Liberal Party alone is riven with internal disputes, and is home to many different political views that co-exist uneasily in the absence of the glue of power and patronage. Remember that it is the Liberal Party of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin that helped shrink the size of the state from 53% of GDP in 1993 to barely 40% 15 years later. Liberals might well have denounced this move to smaller smarter government as the work of the devil if it had been accomplished by the Tories. But a large minority within the party is proud of the achievement and has no interest in handing over the keys to 24 Sussex to a newly merged party dominated by left-wing Liberals and NDPers who want to turn back the clock — especially since their coalition could take power in the current parliament only by being entirely beholden to Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois for every winning parliamentary vote, a position that would cause Pierre Trudeau to whirl so fast in his grave that he would stand a good chance of tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.
Then there is the argument that a coalition gives voters a “coherent” choice. My question is: Coherent by whose standards? The classic Euro-Marxist view is that all politics are really about class interests. In this view, if your politics don’t boil down to two opposing forces, one defending the interests of the ruling class, the other the interests of the working class and the defenceless poor, you are insufficiently “evolved.”
Hogwash. Plenty of other lively divisions in society have proven remarkably resilient and call out for political representation — from language, religion and culture to regional or environmental concerns. That all such differences must be subsumed within just two parties — one representing, say, the expansive state and metrosexual social views; and another, a philosophy of smaller government and traditional mores — flies in the face of modern political experience.
The most telling argument against a coalition of convenience, however, is the cynicism that would result among the electorate.
What more eloquent proof could there be of politicians’ opportunistic power-hunger than their willingness to cast aside decades of building their own party identities to seize a fleeting advantage over their political opponents?
When the Canadian Alliance and the PCs merged, it was merely two halves of a previously existing party remarrying. But the NDP is no fragment of the Liberal Party. It has long opposed both the allegedly indistinguishable “old line” parties, and is a unique mixture of prairie populism, American progressivism, social gospelers, trade union apparatchiks and British Fabians. What has that to do with the Bay Street bankers, Roman Catholics, slick patronage dispensers and consumers, welfare-state clients and the dizzying array of disparate immigrant groups that constitute the Liberal base?
How would voters react to the announcement of such a cynical maneuver? With the disgust that always greets parties that campaign for all they’re worth against policies they blithely embrace once in office.
Canada has somehow limped along with several parties for many years. We now find ourselves in the admittedly awkward situation where none command enough popular support to win an election outright. The solution is simply to wait until voters decide one of them has come up with a team and a platform that deserves a majority.
The Liberal Party, as the natural alternative to the Tories, is most likely to do so. When they have, they will enjoy the justly-earned fruits of office. Not before.
Brian Lee Crowley is AIMS Senior Fellow.