Wednesday, June 02, 2010

You say you want a coalition...but do we need to hear the plan?

Much controversy and debate within and without the Liberal Party lately about coalitions with the NDP and/of the Green Party. And unfortunately, according to media reports (so take it with a grain of salt), it may be breaking-out along leadership lines. I don’t put too much stock in that.

There does, however, appear to be two emerging schools of thought. One that wants lots of debate and discussion to start happening now at the party grassroots, favoring options ranging from a post-election coalition to a pre-election coalition to, for a minority, an outright merger. And, on the other side, those that say coalition never ever, we promise.

Like a good Liberal, I suppose, I think the proper course lays somewhere in the middle. Coalition if necessary, but not necessarily coalition.

First, I don’t think an outright merger makes any sense. “Uniting the left” is nice in theory, but the practice would be very different. The merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance wasn’t as much “uniting the right” in the broad sense as it was re-uniting the party that was broken apart when the Reform Party tore a big chunk out of the old PCs. And even then, you saw many of the more progressive Conservative, both voters and MPs such as Scott Brison, come to the Liberals. It wasn’t a 1+1=2 scenario at all. A Liberal/NDP merger would be even more inefficient, as they really are very different parties with no common history. I think you’d see bleeding on the Liberal right to the Conservatives, and on the NDP left to possibly a splinter, more ideologically pure “Real NDP” party, so just how much of the two parties’ former support would be retained is debatable. It would be more like 1+1=1.5.

Second, I don’t think we (as an official party) should be spending much time pre-election discussing coalition scenarios. I think we should run candidates in every riding, and we should be running to win. As I’ve said before, the more we talk coalition before an election, the more Liberal votes bleed to the NDP. Both parties want to position themselves as the stop-Harper alternative, and while that’s a well we’ve gone to too many times with diminishing returns, we can’t afford to cede that ground entirely.

Third, the current OLO line, which seems to be flatly ruling-out a coalition, is a mistake. I understand the rationale – I outlined in above – but it’s still a tactical mistake. We may find ourselves post-election in a situation where a coalition arrangement would be advantageous. But the ONLY way it would be feasible is with public support and credibility. And if you’d just said coalition never during the campaign, that credibility is hard to achieve. Ruling it out now – particularly for the increasingly fleeting dream of a big solo election victory – is unnecessarily limiting your options in advance. I'd also add there's a reason the Conservatives want us to rule it out -- they see a coalition as the best chance of them losing power. Let's not play into their hands.

As I’ve said before, I think our line should be simple, and it’s really not that far from what either side are calling for. We should simply say: “We’re running to win in all 308 ridings and are asking Canadians to elect a Liberal government. Post-election we’ll look carefully at what the Canadian people have said, and move forward in the best interests of the country.” Period. Repeat ad-nasaeum. Run to win, rule nothing out. Don’t get drawn into coalition speculation, just pivot to our plans and platforms (assuming we have one by them), but don’t rule anything out.

Finally, on the possibility of a coalition post-election, those of us that aren’t party spokespeople are free to speculate, and so I will. I think much, obviously, will depend on the results.

First, I think the party with the most seats is in the driver’s seat and gets the first crack at either governing solo or seeking an arrangement. So if the Conservatives again get a minority, they get first shot. But if they fail or are brought down in the House within a short period of time (let’s say less than one year, and only if it’s with good reason) then I think the Governor-General should seek options within the House before dropping the writ.

Second, a coalition may not necessarily be necessary.

Let’s say the Liberals win the largest minority of seats. I think their negotiating power, and their actions, would depend on the size of that minority. If it’s a large one, they could (and should) just govern solo, seeking support in the House on a case-by-case basis. As long as they govern responsibly, in the public interest, and treat the House with respect, that’s entirely feasible.

With a smaller minority, a formal coalition may still not be necessary. A governing arrangement could be worked out, where support is secured for a defined period of time in exchange for a serious of legislative promises. Think the Pearson minorities of the 1960s.

With a small minority, the NDP’s bargaining position becomes stronger and the likelihood of a formal coalition, with shared cabinet and the like, becomes stronger. Which way of the three it goes will depend on the bargaining power of each of the parties, based on their post-election seat counts.

Third, no coalition agreement can include the Bloc Quebecois. As a sovereigntist party their presence, even at arms-length, is toxic and will make obtaining the public support and credibility crucial to any possible coalition impossible. While desirable, it’s not necessary for the LPC+NDP number to equal a majority for any coalition or arrangement to work. Even with a minority, it’s perfectly acceptable and feasible to govern seeking majority support on the House on a case-by-case basis, as the government does now.

Anyway, while it’s all academic now, ruling anything out in advance is just silly. And for those Liberals who shudder at the thought of cooperation, I say this: we wouldn’t even be having this conversation were we not so low in the polls and public support. So rather than trying to rule these scenarios out, the better course of action is working to make them unnecessary in the first place by strengthening our position.

Until that happens though, the debate will continue.

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Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

Excellent piece. You buried a very important piece of info, though, that needs repeating:
"While desirable, it’s not necessary for the LPC+NDP number to equal a majority for any coalition or arrangement to work. Even with a minority, it’s perfectly acceptable and feasible to govern seeking majority support on the House on a case-by-case basis, as the government does now."

Yes. All that is needed is to be the largest parliamentary grouping. Just tell Speaker that the caucuses will sit together (in scenario where we don't get majority/plurality on our own). GG always asks largest parl grouping, having best chance to command confidence of House, to form Govt. This is an important point that must be repeated, for public pedagogy.

Jeff said...

I'm not sure we're on the same page though, EFL. Are you suggesting that, even if the CPC got the most seats (but a minority) after the next election, its feasible for the LPC/NDP to got to the GG and say we'll sit together, we have more, so call on us first?

If so, I think that would be a hard sell. It would probably depend on the margin between the CPC and LPC (assuming we're 2nd). If it's only a handful of seats, you could make a good argument, particularly since that would mean they would have lost a lot of support.

If the Con minority margin is more than a handful though, it still feels to me that the party with the most seats should get first crack. That's part of what make the UK scenario salable. I think a Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have been a much harder sell.

wilson said...

The ONLY senario that the GG would consider replacing an "incumbant PM", is a coalition majority.
Dream on EFL.

In no way is a 2 party 'minority' more stable than an encumbant minority.
Particularly in the face of PMSH having governed as the longest running minority leader in Canadian history,
providing a stable govt on an issue by issue basis for almost 5 years;
compared to an untested unelected Liberal leader of a deeply divided party.

Brent said...

You know how people mocked Jack Layton pretty much every time he said that the NDP would become the government or even the official opposition to the Conservative government because every single man, woman and child in Canada knew that it would never happen? This situation is quite similar.

Everyone knows that the likelihood of a Liberal majority is pretty damn close to 0 and the odds of even getting a Liberal minority aren't looking all that good. For the Liberals to completely dismiss the possibility of a coalition is an insult to our intelligence. In order to form a stable government, the Liberals would either have to form a coalition with the NDP or engage in the same petty bullying that has defined Stephen Harper as a weak and ineffective man-child.

I don't think a merger would be to anyone's benefit, but outright rejecting a coalition borders on the delusional.

Kyle H. said...

Excellent piece, Jeff - I agree with you 100%.

The Liberals are defined by the fact that we are the only other party able to create the kind of national coalitions of groups and interests that have sustained us and the Conservatives in the past and present. The NDP simply cannot. The best they bring to the table is a stronger Western position, but not by much.

We should not idly sit by while people claim the only way we'll ever get government again is if we form a coalition or merger with the NDP - that's ridiculous. The discussion is needed and is quite possibly a very good route to go down, but the main goal for us should be to strengthen the Liberal Party's organization and position, not the NDP's.

If this means biding our time, pulling a Pearson and waiting it out another election, then so be it. But we should rely on our own abilities, before we true to use an external method.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

Labour-LibDem would have happened if Cons hadn't upped their offer to LibDems to include AV referendum. You can check.

Hung parliament means deals will be made, either one big one at beginning, and/or several small ones constantly, vote by vote.

All that matters is who can (best) command the confidence of the House. 308 elections. 308 reps. They decide.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

PS. The maximum possible under Democratic Space's latest projections is Lib 103, NDP 42. And those are absolute top limits of ranges. That's 145, total. I think in a campaign we'll be higher than that, and NDP I can't say, as they may get squeezed out as much as they pick up - they may go up, stay stable or go down. All to say that even the idea that the Libs & NDP will get enough together to represent an outright majority is hopeful, given where we stand now, 77 + 37= 114.

June 2 Projections: Conservatives Strengthen
NATIONAL Conservative – 146 seats (37.5%) - range: 125 to 157 seats (36.0% to 39.0%) Liberal – 80 seats (29.0%) - range: 70 to 103 seats (27.5% to 30.5%) Bloc Quebecois – 47 seats (9.9%) - range: 43 to 53 seats (8.4% to 11.4%) NDP – 35 seats (16.0%) - range: 24 to 42 seats (14.5% to 17.5%) Green [...]

Kyle H. said...


If Labour-Lib Dem had happened, it would have been chaos. Not only could they not have reached majority by themselves, they would have set up an easy line of attack for the Conservatives and other opponents - just like what happened here. It's far better that Labour, instead of clinging greedily to power, came to its senses and let itself be in Opposition. They needed a new start anyways.

But back to your point - 308 reps, they decide. True, that is legally what happens. But do you honestly believe any coalition which occurs either on the backs of the Bloc or a backroom deal with the NDP will be accepted by the population as entirely legitimate? Just because its legal does not mean its right.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

In a democracy, in its workings, what's legal is legitimate. That's a pretty basic point, I would think. When something is illegitimate, it is contrary to law, like refusing an Order of Parliament.

I think you're speaking to public perceptions. A vast majority of the Opposition electorate, slightly over half the totoal electorate, was in favour of the last proposed coalition, as difficult and chaotic the conditions in which it was formed. Imagine one formed after the ground had been prepared, the public forewarned it was a possibility, and the negotiations as public as those done in the UK, ie. private, with constant public updates, with competing offers even.

It would fly through like a knife through butter. Because, you see, Canada is not a conservative country, yet, and 2/3 of Canadians absolutely loathe Harper and are ready for anything to be rid of him. That's a 2 to 1 margin. CTV can only do so much of the Cons' dirty work for them - reality is against them. They can go down, they should go down, they will go down. Harper Must Go. Repeat. Done and dusted.

Unknown said...

I live in Central Nova and am President of the Provincial NDP. I have been involved in elections for 20 years. Here's the thing. Peter MacKay consistantly gets 16,000 votes the NDP and Liberals and the Green debacle get 25,000 combined. We are the best thing that ever happened to Peter MacKay, its time for the big brains to figure out a strategy where the riding with strong Liberal and NDP go head to head and in a riding where the Tories win by split, the party with the best chance to win should get the support of the other. In Central Nova the NDP are strong because of the Provincial ridings all are NDP.

Jeff said...

efl, there's obviously a difference between what's acceptable constitutionally and by convention, and what's acceptable to the public.

I won't argue with you what scenarios are permitted by convention, I think we're in agreement on that. I think where we differ is on the public opinion side.

I believe that any government requires moral legitimacy from the public to govern. Their standard is higher than convention and, without it, I think any attempted governing scenario is doomed to failure, and will prove unworkable and ultimately toxic for the parties involved.

Yes, in the UK Labour and the Lib Dems could have given it a shot, the Queen could/would have called on them. But I think it would have backfired for two main reasons: it would have excluded the party that got the most seats, and the people had just seriously rejected Labour. They could have governed as long as their coalition would hold together, but I think there would have been a strong public backlash that, if sustained, next election would have greatly benefited the Conservatives.

Anyway, I do agree that inoculating the public to the possibilities in advance is a necessity, in order to achieve that vitally needed popular support.

Jeff said...

John, it's easier said than done, particularly given that your riding is one that you forecast would be NDP and have the LPC step aside. Would you feel the same were it reversed? Would you campaign for/support/donate/vote for a Liberal in your riding?

You guys ran against Liz May last time. Take a look at Saanich-Gulf Islands, where she's running next time. Last election, the NDP candidate there was forced to resign just prior to the election due to a scandal -- exposing himself to young girls -- and there was no time to replace him, so his name stayed on the ballot but he was gone, he wasn't running.

The incumbent was Conservative Gary Lunn, no friend of the environment. The Liberal candidate was Briony Penn, a former Green Party candidate with strong environmental and left-wing credentials, a star candidate.

With no NDP candidate running, and a strong progressive Liberal candidate, what better chance for the centre-left vote to unite and unseat a deadwood, toxic Conservative minister?

And yet, Lunn was re-elected. 3,667 people still voted for the resigned NDP candidate, and many more likely stayed home. Lunn's margin of victory? 2,621 votes.

So I think these scenarios are much easier said than done, and the X factor is the grassroots members of both our parties across the country. It's easy to make the step-aside argument in a winnable riding. What do you say to the rest?

I know the Liberals in your neck of the woods weren't too happy about not having a candidate last election.

Unknown said...

Actually it is more likely a Liberal candidate would attract the Central Nova NDP. In my opinion the NDP have squandered their hopes here. In the 2008 election NDP supporters were bombarded with requests to vote for Liz May, Margaret Atwood actually placed an ad in the paper asking NDP'ers to vote for Liz May. It was a farce really. The icing on the cake was when Jack Layton landed in Halifax, then flew to Cape Breton, then to PEI. literally circling Cenral Nova like it was the tarsands. So yes, I would likely support and work for a Liberal candidate to rid Central Nova of the Harper influence.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

BCer, you raise an important point I was going to mention at the right moment, but I'll say it now, and repeat on my blog another time. If we're talking purely perception, every election is about sitting government, can they "hold on/win", or will they "lose". It's a strange thing, speaking to illogical biases in our brains, like those behaviourial psych experiments showing humans value preventing losses over making gains with an irrational weighting.

So perception-wise, in 2006 the election result was perceived as rejection of Martin Libs (30%, down 6.5) and endorsement of Cons (36%, up 6.5). However, as we know, it was 308 elections. And Cons only got just over 1/3 of vote. And NDP rose to 17.5% (up 2). And overall, progressives 64%, Cons 36%. And Libs+NDP seat totals = plurality.

But perception, as perceptions in every election are about sitting Govt, was that Libs "lost" since we humans place greater value on losses than gains. "Govt lost, Off Opp won".

Next election will, as always, again be all about govt, Con Govt. They will lose some votes and seats, but probably remain largest single party. But if awareness of Lib-NDP cooperation has been evoked, and they, collectively, especially LPC, as I expect, gain, then narrative becomes Govt losses vs. Opposition gains - and if Lib-NDP plurality, then "Lib-NDP victory".

Makes no sense, rationally. Lib-NDP could do worse, collectively, than in 2006 and still be perceived as more entitled to form Govt. But 2/3 majority want Cons gone, media grouchy, and narrative all about sitting Govt, and human psych makes it possible.

I'm one for convention & law, as "EFL" indicates, and I would do it no matter what, but simply as a matter of practical politics, perception-wise, what I say is true, though irrelevant in my view. But there one is. Humans irrational. This will be the story, and it will be helped by all we can do to prepare the ground:
"Cons down! Libs up! Opposition up! Cons lost! Oppo won! Lib-Dem coalition Govt!"

Ken said...

BC, quick question if you do not mind, let me set it up, lets say for the sake of John's argument, the LPC and NDP split the ridings down the middle, 154 each they would run in, leaving the other 154 for the other party, what do you think the countries outlook would be to them each spending the maximum allowable (18M) in half the ridings, or for that matter could they, or would each party be limited to half the allowable spending

Jeff said...

Ken, there's two seperate limits. One for each riding for local expenses (we'll set aside in and out) and the national limit for national expenses. I'm not sure how Elections Canada sets the national spending limits, or if # of candidates is a factor. At the riding level though I think it's based on population, might be the same nationally.

Speaking of financing though, here's one major complicating factor to that scenario: the per vote subsidy. Run less candidates, that means less votes and less subsidy. Those subsidies are pretty important to both parties, and are a pretty high percentage of the NDP's budget. Both would be loathe to give that up, so it's a major roadblock to any such scenario.

Unknown said...

Hi, this is a good discussion but lets not get bogged down in the details. Where there is a will there is a way. If we don't address this the Tories will be running Canada forever. Minority and Majority matters little to Harper.