Friday, July 31, 2015

Confusing Canadians about coalitions to score political points

We hear a lot about coalitions these days, and it seems clear there’s a bit of confusion out there about what it means and just what the post-election options for cooperation are – confusion likely deliberately spread by the NDP.

I was canvassing in Scarborough the other day. It’s a riding that was Liberal for many years, until 2011 when the NDP took enough Liberal vote for the Conservatives to win with little growth in vote. And they’re trying hard for a repeat. I knocked on the door of a woman who told me she had voted Liberal all her life and really likes Justin Trudeau, but she’s thinking of voting NDP for the first time. Why? Well, she wants to get rid of Stephen Harper, and the NDP was at her door recently and told her that Trudeau doesn’t want a coalition to defeat Harper – he’d rather see Harper stay.

It’s an example of the NDP strategy across the country – try to solidify the anti-Harper vote (even in ridings where it would likely just help elect Conservatives) behind them by painting the Liberals as unwilling to cooperate to defeat Harper, or worse, to even prop him up instead of supporting the NDP. It’s a pretty disingenuous, not to mention dishonest, approach to take, but it may prove effective.

Like any good strategy, there’s at least a modicum of truth: yes, Trudeau has said no to a coalition. Consistently so, in fact. Unlike the NDP; Tom Mulcair’s position has flip-flopped too many times to count, usually tied to their position on the polls.

“N.O. The no is categorical, absolute, irrefutable and non-negotiable. It’s no. End of story. Full stop.”
Now that the polls show he could form a minority government that would need support from someone, his tune has changed. If you notice though, the word the NDP keeps using, and what Trudeau actually said no to, is coalition. And that’s the operative word.

What is a coalition? A governing coalition is a joint governing agreement where the two parties sit on the government side, and share cabinet ministers and a legislative agenda. Think the Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats in the last UK parliament. We’ve never had a governing coalition in Canada before, and the word never really came up before 2011 when the Liberals and the NDP briefly tried to form one.

We may not have had coalition governments, but we’ve had minority governments. Many of them long lasting and extremely productive. Lester Pearson’s Liberal minorities brought us many of the progressive social policies Canadians cherish today. All without a coalition. David Peterson’s Ontario Liberal minority provides a great example. The NDP agreed to support a Liberal government for two years, in exchange for action on several specific NDP legislative priorities. The NDP didn’t sit with the government, and was free to vote as it wished on bills that weren’t matters of confidence.

Cooperation. That’s the word you don’t hear the NDP using today. Because Trudeau hasn’t said no to cooperation. That door is very much open, and so it should be. Should the NDP be in the position to form a minority government (which is frankly rather presumptuous at the moment) I could certainly see the Liberals agreeing to support a budget and throne speech in exchange for the inclusion and support of a number of key Liberal policy priorities. It would need to be negotiated, but the door is very much open.

And that is what the woman whose door I knocked on in Scarborough wanted: the door open to cooperation to defeat the Harper Conservatives. The NDP tried to confuse her with talk of coalitions; she was relieved to learn cooperation was definitely not off the table and she could still vote her conscience, instead of being bullied into a strategic vote that, in her riding, would not be very strategic at all.

A poll today, from a notoriously unreliable pollster, says most Canadians favour a Liberal/NDP coalition. I don’t doubt the respondents said that, but I do doubt the difference was explained to them between coalition and cooperation. I believe a majority of Canadians want to see progressives cooperate to defeat Harper; I don’t think they care which of the “c” words gets us there.

Why no to a coalition?

Why do Liberals oppose a coalition? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I believe being the junior partner in a governing coalition with the NDP would be the death of the Liberal Party. The right flank of the party would flee in revulsion, into the hands of the Conservatives. And the other half of the party would come to the conclusion that they may as well just join the NDP since we’re in bed with them anyways. And frankly, while both the NDP and the Conservatives want to see the Liberals disappear and are working towards that end, the Conservatives certainly believe the math of a two-party state (putting aside the Greens and BQ for a moment) favours them. And I tend to agree.

Thankfully though, despite the misinformation the NDP is trying to spread, coalition is not the only option. Liberals are open to cooperating with them, even if they seem very determined to make it hard to do so.

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Unknown said...

Would you be willing to expand on this, please: "the Conservatives certainly believe the math of a two-party state favours them. And I tend to agree."

On the surface, the math of a two-party state suggests it would work against the Conservatives, since they consistently get less than half the vote and only win governments by splitting the opposition. If the opposition is united into a single party, that suggests the Conservatives would lose out on that advantage.

What am I missing?

(Note: I'm not trying to suggest that there should be a two-party state. That would be horrible. I'm just wondering how such a situation would benefit the Cons.)

Jeff said...

I think there's a separate, longer post on that topic in my future. But in brief, the math isn't as neat as that. You can't add the Liberal vote to the NDP vote as 1+1=2. The Liberal vote would in fact splinter. A chunk, yes, would go NDP. And a chunk would go Conservative. If the NDP can continue to gain credibility on the economy, and Notley does well in Alberta, more of it would go NDP than would have a year ago. But enough would still go CPC to pad their majority, particularly under FPTP in enough ridings to matter. And then there's the question of how much of a shift to the centre in order to appear moderate for the sake of power is the NDP's left flank willing to accept. Do they compromise, or do they feel principle is at stake and break off? I don't know.

But like I said, the math isn't simple. I believe the Cons have crunched the numbers, and like how it plays out for them.