A rose, by any other name…
There’s a great big point being missed by all the noise about coalitions — the point isn’t whether coalitions are legitimate. They are. The point is, who will be governing Canada in the 41st Parliament of Canada?
John Geddes ventures into the scenarios, more or less accurately.
Andrew Coyne mentions the traditional convention that the incumbent PM has the right to meet Parliament.
In fact, as a scholarly friend reminded me, it is the party in power at the time the election was called who has that right. The presumption is that it enjoys the confidence of the House until the House votes otherwise. Of course, in most cases the incumbent party, having suffered defeat at the polls and knowing defeat is certain in the House, does not attempt to hold onto power. But not always.
As I should have remembered, an important exception was the trigger event for the King-Byng affair. Defeated in the election of 1925 by Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives — with 101 seats to Meighen’s 116 — Mackenzie King nevertheless insisted on the right to form a government, hoping to persuade the 28 Progressive MPs to support him. A reluctant Lord Byng agreed, on condition that he would then call upon Meighen if King were ever defeated in the House.
When that moment arrived, however, King nevertheless demanded Byng dissolve the House and call new elections. Byng refused, citing their agreement, and asked Meighen to form a government instead. King seized on the supposed “interference” by a foreign potentate as an issue which he used to great effect in the next campaign.
He then figures out what has been blindingly obvious to me since December 2008 — Harper’s point isn’t actually about coalitions — it’s about reminding centre-right voters that the only way to be sure of a Prime Minister Harper is to give him a legislative majority:
CODA: The problem facing Harper until now has been this: so long as the choice appeared to be between a Conservative majority and a Conservative minority, a certain number of centre-right voters preferred the latter. That’s one reason he’s been unable to get above 40% in the polls.
But the election presents an opportunity to recast that choice, since it presumably removes the option of a Conservative minority: such a government would almost certainly be defeated at the first opportunity. So now Harper can present the choice as one between a Conservative majority and — on present standings — a Liberal minority, heavily dependent on the NDP and the Bloc.
That sort of government might sound perfectly fine to a lot of voters, but not to the ones he needs: centre-right, Lib-Con switchers. The ones who until now have been opting for a Conservative minority. He’s got to impress upon them that that’s no longer an option.
That’s the point.
It doesn’t matter what name you give it — “coalition”, “accord”, “pact”, “minority”.
I’m reminded of The War with Mr. Wizzle, where Bruno and Boots constantly recast their organization, so as to get around the restrictions put in place by their headmaster (the Fish). Whatever you re-name the Committee, its function is the same.
This is what people keep on missing, either through sloppy thinking or deliberate obfuscation.
Harper is shading and twisting things, sure. But he isn’t obliged to be the other parties’ lawyer, and it’s pretty darned clear from his actions from 1997 to 2011 that he has a firm grip on what can be done under our Westminster-style system — there’s a lot of poker-playing in minority parliaments. (Or, to paraphrase the fictional version of James Baker III in the HBO film “Recount“, “this is a street-fight for the prime ministership of Canada”.) [Re the 39th Parliament, incidentally, here's why Paul Martin chose not to meet parliament and resigned: the Bloc was vowing to defeat him. (Yes, Gilles Duceppe installed Harper as PM. Ironies of history...)]
It’s also clear that Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe understand well what’s going on.
Based on their actions since 2007, however, I’m not sure that the Liberal leadership has a similar understanding. With one exception: Bob Rae.
Every time Rae has pushed a course of action, I’ve thought, “Yes, that’s what I would have done in that situation.” Rae knows minority parliaments from his experiences in 1979 in Ottawa, 1985-87 in Ontario, and from 2006 to the present again in Ottawa.
Glad he isn’t in chart of Liberal strategy — I wouldn’t like to face him in a minority parliament.
Hope that Harper wins his majority this time — I don’t want to find out.
Again, if the opposition believes its own rhetoric about Harper — or is trapped into behaving as though they do — it’s very difficult to see them letting a Throne Speech pass from his government.
That’s why Harper is gunning for a majority — it’s the only way for him to be sure to save himself.