The Case for the Coalition

Harper is a dangerous driver, and we’re taking away the keys.

As a failed politician, I won’t be sitting by the phone hoping that Prime Minister Dion will offer a cabinet position. I can’t even look forward to watching from the government backbenches as Jim Prentice leads Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Or will it be James Moore?

Canadian politics are currently so full of uncertainties — some unavoidable, others intentional — that predictions are mere speculations. So let’s move on to what we actually know about the constitutional and political situation.MPs are everything

Canadians never vote directly for a "government.” Instead, we elect a member of Parliament in our local constituency. It is only after 308 individual MPs have been chosen that the process of forming a government begins.

The Constitution Act of 1867 doesn’t even mention the prime minister or political parties. MPs are everything. How MPs organize themselves is entirely up to them. This is why two MPs are able to currently sit as independents; there could just as easily be 308 of them. Most MPs have organized themselves into groupings known as parties. This simplifies the process of forming government but doesn’t change the constitutional pre-eminence of individual MPs. There is just one basic requirement: The government must at all times enjoy the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons.

By unwritten constitutional convention, the Governor General calls upon the leader of the party with the most MPs and asks him or her to try to form a government that enjoys the confidence of the House. When that party holds a majority of the seats, the result is a foregone conclusion. This gives rise to the illusion that parties win the "right to govern.” But they just get to try to form a government first, and happen to have enough seats to deliver.

Things are different when no party emerges from the election with a majority. Again, the Governor General calls upon the leader of the party with the most MPs and asks them to try to form a government that enjoys the confidence of the House. To obtain that confidence, the newly designated "prime minister” must persuade MPs from other parties to provide their support. If he or she fails, it is open to another party (or parties) to indicate that they can get the job done — whereupon the Governor General will let them try. Since the 308 individual MPs whose preferences drive this process are directly elected by Canadians, all of this is entirely democratic.

A whiff of tyranny The current whiff of tyranny comes from Stephen Harper, who has deliberately misled Canadians by asserting that "Stéphane Dion does not have the right to take power without an election.” To the contrary, Dion has the right — provided, again, that the Governor General asks him to try to form a government. When Harper asked the Governor General to prorogue (in essence, recess) Parliament so that he could dodge two confidence votes, she should have refused. Normally, the Governor General is just a figurehead. Most of her powers can only be exercised with the advice and consent of the government. But she is not bound by the advice of a prime minister who has lost the confidence of the House — as Harper all too evidently had done. The publication of a coalition agreement by Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe proved that Harper is prime minister in name only. Michaëlle Jean could, and should, have been taking her advice from Dion. Her decision–probably based on a desire to avoid Harper’s wrath–rewarded bad behaviour while only delaying the inevitable, since the Conservatives will now likely be defeated on January 27 when the budget is put to a vote. Michael Ignatieff, the new Liberal leader, doesn’t trust Harper any more than Dion. He might not like the idea of a coalition with the NDP, but his party’s survival (and that of the country) depend on making it work.

We elect MPs to decide The Conservatives argue that Canadians did not vote for a Liberal/NDP coalition supported by the Bloc Québécois. But we live in a parliamentary system rather than a direct democracy. MPs are elected to go to Ottawa, debate issues in depth, and make decisions based on the information they acquire. They are not bound by a precise, predetermined electoral program. They are not even bound to stay in the same party, as Stephen Harper demonstrated when he persuaded David Emerson to become a Conservative in January 2006, just two weeks after having been elected as a Liberal.

Countries with electoral systems that are more representative than ours, including Australia, New Zealand and Israel, are accustomed to coalitions being formed after the results come in. Again, it is in no way anti-democratic to allow the majority of recently elected MPs to decide who will form government. Nor is it improper for them to discuss a possible coalition — or indeed just about any other matter — in advance. Who’s afraid of the Bloc?

The Conservatives claim that the Liberal/NDP deal with the Bloc Quebecois is improper because of that party’s separatist agenda. Putting aside the fact that Stephen Harper concocted a similar arrangement with the Bloc in an attempt to defeat Paul Martin’s minority government in 2004, this argument disrespects the millions of Canadian citizens who voted for Duceppe’s party. They weren’t just voting for separatism; they were voting for a social democratic party with a full range of policy positions, many of them quite similar to those of the NDP. Indeed, the Bloc did not even campaign on separation in the last election. Instead, it ran against Harper and his economic, social, cultural and environmental policies (or lack thereof). It is also significant that the Bloc has agreed to support the coalition for at least 18 months despite the fact that Liberals and NDP refused to make any concessions on the status of Quebec in Confederation. In other words, Jack Layton and Stéphane Dion stood up for a united Canada during the negotiations. As for Duceppe, he knows there’s little support in his province for separation right now. The deal with the Liberal/NDP coalition provides him with an excuse for ignoring the issue.

Harper is the issue Stephen Harper is the predominant issue for all three opposition parties. Frustration over his policies hit a boiling point with the release of the economic update last week. Eliminating public financing for political parties, stripping the right to strike from civil servants, misleading Canadians about the state of federal finances and refusing to advance an economic stimulus for an economy in free-fall — all this piled on top of a long list of previous grievances.

More than anything, it is Harper’s confrontational style and his penchant for deception and personal attacks that have turned MPs from all four parties against him. Jack Layton could have sat back and watched Harper put the boots to the Liberal Party. In his five years as leader, Layton has steadily increased the number of NDP seats from 13 to 37. He has developed a fundraising machine that rivals the Liberals and greatly exceeds the Bloc and Greens, making his the only opposition party that could survive without public financing. As Bill Tieleman argued on The Tyee (from, I think, a narrow party perspective), inaction on the part of the NDP might have been the best strategy. It would also have been wrong.

Making Parliament work MPs are elected to make Parliament work, and Layton has excelled at that. It was because of Layton that Paul Martin’s 2005 budget included $1.4 billion for affordable housing. It was because of him that the Climate Change Accountability Act was adopted by the House of Commons in June 2008, with support from both the Liberals and Bloc. It was because of Layton that the residential schools apology took place in the symbolically important venue of the House of Commons — a fact publicly acknowledged by Harper in a rare moment of magnanimity.

Conceivably, the NDP could benefit electorally from being in cabinet. It’s important to be the conscience of Parliament and a source of progressive ideas; it’s better to put those ideas into action. At the same time, nobody is thirsting for power in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. For all the good that it accomplishes, the coalition will still be blamed for negative developments beyond its control. For all these reasons, the coalition is a "power grab” in one sense only. Stephen Harper has demonstrated that he’s a thoroughly dangerous driver. With support from the Bloc, the Liberals and NDP are taking away the keys.

This article was originally published on The Tyee ( on December 3, 2008. Reprinted here with permission.

Michael Byers holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Global Politics and International Law. His work focuses on the interaction of international law and politics, particularly with respect to human rights, international organizations, the use of military force, the Arctic, and Canada-United States relations. He has published six books, dozens of academic papers and more than 100 op-ed articles in international newspapers, the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star and Ottawa Citizen.