Stephen Harper can almost taste a majority. More than a decade of work to unite the right and make the new Conservative Party more palatable for Canadians has reached a point where the party has, as of mid-March, polled its highest ratings. With an election on May 2nd, Harper is very close to fulfilling his dream of majority rule.
Unless of course he falls short and the opposition parties form a coalition government.
Harper hates this possibility, naturally. He more than anyone recognizes the viability and inevitability of coalition governments.
During the 1990s when the politically fractured right were figuring out how to take on the Liberal majority, Harper and his future chief-of-staff Tom Flanagan mulled over all options available to them, including coalition governments.
Back then, when they were touting themselves as purveyors of all things populist, Harper and Flanagan bandied about the concepts of coalition governments, elected senates and free votes as antidotes to the perpetual Liberal majority, what he and Flanagan referred to as the benign dictatorship in a paper published in the winter 1996/97 issue of Next City.
Harper pressed for democratic reform when the chips were down. Once in power, his populist notions such as free votes and senate reform took a backseat. Indeed, he has since kept a tight reign on Conservative MPs and broke his own law of fixed elections in 2008 when he felt his chances of winning a majority were good.
That 2008 election handed him another minority. His promises to work with the opposition lasted a little more than a month. Flaherty presented the House with a "fiscal update" on Nov. 27, 2008 that failed to adequately address the economic crisis but promised to undermine the rights of federal civil servants and female federal employees, and end subsidies to political parties. That's when all hell broke loose.
Rather than send Canadians back to the polls, the Liberal's Stéphane Dion and NDP's Jack Layton drafted an accord to form a coalition government, with Bloc support on confidence matters until the end of June 2010.
Suddenly the term "coalition" became a bad word.
Once the champions of coalitions, Harper and Flanagan banded together to hammer out what constitutional expert Peter H. Russell calls "Harper's New Rules." The rules went as follows:
• Parliamentary elections result in the election of a prime minister.
• The prime minister cannot be changed without another election being called.
• A coalition government cannot be formed unless it is announced as a possibility in the election campaign.
This was an extraordinary turnaround from their earlier visions of parliamentary reform, and completely antithetical to the rules of our parliamentary system. Canadians elect members of parliament, not prime ministers. Not even governments. Coalitions can form after an election, and be presented as an option if a minority government loses the confidence of the House.
In an effort to maintain power, Harper and his Conservatives are meddling with the rules of our parliamentary democracy. Constitutional expert Peter H. Russell does not take this situation lightly.
"Trying to operate our parliamentary system as if it were subject to Harper's rules would severely restrict the options available to Canadians in an era of minority governments," warns Russell in a the 2009 book he co-edited with Lorne Sossin entitled Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, about the aftermath of the 2008 election.
So here we are in another election, a situation engineered by the Harper government in an effort to land a Conservative majority.
Behaving badly to the point of being held in contempt of Parliament and presenting a budget no opposition would support, the Harper government lost the confidence of the opposition parties, which could ill afford an election given their own low poll ratings. Harper's approval rating was 43 per cent in a March 11-15 Ipsos Reid poll.
While Harper's Conservatives have the most to gain, they also have the most to lose.
On March 26, day one of the election, Harper came out swinging. He warned Canadians that unless they vote for the Conservatives, "a stable, national majority," Michael Ignatieff would form a "reckless" coalition with the NDP and Bloc Québécois.
Harper is banking on a disengaged and ill-informed electorate for his political success. He accuses the opposition of forcing an election on Canadians, who clearly do not want it or understand the magnitude of the contempt of Parliament charge; and he presents a Conservative majority as the only stable solution to the dysfunctional Parliament that his government has orchestrated over the past six years.
If his party is handed another minority, what then? The contempt of Parliament charges and past indiscretions have made it impossible for the opposition to work with it. The only alternative is a coalition government, and Harper knows this.
Caving into Harper's vilification of coalitions and accusations of Liberal-NDP scheming, Ignatieff promised Canadians that his party would not form a coalition government. By doing so Ignatieff has lent credence to Harper's claims and painted his Liberals into a very tight corner.
Where does that leave us if the Conservatives win a minority? Back to the polls?
If the Canadian electorate are sick of elections every few years, they better start warming to the idea of coalition governments.
Everything Harper has worked hard for is in danger of taking a hit. He will not go down without a fight. Caving into his anti-coalition tactic will neither serve the left nor democracy. It's up to the engaged electorate to give the Liberals and NDP the political will to stand up to Harper and do what they must do to restore stable governance.
A group of citizens have formed Canadians for Coalition to educate the public on the validity of coalition governments, and provide the Liberals and NDP with the political will to consider this option should the Conservatives win a minority on May 2nd. Canadians are encouraged to visit canadiansforcoalition.ca and sign an open letter to Ignatieff and Layton urging them to consider the coalition option.
Cheryl McNamara is a member of Canadians for Coalition.
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