The Canadian federal election is just around the corner and the polls seem to be characterized by each of the three main parties having about one third of the popular vote. The balance shifts a few percentage points each week, and the seat tally shifts depending on how the vote is distributed, but in the final analysis it seems that Canadian voters are pretty well evenly strewn among the three parties. A minority government is almost certainly going to be the result and old questions about coalition governments are rearing once again.
The interesting thing about Canadian political parties is that the left is split between the Liberals and the NDP, while the right is in the hands of the Conservatives. That’s a little deceptive as examining recent history will show you that the current Conservatives are the result of a merger between the old Progressive Conservative party and the western based Heritage party. The current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, actually came from that Heritage party. (It is interesting that they solved the name issue by dropping the word “progressive”.) The Conservative party, which embodies the politics more right of centre, is therefore already a coalition that has simply been formalized with an actual merger. The Liberals and the NDP, who embody the politics more left of centre, are still maintaining their individual identities, even though they have far more in common with each other than either has with the Conservatives. Clearly, if the Liberals and the NDP were to merge (and maybe even include the Green Party), and create a two party system in Canada similar to what they have in the U.S., the Conservative Party, at least as it exists now, would never win another election. Two thirds of the voters are currently supporting parties that sit left of centre. (That’s not to say that the Conservative Party wouldn’t change its nature if the political landscape changed drastically.)
Admittedly we have a lot of independent voters that see themselves as centrist in their political views. They often bounce back and forth between the Liberals and the Conservatives. They have a dilemma to deal with in the current election seeing as the Liberals and the NDP have sort of swapped places, with the NDP trying to take the more central role and the Liberals being forced more to the left. It makes the centre and left territory a little more fuzzy.
So, it is no wonder that the Conservatives are strongly opposed to the idea of a coalition government and the other two parties are more open to it (in spite of the overt Liberal policy). Each party has its own interpretation of the Westminster system of Parliament, on which our elections are based. The Conservatives insist that our electoral system says that the party with the most seats should form the government. The other parties have a differing view.
The reality is that the Westminster system gives the incumbent party first shot at forming a government. It seems to me that this, itself, is a vindication of the idea of coalition governments. If a sitting government were to lose an election, only by forming a coalition would they be able to retain power. I’ve only heard of one situation where this was even considered in Canadian federal politics, but it is not that unusual in European countries. The second shot usually does go to the party with the most seats, but there is a harsh reality there. If that is a minority government, it could last as long as the first vote of confidence. If they were to lose that important vote, it could potentially trigger another election immediately. So, it is the case that if a coalition of parties approaches the Governor General after the results of an election are in, they could be given the right to form a coalition in Parliament, even though the parties separately haven’t gotten the most votes. The idea of a confidence vote in our system creates a situation where it is the elected Parliament which determines the Prime Minister and the ruling party. Whether you feel that is right or not, that, in fact, is the way our system works. Protests from the Conservative party that coalitions are “unfair” are not based in fact.
Our “first past the post” system of elections has come under a lot of scrutiny lately, with many vying for alternative electoral systems. In my opinion this seems like a good idea and worth examining. A system where 10% of the people can vote for the Green Party, only resulting in 1 seat, or where 40% of the voters cast their ballots for the Conservative Party and they end up with a majority government, is just not representative government. In a country where between 60% and 70% of the voters are making a statement that they want change, re-electing a Conservative government, even if it is a minority, seems unfair. Those wanting to change the electoral system are looking at some more whole scale changes to the system, which I’m not going into here, but a coalition government formed to provide a clearly desired change does not seem to be a bad idea at all, -except for the party that can’t manage to retain power even though they don’t represent anywhere near a majority of Canadians.
Canada is not like the United States, where there are only two parties. If you look at world governments where there are more than two major political parties, coalition governments are not uncommon. In fact, if the Green Party were to build support and garner more seats, coalition governments might become an absolute necessity.