In the wake of last month's British election, Canadians are taking a second look at coalition government - after having massively rejected a Liberal-NDP coalition supported by the Bloc Québécois less than two years ago. However, Britons appear to be pleased with their first coalition government since the Second World War. And many voters in our country are desperately looking for ways to thwart the formation of a third consecutive Conservative government, which - based on current polls - appears to be where we're headed.
In light of our common political traditions, there's much Canadians can learn from the British experience. Across the pond, the first-place Conservatives and third-place Liberal Democrats formed their coalition government immediately after the election. During the campaign, neither party had ruled out such an arrangement - as Stéphane Dion did in the 2008 campaign.
Moreover, in Canada, the Harper government had already survived a confidence vote on the Speech from the Throne. With the opposition suggesting the Governor-General would have no choice but to hand power to the proposed coalition without an election, no wonder The Economist magazine referred to the initiative as a "coup."
For a time, coalition negotiators in Britain, too, flirted with illegitimacy. During the campaign, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg told voters that in the case of a "hung Parliament," he'd give the party with the plurality of seats and votes the first chance at forming a government, but never said what he'd do if negotiations failed. Contrary to Canadian practice since 1925, prime minister Gordon Brown did not immediately resign after it became clear that the Conservatives had won the election.
Although Paul Martin briefly considered invoking his right to meet the House after the Conservatives won the 2006 election, Mackenzie King was the last of our prime ministers to choose that gambit - the first move in what became known as the Byng-King crisis. Indeed, in 1957, Louis St. Laurent gave way to John Diefenbaker even though the Liberals had won the popular vote.
In Britain, with the Lib Dems and the Conservatives at the table, Mr. Brown and Mr. Clegg opened a parallel negotiation track. Since together they could not command a majority in the Commons, there was even talk of relying on the secessionist Scottish National Party for support. Sound familiar?
For ideological reasons, many Liberal Democrats preferred a coalition with Labour; however, commentators quickly labelled any such arrangement "a coalition of the losers." Mr. Brown, who like Mr. Dion had never obtained a personal mandate to govern, offered to resign within the year, but it was too little, too late.
In the end, after protracted behind-closed-door negotiations, the Conservatives and Lib Dems hashed out a common program. Britons who'd voted for tax cuts awoke to a government pledged to increasing the capital gains tax; Liberal Democrat voters discovered their party now backed quick, and deep, expenditure cuts.
From our side of the Atlantic, Jack Layton reacted positively to the coalition government, as did Gilles Duceppe. However, Mr. Layton was not asked about the attempt by Labour - the NDP's sister party in the Socialist International - to cling to power in a "coalition of the losers." And Mr. Duceppe - who agreed in 2008 to support the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition for one year - was not asked about the British coalition's five-year promise of stability.
For weeks, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff refused to be drawn, other than to say that the situation in the two countries differs. Mr. Ignatieff, it will be recalled, reluctantly supported the 2008 coalition, though he eventually termed it "illegitimate." Less than a year ago, he made his position even clearer: "The Liberal Party would not agree to a coalition. … we do not support a coalition today or tomorrow" - a position his office reiterated as recently as two weeks ago.
Two days ago, however, facing dismal polls, Conservative goading and internal party dissent, Mr. Ignatieff reversed course. He now says that coalition governments are "perfectly legitimate." He also said he'd be prepared to lead one if the numbers were right after the next election, noting that the Bloc's overriding objective "sets limits to what you can do" with that party.
The battle lines for our next election have now been drawn: Outside 10 Downing St. last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper observed that "losers don't get to form coalitions." Meanwhile, Canadians will have an opportunity to observe how a coalition government operates within a British parliamentary system.