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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Why adversarial politics and minority governments don't mix Add to ...

Minutes after Michael Ignatieff's decision to force an election, various Liberal MPs pronounced themselves "relieved."

Now, they said, we can oppose the government, even if that means an election. Clearly, the idea of supporting the Harper government's budget had rankled Liberals, as had the idea of co-operating with the government on just about anything.

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It did not matter that Canadians went through an election last fall, and would now vote a fourth time in recent years. We, said the Liberals, think the government's "time is up," to use Mr. Ignatieff's phrase.

The Liberal reaction typified a revealing hyper-partisanship, shared by all parties, that fits badly with the minority governments Canadian voters have recently produced three times - and might again.

We have no tradition in Canadian federal politics of coalitions, or even sustained arrangements among parties. True, the Liberals and New Democrats, supported by the Bloc Québécois, tried to forge a coalition last December, but it failed. And there are examples of temporary arrangements among parties that have kept Parliament functioning for a while. But without new thinking about co-operation, our system will become even more dysfunctional in an era of minority governments.

Canada's parliamentary and party systems are set up for an adversarial style of politics that usually results in a majority on one side and an opposition party (or parties) on the other. That is how Canadian politics mostly worked until recent years, when minority governments became the rule rather than the exception.

Under majorities, opposition parties could oppose all the time, knowing the government would not fall. The idea of co-operating with the majority, except on occasional matters, was not part of an opposition party's thinking. And since the party with a majority did not need additional support, it didn't co-operate much with the minority parties.

Transplant those traditions, habits of mind and practices from majority to minority governments, and politics and government become dysfunctional. Everything, every day, becomes a question of tactics and political calculation, because the adversarial instincts from the mindset of majority governments rule out serious co-operation.

The big parties keep manoeuvring daily, and opposing each other most of the time, because they think the next election will bring a return to the status quo ante: a majority government with their side in control.

They are not really interested in co-operating (rhetoric to the contrary), except very temporarily, and are "relieved" when that brief moment of co-operation ends so that they can return to hyper-partisan, adversarial politics.

Big parties cannot co-operate on a sustained basis with the Bloc Québécois because the Bloc is only interested in Quebec - and a particular view of Quebec at that. Since its objective remains to remove Quebec from Canada, no national parties can co-operate with it.

The NDP was obviously the party most eager for last December's coalition arrangement. Coalitions or arrangements in minority governments give the New Democrats influence, or even a bit of power. The party did prop up the minority Paul Martin government for a while, and kept Pierre Trudeau's government afloat after the 1972 election.

But the support of New Democrats is usually conditional and can easily be withdrawn. Their demands usually reflect not their relatively small share of the popular vote, but their kingmaker role in Parliament. Their tail tries to wag the dog of much larger parties.

Canada could, of course, change the voting system to some form of proportional representation, as some serious Canadians propose. Any form of PR would mean minority governments almost all the time that might morph into coalitions. If the record elsewhere is any guide, PR would create more parties. But PR might force parties over time to co-operate more with each other.

A change to PR would take a long time. Voters in three provinces (PEI, B.C. and Ontario) have already turned down proposals to change the existing system. Governments in two other provinces (New Brunswick and Quebec) have backed off presenting the idea to their electorate. Politically, PR is dead, except in the federal NDP.

Or, Canadians can hope (forlornly?) that if the forthcoming election produces yet another minority government, the parties themselves will recognize that this business of being "relieved" so that they can continue as before, practising instinctively adversarial politics all the time, is not consistent with the minority Parliaments that Canadians are electing.

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