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Why Michael Ignatieff had to rule out a coalition Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff has ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition government with the NDP because he understands this truth: There is the Constitution, and there is the people's will, and the people's will prevails.

A friend who is well versed in the workings of Parliament expressed confused frustration, recently. Why, she asked, was there so much resistance to the idea of a coalition government? The Canadian political system provides for it, other Westminster-style governments have embraced it. There is a coalition government right now in Britain. Why should Canada be any different?

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But though my friend was on one level deeply knowledgeable, on a more important level she was deeply ill-informed.

Westminster-style constitutions like Canada's are largely unwritten. Everything is based on theory, precedent and practice. In theory, the candidates who receive the most votes in each riding are elected to the House of Commons. These members of Parliament then meet and decide who among them should form a government.

But while the Constitution may decree that people vote for their MP, studies show that only about 5 per cent of voters cast ballots based on the local candidate, according to Queen's University constitutional expert Ned Franks. The rest vote for a leader or a party, usually without distinguishing between the two.

If the largest party in the House doesn't have a majority of seats, then it must survive with the support of at least one other party. Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson governed for five years that way. So has Stephen Harper.

Sometimes, the party that placed second has governed with the consent of the party that placed third. Former Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson formed a government in 1985 after he and then-NDP leader Bob Rae signed a two-year accord and defeated Frank Miller's Conservatives on the Throne Speech.

But when Stéphane Dion tried to form a coalition government with the NDP and the tacit support of the Bloc Québécois in 2008, not only did he fail, he lost his job as Liberal leader.

Why? Partly because Stephen Harper was able to persuade then-governor-general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament, but mostly because polls showed that Canadians strongly opposed the coalition.

The leader who places second can form a government only under two conditions: First, he has to come close. David Peterson came within four seats of defeating Mr. Miller and the Liberals actually won the popular vote.

Second, the people have to accept it. Mr. Peterson became premier because polls showed that people were fine with it, just as people were fine with David Cameron forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

The people are not fine with a leader losing badly and then becoming prime minister by forming a so-called coalition of losers. Constitutional experts can wave their tomes to their heart's content. It doesn't mean a thing. What matters most, Prof. Franks observes, "is that people feel comfortable with the result."

Critics of this view complain it undermines the principle of parliamentary democracy, and creates government by opinion poll. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. But that's the way it is.

Stephen Harper continues to insist that if he doesn't obtain a majority government, a coalition will replace him. "Nobody is going to be fooled," he declared Saturday. But in fact he is the one who is trying to fool us. He raises the spectre of a coalition of losers because he knows the idea is deeply unpopular. Mr. Ignatieff has ruled it out because he knows that too.

If the 41st Parliament ends up looking like the 40th - a strong Conservative minority - then the next government will look just like the last one. Mr. Harper will be prime minister, but he will have to govern with the consent of at least one other party.

Mr. Ignatieff accepts this. It's time Mr. Harper did too.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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