Zach Paikin is a graduate of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. Greta Hoaken studies history and Middle Eastern studies at McGill University. Both have been involved with the Liberal Party of Canada.
Our country has not seen a successful, major act of nation-building – a substantial forward leap for our country's governance or international standing – since the Clarity Act. A decade and a half later, Canadians are left with a question that could very well define our country's democratic future: Do we continue with a system that is broken, or revolutionize it?
Many complex proposals have been put forward regarding how to fix our democratic ailments, but one particular change of culture alone could work wonders: We contend that all federal governments should be coalition governments, even if a single party holds a majority of the seats in Parliament. Allow us to clarify precisely what this would imply.
A fixed minimum percentage of cabinet posts would be reserved for members of the "opposition" parties. Under the current system, a party can win the majority of seats (and all of the cabinet positions) in a general election, but obtain less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. We seek to rectify this by mandating the inclusion of other party members in the conversations that matter most – those held by cabinet.
Furthermore, a commitment would be made not to call confidence votes unless there is certainty that the bill in question would pass, a certainty to be obtained through consultation with individual MPs. Elections would be held at fixed times every four years, culminating in a lengthy writ period designed to deepen policy debate during elections, to render less effective simplistic campaign messages, and to discourage hyper-partisan behaviour late in a Parliament's ultimate session. All of this can be agreed upon in principle and be kept in good faith.
The successful implementation of this new norm would bring about a much-needed revolution on multiple critical public policy fronts.
First, coalition governments would slow – and potentially end – the increasing polarization within Canada's foreign policy debate. Both the Canadian left and right believe that their foreign policy reflects universal principles (either liberal internationalist or Reagan-esque), and each largely does not recognize the legitimacy of the other. A national unity government would allow Canada to speak with a single voice and would encourage parties to come together to focus on securing Canada's long-term interests. For instance, the progressive parties' focus on the environment and aboriginal rights combined with the Conservatives' interest in Arctic sovereignty would help make Canada a more credible and forceful northern power.
Second, national-unity governments would discredit the current political climate of campaigning in perpetuity, shifting the focus toward governing for the whole of the country and developing common policy solutions to our problems. Moreover, under a coalition government, every region of the country would find itself represented, thus strengthening national unity and allowing our country to operate on full cylinders for the first time since the Bloc Québécois rise in the early 1990s. Our ability to tackle challenges and propose radical ideas when needed would be significantly invigorated.
And third, establishing a coalition-government norm would reaffirm the fact that we elect Parliaments, and not governments, in this country. Cabinet would be composed of the best and brightest that Parliament has to offer. Policy outcomes would be even more representative of Canada's diversity. As Canada deals with demographic, geopolitical and environmental tests, our response would benefit from true cross-country consultation.
We often hear talk of scrapping the first-past-the-post system for one of proportional representation. While a proportional representation system would admittedly bring about some beneficial changes to government, issues still remain. Our current system allows for greater community connection to MPs – they represent given ridings, after all. This does not exist with proportional representation, which favours the party far more than the individual. This sense of blind partisanship is what we seek to lessen.
There would be no shortage of political obstacles to the adoption of this practice. A theoretical Liberal prime minister would have a tough time explaining to his caucus why he was putting a handful of Tories and New Democrats in cabinet in place of some of his fellow Grits. In effect, this bears a striking resemblance to the "tragedy of the commons" – someone would have to risk short-term political pain for the country's long-term gain.
We are not alone in our belief that having a cabinet of mixed political opinions and allegiances best serves all citizens. U.S. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has appointed Republicans to high-ranking positions within his own cabinet, which has helped to increase dialogue within an increasingly polarized Congress. Despite identifying as Republicans, Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel have both held the position of Secretary of Defence under President Obama, and one cannot overlook Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. In Canada we do not see this level of multiparty co-operation, despite it being evidently feasible for our southern, more partisan neighbours.
We live in an era in which centralization around party leaders has made it less evident to the public what potential prime ministers wish to do with power. After nearly 15 years of hyper-partisanship and absence of big ideas, national coalition governments could reinvigorate our country at a time of major global change. Now is an opportune time for both the Canadian people and its political leaders to ask themselves whether we want to do what it takes to become a serious global player in an evolving world order, and whether we believe it is time to reject politics as usual in favour of something better.