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Jeffrey Simpson

Coalitions, arrangements, agreements - just not here Add to ...

Canada has the worst of two parliamentary worlds - and that's one of the reasons why so much confusion surrounds the word "coalition."

We have an electoral system designed to produce majority governments but that hasn't done so since the Chrétien years. After each election, both major parties think that maybe, just maybe, they'll get a majority the next time. So they conduct themselves as though they're in a majority Parliament, rather than displaying the compromises and accommodations that are necessary, or at least useful, in a minority one.

Put another way, parties have the wrong assumptions for the kinds of Parliament we're now electing. So either we again elect majority governments in which parliamentarians can carry on as before with one side proposing and the other opposing, or we change the electoral system to a proportional one that will always produce minorities and thus force changes in the habits of parliamentarians.

Check out today's democracies. Proportional systems in countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Ireland and Sweden all have coalitions, because there's no other way to run a parliament with an electoral system that almost never gives one party a majority of the seats.

In Britain, a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition governs on the basis of a joint policy declaration, with cabinet posts shared between the two. In Australia, there's no formal coalition, but the government exists on sufferance from a handful of independent MPs with whom it made certain commitments.

Coalitions, arrangements, agreements - there are all kinds of ways that parties can come together in parliamentary systems without a majority. The only place in recent years where none of these possibilities has happened is in Canada.

Would anything change in another minority Parliament? The omens are not good, partly because no federalist party wants any formal association with the secessionist Bloc Québécois, which itself has asserted no interest in joining any formal arrangement. It's impossible, after all, to include a party governing Canada whose avowed intention is to break up Canada.

But what about two parties exclusive of the Bloc? The Harper Conservatives have railed so often against the spectre of a "coalition" of Liberals and New Democrats that they'd have to swallow themselves whole to enter one after the next election. Mind you, Stephen Harper has already swallowed himself once: While he was leader of the opposition, he was on record as willing to consider arrangements with other parties.

The NDP, the third party, is always going to be the most eager for a sniff of power, hoping its tail will wag someone else's dog.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff couldn't deal with the issue properly when the campaign opened. He had to have known that the "coalition" question would be asked. But after fierce internal arguments, he still couldn't get the reply right, and so spent two days clarifying what he'd tried to make clear, ending with a categorical under no circumstances would he form a coalition with the NDP. The statement closed the door to what well might be useful after the election.

What Mr. Ignatieff should have said was: "I'm fighting for a majority Liberal government." Period. When asked to comment on hypothetical situations, he should have said: "I don't deal in hypotheticals."

All this frothing about "coalitions," especially "coalitions of losers," obscures what could arise after May 2. If a prime minister, say Mr. Harper, couldn't command a parliamentary majority, lost a confidence vote but demanded an immediate election, the Governor-General would be constitutionally correct to ask the leader of the opposition if he could govern. The leader would presumably seek support from other parties in a coalition, an arrangement, an understanding or whatever. If he commanded the confidence of the House, he would govern. And the world would continue to turn.

If this election produces another minority but the habits of mind of majority government still prevail, we shall again have the worst of both parliamentary worlds.

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