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Norman Spector (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda StemlerVictoria, BC, Canadawww.deddeda.comdeddeda@shaw.cadeddeda@hotmail.com+ 1 (250) 415-0507)
Norman Spector (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda StemlerVictoria, BC, Canadawww.deddeda.comdeddeda@shaw.cadeddeda@hotmail.com+ 1 (250) 415-0507)

Norman Spector

British coalitions and Canadian lessons Add to ...

In Britain, MPs broke for their annual summer recess Tuesday, nine weeks after the Queen presented the program of the first coalition government since the Second World War. With all the talk of coalitions in Canada - and the prospect of electoral reform in the U.K. that could make such arrangements a semi-permanent feature of our shared Westminster model - it's not too early for Canadians to begin drawing some lessons.

Most Britons are still satisfied with the way things turned out after the election, but the hard part will only begin when MPs return to business in September. Moreover, notwithstanding professions of brotherly love between Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, the reality is that politics remains a zero-sum game.

In that game, it's the Conservatives who've seen their support rise by about eight points, while the Liberal Democrats have fallen by about 10 since voting day. While it's true that Liberal Democrats are getting their first taste of power since the 1940s, this is a point Jack Layton's New Democrats may want to consider in their eagerness for coalition government.

That said, a large part of the reason for the shift in public opinion is that the coalition government is promising to be a very conservative one, indeed. Added to the unpopularity that comes with proposing to downsize the state by 25 per cent - with some departments set for a 40-per-cent cut - economists have upped the risk of a double-dip recession in light of the proposed austerity program.

The good news for Liberal Democrats is that the prospect of an election is still far off, thanks to the parties having agreed to a five-year, fixed-term Parliament. And Mr. Clegg is in the enviable position of standing in for Mr. Cameron when he's not in the House of Commons (although he's had to be reminded by the Speaker that he's there to state the government's position, not his or his party's).

So Britons have been spared the leaks and jockeying for position that Israelis - with their extreme form of coalition government - live with constantly. But with the Liberal Democrats sinking in the polls and the agreed date for a referendum on electoral reform threatened by a combination of Labour opposition and disgruntled Conservative backbenchers, don't be surprised if Israeli-style dysfunction appears before too long - and if the fixed term proves not so fixed.

The irony is that Mr. Clegg, holding the balance of power, was in the driver's seat after the election. True, both he and Mr. Cameron had to compromise their respective party platforms in striking the coalition agreement. So much so, in fact, that it would be inconceivable for Michael Ignatieff to campaign on the Red Book that proved so successful for Jean Chrétien in 1993. Indeed, Canadian voters would be wise to view with skepticism any plank in the platform of a party that's open to a coalition, unless it's accompanied by a non-negotiable proviso.

Thanks to the publication of Labour insider Peter Mandelson's memoirs and a BBC documentary, we now have a fuller picture of the backroom negotiations that began after the votes were counted on May 6: A prime minister travelling between Downing Street and Parliament in an unmarked car and by secret underground tunnel in a bid to hold on to power; Mr. Cameron's concessions flowing from a fear that his party would remain in opposition; the leadership of Labour becoming a matter for negotiation with the Liberal Democrats; and even discussion of changing the electoral system without a referendum.

In Canada, the NDP or the Bloc Québécois would have substantial heft if voters give one or the other the balance of power after the next election. In our system, however, it has been generally understood that the party with the most seats forms the government and has 12 to 18 months to enact part of its program, thanks to the widely shared antipathy for another election. At least that was the understanding until the near crisis of 2008 gave rise to a broad interpretation by some of the reserve powers of the governor-general that would require the transfer of power to a coalition without an election.

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