The Madness: Democrats vs Parliamentarians

As we lead up to the return of the House, battle lines are being drawn over the legitimacy of the forgotten-but-not-dead coalition. Two clear positions have emerged: On the one side, there is a group we can call the Democrats. The Democrats believe that while the coalition may be constitutionally  ok in a narrow, legal sense, it violates basic principles of democratic legitimacy. Two prominent Democrats are Michael Bliss and Norman Spector.

On the other side are the Parliamentarians. This group — which includes almost every academic in the country — points out that we elected a parliament, not a party or a president; that parliamentary coalitions are unremarkable in all sorts of civilied countries; and that Harper’s Conservatives had clearly lost the confidence of the House, with a stable government waiting to take over.

At the start, I was a staunch Parliamentarian, and I took Harper to task for claiming that the coalition was an attempt to overturn the results of the last election. I believed the coalition was politically a Bad Idea, but both constitutionally sound and democratically legitimate. I have changed my mind. I am now a Democrat; I have become persuaded by the arguments of men like Professor Bliss — whose piece on the Madness was the best thing he’s written in years — and finally of Richard Van Loon, who has a finely argued piece in today’s OC. Here’s the best part:

So what really makes a coalition legitimate?

International precedents suggest three conditions. One is that the country faces a compelling national emergency, usually a major war. A second, broadly applicable in less troubled times, is that voters must know in advance that they are voting for potential members of a coalition, one which will govern if its members can claim a majority of seats in the legislature immediately after the election. A third is that a party with a plurality, already in government or immediately after an election, forms the coalition and immediately seeks support of the legislature. But as the New Zealand experience in the late 1990s suggests the latter is not always a successful strategy. Stable coalitions in peacetime are virtually always underpinned by the results of an election in which voters were aware of the possibility of their formation.

The current coalition agreement in Canada does not meet any of these tests…

My interview with Peter Russell, who disagrees with me on this, will appear soon.

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