How do coalition governments work?

Canada sails into ‘uncharted territory’

How do coalition governments work?

So the Liberals and NDP have ironed out the dirty details behind their Stéphane Dion-led coalition in waiting. Broadly, both believe in stimulus over belt-tightening. But how do coalition governments work, anyway?

For starters, they plan ahead. If—and that’s a big if—Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t pull the procedural fire alarm by proroguing Parliament, and the Conservative government is defeated in a confidence motion on Dec. 8, Harper will seek the dissolution of Parliament and ask Governor General Michaëlle Jean for another election. “She’ll say no,” says constitutional expert Paul Thomas, with the University of Manitoba. Given that the would-be coalition government has a 24-member cabinet, a legislative agenda that includes a multi-billion dollar stimulus package for Canada’s troubled economy and an agreement with the Bloc Québécois to support it for 18 months, Thomas predicts the Governor General would grant it the opportunity to lead; that way, Canada would also avoid the uncertainty—and $300-million expense—of an election. Constitutional expert Ned Franks agreed with Thomas in an interview with The Globe and Mail, citing British and Canadian and precedents, including the 1985 accord with the NDP that allowed Ontario Liberal leader David Peterson to take power after Frank Miller’s minority Progressive Conservative government went down in defeat.

We’d then be sailing into “uncharted territory,” says historian Desmond Morton, a professor emeritus at McGill University. With the exception of Sir Robert Borden’s Union Government of 1917-20 and the Liberal-Conservative coalition that governed B.C. from 1941 to 1952, Canada has “very little experience in this area,” he adds.

Coalitions are quite common, however, in Italy, Israel and the Nordic and Benelux countries, as well as Pakistan and India. Currently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is governing a “grand coalition” that includes her conservative Christian Democrats and the left-leaning Social Democratic Party. Since 1959, Switzerland has been run by a four-party coalition called the “Magic Formula.” And indeed, that’s one of the potential downsides of coalition governance: getting out can be tricky, both Thomas and Morton agree. “Coalition partners tend to stick together,” says Morton; splitting up often guarantees victory for the opposition. In other countries, however—like Italy and Israel, where 12 different political parties hold seats in the Knesset—coalitions can be unpredictable, unwieldy and chaotic. They can also give voice to ideological extremists—“people who should be kept from power,” says Morton. In Austria, for example, two extremist, anti-immigrant parties are part of the governing conservative coalition.

On the plus side, however, a coalition government is often seen as a more democratic outcome, says Morton. “Most Canadians did not vote Conservative,” he says; therefore, “more people will feel like, ‘I have my guy in government.’” But maintaining unity in a country as large and fragmented as Canada wouldn’t be easy, says Thomas; as in New Zealand, we’d have to learn as we go. Governed by coalition since 1996, the small, relatively homogeneous two-island country has had to develop an exhaustive set of new rules governing everything from cabinet solidarity, to caucus confidence, to who gets to speak for government and who works with the public sector. “It’s been painful,” he says. Unless egos are kept firmly in check, Morton suspects Canada’s new coalition might not last long.

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