Election Issues 2015: A Maclean’s primer on coalitions

Maclean’s is your destination for the 2015 election. Start with our in-depth primers on the big issues, including coalitions

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If most Canadian voters have only foggy memories of the 2008 “coalition crisis,” the drama hasn’t faded for federal political pros. That fall’s newly elected Conservative minority nearly fell when Stephen Harper’s fall economic update pushed the Liberals and NDP into talks on forming a coalition—backed by the Bloc Québécois. Harper avoided being defeated in the House only by proroguing Parliament—essentially sidelining MPs until the threat had passed. That narrow escape hammered home the reality that a coalition of second- and third-place parties is a live possibility after any election in which the top party secures only a weak minority mandate.


Based on recent polls, the NDP, Liberals or Tories could win the most seats in the Oct. 19 election. In the case of a weak Conservative minority, the “progressive” second- and third-place finishers could combine to defeat them in a vote of confidence in the House, then ask the Governor General for a chance to govern. Recent precedents include Britain’s 2010 Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition government led by David Cameron, and Ontario’s 1985 Liberal-NDP “accord” government led by David Peterson.


Conservative:  During the 2011 campaign, Harper darkly warned of a repeat of the 2008 coalition. The Conservatives’ 2011 platform included 47 mentions of “coalition,” none approvingly. Lately, though, Harper hasn’t been raising the coalition spectre. That could change during a close campaign.

NDP:  Back in 2012, Thomas Mulcair told the Huffington Post that the 2008 experience had soured him on trying to work a coalition deal with the Liberals. “The ‘No’ is categorical, absolute, irrefutable and non-negotiable. It’s no. End of story. Full stop,” Mulcair said. More recently, he has suggested that the NDP remains open to the coalition concept, and that it’s Trudeau who is intransigent. “Whenever we have opened that door, Justin Trudeau slams it shut,” Mulcair said.

Liberal:  This summer, Justin Trudeau has ruled out a “formal coalition” with the NDP. But in a recent Maclean’s interview, he was cagier. “The Liberal party has always worked with multiple parties in the House to make sure we’re being governed in the best interest of Canadians,” Trudeau said, adding: “But I won’t short-circuit the democratic process by telling Canadians that a vote for X actually means a Y government, or what have you. I’m not going to reduce the choices of Canadians at the ballot box by backroom deals or secret arrangements.”

Green:  Elizabeth May has said her goal is to elect enough MPs to become the balance of power in a minority government and to introduce voter reform that moves toward proportional representation. That would greatly increase the possibility of coalition governments in the future. She told a university audience that Greens are part of coalition governments around the world, which is “extremely doable” in Canada.


“The most important thing voters should know about coalition government is that it’s a legitimate form of government, and it’s quite common in other Westminster systems that Canada shares a strong history with, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and even Ireland. Second, voters should know that coalition governments in these Westminster systems have produced stable, effective and, perhaps most important, highly representative governments.”
—James Kelly, Concordia University political science professor