Harper's hypocrisy problem

Andrew Coyne on why he considers the coalition issue settled

As Jerry Springer might put it, what have we learned after day one of the campaign?

This morning’s statement from Michael Ignatieff on the coalition question was, for the most part, admirably clear:

Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government.

If that is the Liberal Party, then I will be required to rapidly seek the confidence of the newly-elected Parliament. If our government cannot win the support of the House, then Mr. Harper will be called on to form a government and face the same challenge…

If, as Leader of the Liberal Party, I am given the privilege of forming the government, these are the rules that will guide me:

… We will not enter a coalition with other federalist parties. In our system, coalitions are a legitimate constitutional option. However, I believe that issue-by-issue collaboration with other parties is the best way for minority Parliaments to function.

We categorically rule out a coalition or formal arrangement with the Bloc Quebecois…

That certainly sounded like he was ruling out a coalition altogether. Indeed, the conditions were similar to those suggested in my previous post.

There seemed nevertheless to be a possible loophole: the statement explicitly mentioned only what would happen if the Liberals were to win the most seats. But the whole coalition issue has centred on what would happen if the Tories won a minority, but were then defeated on a confidence motion in the House. Did the no-coalition pledge apply in that case? Was the Grit statement a carefully worded dodge, leaving room for the party to claim later that it had never ruled out a coalition in the latter event?

I called the Liberals to inquire. Their MP, David McGuinty, called me back. He was careful to make sure he understood my question, and I was careful to make sure I had heard his answer correctly. And it was unequivocal: the same rules would apply in either case. No coalition, no formal arrangement with the Bloc.

I consider the issue settled. It has taken far too long to get Ignatieff to this point — he should have ruled out a coalition long ago — and there can be little doubt the reason for his silence until today: he was trying to keep his options open. But now he has been forced to choose. Unless he is just flat out lying — the biggest lie that ever was: formally, publicly and in black and white, on a matter of the highest importance and the hottest controversy — there will be no Liberal-led coalition. The Tories are certainly entitled to point out that the Liberals in general, and Ignatieff in particular, said there would be no coalition before the last election, too. But while the Grits might claim, weakly, that those earlier statements were honestly intended at the time, that circumstances arose they could not have anticipated, they can make no such defense of breaking such a blood oath as Ignatieff has just issued. This one is — must be — ironclad.

Now: none of this means that Ignatieff has promised not to topple a Conservative minority government, should one be returned, or replace it with one led by him. He has ruled out a coalition; he has not ruled out a minority government of some other kind. Nor should he. There is absolutely nothing “illegitimate” about one government being replaced by another in this way, that is by the vote of Parliament rather than the votes of the people, and the Tory leader was wrong to have claimed there is. For that matter,  there’s nothing illegitimate about coalition governments, either — though the involvement of the Bloc would be an exception to that rule. On this Stephen Harper was right: you can seek to break up the country, or you can govern the country, but you can’t do both.

The only issue with regard to the possibility of a Liberal-NDP coalition was a political one: would voters, especially right-of-centre voters, care to see a government with NDP cabinet ministers? His pledge today should assuage that concern. Voters must still weigh whether they are comfortable with a Liberal government propped up by the NDP, perhaps via some sort of electoral pact, a la the Peterson-Rae accord in Ontario in 1985 — for the Governor General would want some assurance, in the event the Tories were brought down, that whatever replaced it would be likely to last. And whatever was cobbled together between them would probably still be short of a majority, meaning it would have to seek the support of either the Bloc or the Tories to pass legislation. The Tories are perfectly entitled to point all this out. But that is a very different thing than a coalition. People who consider this a matter of potato-potahto do not know their constitution. It is the difference between the legislative and executive, between MPs and cabinet ministers.

But what of the Conservatives? Weren’t they proposing a coalition themselves, via that notorious 2004 letter to the Governor General? No. While it’s abundantly clear that Harper was ready to replace Paul Martin as prime minister under exactly the circumstances he now denounces — making him not just wrong but hypocritical — it is equally clear he was not proposing to form a coalition. The letter makes no mention of it. All three leaders denied it at the time. And all three have continued to deny it to this day: asked about it at his morning press conference, Duceppe protested he did not want “to invent things.” (Duceppe later tweeted that Harper “talked about” a coalition in their meeting, but has not clarified what this means. Did he propose one? Then why was no such coalition proposed in the letter?) Harper’s readiness to form a government, with the support of the other two parties, in 2004 does not mean he was plotting a coalition, for the same reason that Ignatieff can promise one without the other now: cooperation is not the same as coalition.

Still, it’s worth pursuing Harper on this point. What would he do if his party was returned with a minority, or if the Liberals were? I presume he, too, would rule out a coalition, and I’m prepared to take him at his word on that point. But if he now believes it is “illegitimate” for one government to replace another without going back to the people, is he then formally swearing that he would never again make the kind of agreement with the other parties, whatever it was, he was so evidently prepared to make in 2004?

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