Notes on a crisis: the coalition is not illegitimate, just ill-advised

To be clear: there is nothing unconstitutional or illegitimate in the notion of a coalition government, per se. Nor would the Governor General be committing any sin against democracy were she to disregard the prime minister’s advice, following his defeat in a confidence vote, and call upon the coalition to form a government, rather than dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Constitutional scholars are virtually unanimous that she has that option, and only slightly less so that she should in fact exercise it.

But it is not a slam dunk. She must take into consideration whether the coalition is likely to last, or whether its in-built volatility is such as to condemn Canada to a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty. But even if she does hand them the keys — and that is much the more probable result: whatever misgivings she might have, she would doubtless feel she lacked the legitimacy to exercise such discretion — that doesn’t make it a good idea.

My beef is not with the notion of a coalition, as such. It is with this coalition, at this time. My criticisms are not that it is undemocratic, but that it is unstable; not that it is illegitimate, but that it is misdirected and unjustified. (The opposition is entitled to vote no confidence in the government for any reason it likes — but I am entitled to say that the reasons it offers are humbug.) The policies it pursues are, in my judgement, likely to prove calamitous for the country, and ruinous for the Liberal party. But if that is what the majority of the House decides, that is how our system works.

Up to a point. The public’s views of the result cannot simply be ignored. It may be that the Conservatives are appealing to popular ignorance of parliamentary government, with their demands for an election before any change of government. But it may also be that there is a broader question of legitimacy at play: past a certain point, if a thing is rejected by the public, it becomes illegitimate. This is such a bizarre situation, such an extreme application of the traditional Parliamentary prerogative to choose a government — defeating a government so soon after an election, and propping up such a rickety contraption in its place, even leaving aside the question of the Bloc’s involvement — that the public’s response may well be, like the child in the New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”

MOREOVER: A number of people have written to ask how I could have a problem with the coalition, given my support for proportional representation, with its tendency to produce coalition governments. But the two are entirely separable questions. First, as I say above, I have particular problems with this coalition, as opposed to coalitions in general. But second, and more fundamentally: the present situation is not a template for what would obtain under PR.

A minority government is a very different thing under first-past-the-post than under PR, and so would be the coalitions that arise. There would be different parties, with different bases — less geographical, more ideological — and different incentives: whereas FPTP, with its highly leveraged outcomes — a 2 per cent swing in the popular vote leading to a 60 seat swing in Parliamentary representation — encourages parties to push the button on an election the minute they think they have the upper hand, under PR there is no such payoff — a 2% swing means 2% more seats — and no such incentive. As a result, modern PR systems tend to be more stable, not less, than FPTP. And the coalitions are typically formed before elections, not after: the National Party and the Liberals in Australia run as a ticket, as do the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union (and, more often than not, the Free Democrats) in Germany.

Under PR, there would be fewer Bloc seats, and thus less likelihood that it would hold the balance of power. There would be more parties, and thus more possible coalition partners. And there would be much less incentive to partisan rancor: majority governing coalitions would be formed, not by splitting votes, but by combining them.