Ontario: coalition dreaming

Paul Wells on Andrea Horwath, the Ontario Liberals and a stack of hypotheticals
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath speaks to the media at the Waterloo Region, International Plowing Match opening ceremonies in Roseville, near Kitchener-Waterloo, ON, Tuesday, September 18, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

It’s not clear what Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath expects from the province’s next Liberal premier, whom the party will select on Jan. 26. She’s “open to working to get results for the people of this province,” in contrast to Conservative opposition leader Tim Hudak, who likes his chances in an election and will likely withhold confidence as early as possible to try to get one.

Does that mean Horwath wants a Liberal-NDP coalition?

Perhaps not. She’s already pointing to the deal she cut last year with Dalton McGuinty, a simple, classic, well-tested case of an opposition party withholding its sanction so a minority government can continue to survive, in return for specific concessions. That’s not a coalition, which would entail some sort of formal power-sharing, such as, for instance, NDP MPPs with ministerial portfolios in a cabinet led by a Liberal premier.

But Horwath isn’t ruling that out. At some point, an opposition leader gets in trouble with her own supporters if she keeps propping up a government from another party. Most New Democrats didn’t join that party to ensure a 10th consecutive year of Liberal government. Eventually Horwath will need to extract benefits commensurate with the cost: she’ll need cabinet experience for herself and some of her caucus, which would mean a coalition. Or she won’t bother propping up Premier Next, and the province will be in an election before summer.

If there were a coalition, Hudak could do nothing but complain and hope for a voter backlash against the coalition plotters down the road.  That’s not what happened last time: a Liberal-NDP pact took power from the Conservatives; the Liberal, David Peterson, won a majority at the next election; and the New Democrat, Bob Rae, won his own majority in the election after that. It was a good long time before the Conservatives, who had governed Ontario forever, were able to get it back.

Now here’s the tricky part. No Liberal candidate can proclaim any eagerness to work too closely with the NDP, because party members in a leadership race are capable of feats of self-delusion, and they will read self-preservation as selling out. Already there’s a dynamic where Sandra Pupatello, one of the leading Liberal candidates, is portraying Kathleen Wynne, the other front-runner, as too eager to give in to NDP demands. So the likeliest route to a coalition after the Liberal leadership vote includes plenty of denials before the vote that any such thing is possible.

A Liberal-NDP coalition government in Ontario after Jan. 26, then, would be bad news to Tim Hudak, because he could not block it. But it would be good news for Stephen Harper, who would use the Ontario coalition as evidence that his warnings of a federal NDP-Liberal coalition are credible — despite what they might say beforehand.

As always, it’s worth repeating that governing coalitions are legitimate in parliamentary systems. But so is it legitimate for voters to judge their composition and performance and decide whether they want to support parties that are likely to form coalitions. It’s also worth admitting that this whole post is built on a stack of hypotheticals. The likeliest near-term future for Ontario politics is an election within a few months after the next Liberal leader is chosen.