Coalition matters: the Coshist talking points

Colby Cosh on why the Conservatives' indignation over deals with the Bloc and the NDP is insincere

1. The grouches who are complaining that the election talk so far has focused too obsessively on coalitions and post-election hypotheticals are apparently incapable of seeing that discussion goes faster in the 21st century. That they are making this complaint all the way into the official first full day of the election should have served as a hint to them. (You’re exhausted already? Poor lambs.) There is plenty of time left to have this conversation, and to obtain desirable assurances from various party leaders. Particularly ones that are (or were, until yesterday) trying to get away with being a little mealy-mouthed about it!

2. The coalition chit-chat, after all, concerns a field of ethics and procedure in which there are few firm rules and novel, still-unresolved complexities. Canada is trying to govern itself with a separatist party close to (and unlikely to be driven very far away from) the fulcrum of power in its popular assembly. It is worth taking a little while to get this right.

3. From this standpoint, there seem to me to be obvious relevant differences between the 2004 Harper-Duceppe-Layton letter to the Governor-General—which merely expressed a common desire to be consulted before a dismissal of Parliament—and the detailed, binding, highly specific Opposition arrangements of 2008. It’s clear that Harper was contemplating an explicit deal with the Bloc Québécois (and the prior Reform/Alliance leadership had, while the stakes were still low, gotten pretty darned chummy with the Bloc). But events saved him from having to make the final choice; it’s Michael Ignatieff’s bad luck, I suppose, that he was faced with the same choice and signed on the dotted line for posterity.

4. The biggest difference of all between the “coalitions” of ’04 and ’08, of course, is that the second one was a hysterical defensive response to the Conservative threat to withdraw public funding from political parties. The wonk/nerd debate over the “how” of the ’08 coalition ignores the “why”. The wonks and nerds are being insincere; they know perfectly well how terrified Liberal strategists were, and are, of being cut off from the trough. This may be what they dread most about a Conservative majority.

5. When the Conservatives recite the word “coalition”, over and over again, this is what they really intend to remind the public of—that the Liberals were ready to talk turkey with the Bloc and the NDP to impede a very popular measure that would compromise their partisan interest. Do my fellow pundits really think it is wrong to suggest that Dion and Ignatieff put their party’s budget a little bit ahead of its traditional national-unity principles for a few weeks there? That seems like a fairly flat factual description of what happened, and, at any rate, that is how many voters will remember it. Public financing of political parties is a lot less popular on the street than it is in the salons frequented by the slothful dilettantes of the press and electronic media. (We are, after all, indirect beneficiaries of that financing.)

5. What this does mean, of course, is that the Conservatives’ own indignation over deals with the Bloc and the NDP, as such, is insincere. They’re posing as opponents of coalitions of a certain procedural type, merely as a way to preserve the memory of a particular one. But if the punditariat is prepared to plunge the political context of the ’08 coalition into oblivion, it cannot very well blame the Conservatives for trying to talk past it.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.