Seven weeks ago, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made gains in the early election he had called, but remained in a minority. Now his opponents have finally agreed to bury their differences enough to unseat him.
Yesterday the opposition Liberals and New Democratic Party announced that they would form a coalition, with the support of the separatist Quebec Bloc. Between them, the three parties have 163 seats to 143 for Harper’s Conservatives, so there is not much doubt about the outcome of a vote of confidence.
The Conservatives are outraged at this development, and have launched an advertising campaign that “suggests it’s unacceptable in Canada to take over a government without an election”. There is talk of Harper proroguing parliament until January, but this would just be delaying the inevitable.
As it happens, I think that Harper is absolutely right on the issue that seems to have most galvanised the opposition — namely, abolition of public funding for political parties. But his efforts to stay in power against a parliamentary majority elected less than two months ago cannot be justified.
In most democracies, this conclusion would not be controversial: bargaining between parties after an election is an accepted means of forming governments. But Disraeli pointed out many years ago that “England does not love coalitions” and the English-speaking world has a peculiar affection for winner-takes-all electoral systems that produce clear-cut results.
In Australia, we are used to the Liberal-National coalition, but only because for most of the time, it’s possible to treat them as in-effect amounting to a single party. Whenever the Nationals show signs of independence, as they did earlier this year in Western Australia, we get the usual run of commentary bemoaning the threat of instability.
But if the voters don’t award a majority to a single party, it’s hard to see why the electoral system should artificially impose one on them.
Canadians clearly voted for the centre-left parties: although the Liberal-NDP combination is behind the Conservatives in seats, it was well ahead of them in votes. Harper’s 37.6% of the vote isn’t much of a mandate; the Liberals, NDP and Greens between them won 51.2% of the vote, even without the Quebeckers.
Coalition will be a new experience for Canadians, but unless the Liberals are willing to become just an echo of the Conservatives, they need to bring the NDP within the tent — just as Germany’s Social Democrats did with the Greens in the 1990s. The voters might not like the result, but that’s democracy.