Canadians head to the polls on May 2 for the fourth time in just seven years. Minority government, it seems, brings with it political instability and voter fatigue. Is the Canadian experience a portent of what might happen in Australia if minority government becomes the rule rather than the exception?
The May election in Canada was triggered last Friday, when the opposition Liberals, New Democratic Party (NDP), and Bloc Quebecois combined to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government on a first-ever contempt of Parliament non-confidence motion — for refusing to release details on the full costs of controversial government programs.
Canadians have lived with minority governments since 2004, when the Paul Martin Liberals were returned to office with 135 of 308 seats. The Harper Conservatives won more seats than any other party in the 2006 and 2008 elections but fell short of a parliamentary majority.
This time around Harper has charged out of the gate claiming that if voters don’t finally give him a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons in 2011, the government of Canada will fall into the hands of a “reckless coalition” of the same Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloquistes that brought his government down last Friday.
You might think Canadian party leaders would welcome the concept of coalition governments, as a way of dealing constructively with their current minority government syndrome. A coalition government now holds office in the United Kingdom. In Australia the Liberal-National Party coalition is one of the oldest and strongest conservative groupings in the world. And now the emerging alliance type arrangements between the ALP and the Greens in Tasmania and at the federal level are ensuring political stability for non-conservative parties.
In Canada, however, the coalition concept has gained some notoriety in the more recent past. Just after the 2008 election Harper proposed political party financing policies that worked against the interests of all three opposition parties. This inspired plans for an opposition coalition government that would replace his second minority government without another election.
These plans followed accepted parliamentary democratic rules. But they would have made Liberal leader Stephane Dion prime minister, even though his party had won only 77 seats in the 2008 election, compared with 143 seats for Harper’s Conservatives. A related problem was the role of the Bloc Quebecois — which still claims to believe in the ultimate “separation” of Canada’s French-speaking majority province of Quebec from the wider federation.
Popular reaction against this coalition concept allowed Harper to get away with avoiding an immediate opposition non-confidence motion by proroguing Parliament. And as a result of the 2008 experience, Harper’s current attack has enough popular traction that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff felt obliged to declare he will not enter into any formal coalition agreement with any other party after the May 2, 2011 vote.
The big question is will Harper’s attack at last win him a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons (which as a result of the number of parties and the electoral system can be achieved with much less than a majority of the popular vote).
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Early polls suggest a Harper Conservative majority is possible but certainly less than a sure thing. If Canada does wind up with yet another minority government (most likely Conservative yet again, but barely possibly Liberal), Canadian political leaders might just have to look to Australia, and see that coalition governments can and do work — regardless of what never did quite happen in Canada, in the late autumn of 2008.
Greg Barns is a barrister and director of the Australian Lawyers Allianceand. Randall White is author of several books on Canadian politics and editor of political website Counterweights.