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Reprising the coalition

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Political Strategy

Christopher Waddell

With a federal election campaign about to begin, the post-2008 election three-party Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition talk is already back with the Conservatives likely to be bringing it up as often as possible. Before anyone pays much attention to all that though,  it is worth remembering that the environment is much different than in 2008.

There will be a provincial election in Quebec probably before the end of 2012 and the Parti Quebecois stands a reasonable chance of winning that vote. With that could come renewed talk of separation and even another referendum. As long as that remains a possibility, it would take a political world far stranger than even the one we have seen in recent months to have a federal coalition government in Ottawa include the Bloc but in an election campaign that’s unlikely to stop the Conservatives claiming it could happen.

Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27

Reader's Comments

  1. Aaron Ralph |

    Mr. Waddell, the political world can be no stranger going forward than it has been in the past 25 years. Consider the rise and fall of parties, party mergers, majorities with less than 40% of the vote, separatism referendum squeaker, 4 elections in 7 years (6 in 14), etc. Objectivity is the most important tool in the working journalist’s quiver. That’s what I have found over 3 decades. And, objectively, a coalition is very possible given relatively static polls.

    The coalition scenario fits fully with the behaviour of the three parties in 2008 when their public funding was threatened, and as its removal will be threatened again in this campaign the same behaviour can be expected, despite your reflexive pooh-pooh. So let’s take it down the road you have illuminated: 3-party coalition forms and takes government reins, PQ wins in 2012 (with or without Gilles Duceppe having replaced Pauline Marois), takes us toward a new Quebec referendum. What do the Libs and NDP do? Do they then dissolve their coalition with BQ and form a new national unity coalition with the Conservatives until the referendum is held and then dissolve this coalition and call a General Election? Or can they contemplate maintaining a coalition with BQ while there is a Separation Referendum in Quebec?

    We don’t know what any of the parties or leaders or MPs or candidates believe (or think). We only know what they say, so journalists can only attribute positions based on words uttered. Jack Layton knows denying a coalition hurts him because then the Liberals can call votes “home” to stop the Conservatives (and cost Jack votes and seats). He could say “coalition” or “no coalition”. What he has said is “coalition” (as a possibility). Michael Ignatieff knows saying “coalition” (as a possibility) could cost him votes he wants to move now or at least in last week. This might explain why he has said what he has and hasn’t said — he has refused to say a coalition is possible. We don’t know that he thinks or feels this, we only know what he has said (or not). So Ignatieff’s official position is that a coalition is not a possibility.

    But why would a coalition not be considered if the Conservatives are running on a platform to strip per-voter government grants to political parties? So why is Ignatieff allowed to get away with woolly answers (being polite) which are implausible, while Harper is dismissed for challenging about a coalition when his proposal makes full sense and one of the potential participants in a coalition (Layton) supports the idea?

    Is it media bias? If so, at what level are reporters more than reporters? When do they become pundits, analysts, columnists, etc. and encouraged to offer opinions on the facts they are reporting even though they are identified as “reporting”?

  2. cwaddell |

    I wouldn’t for a minute rule out the possibility of the Liberals and NDP getting together after election day if the two parties win enough seats to hold a majority, whether it is in a formal coalition or an agreement like the one the Ontario Liberals and NDP put together for two years at Queen’s Park in 1985. Since 2008 there have also been obvious examples of that sort of working arrangement happening – the UK and Australia – without the sky falling.

    So if the two parties have the numbers I am sure they would try to do it and there is nothing wrong constitutionally or otherwise with that. I simply can’t imagine though that with a Quebec election on the horizon – unlike in 2008 – that the two parties would want the Bloc anywhere near them in any sort of formal relationship – coalition or otherwise – even if they needed a third party to have a majority as is the case at the moment.

    Perhaps the Bloc could announce it would support a Liberal/NDP relationship to ensure there was a majority but that would be extremely unstable and subject to whatever maneuvering the Bloc would try to do to enhance the PQ’s electoral chances. Hard to know how a Governor General would respond to that if faced with a choice of calling a new election or asking the Leader of the Opposition to form what would be an unstable government subject to the whims of a party that has no interest in keeping the country together.

    A key point in all this is that the Liberals now have 77 seats and the NDP 36. To get anywhere close to where any such scenarios might come into play the two would probably have to win at least 30 seats (or more) – the great majority of those coming from the Conservatives – and the Liberals would probably have either to have more seats (or be within a seat or two of being tied) or a greater share of the vote than the Conservatives. That’s a lot of ifs even leaving aside whether the Bloc would want to join them in any way or they would want the Bloc onboard.