Whatever It Takes to Form Government?

Commentary, Government, Marco Navarro-Genie

With opinion surveys showing the Liberal and Conservative parties running neck in neck one week before the October 21 federal election, there is plenty of talk about minority government and government coalitions. Prairie Canadians, those in Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular, should be most concerned about the prospects of minority and greedy coalition scenarios. 

Since the creation of the Dominion, Canada has had 14 minority governments, but not much experience with formal coalitions. A formal coalition exists when parties share power, including seats in cabinet. The extent to which parties have an informal cooperative arrangement for votes in the House, it makes more sense to speak of “an alliance.”

Minorities form government under the same traditional Westminster rule that the leader of the faction commanding the largest number of seats gets to form a government. It is not necessary to win the majority of the seats to govern. Nor is it necessary that the largest faction be made up of people from the same political party. But there are other constraints.

In the context of minority and alliances, there has been talk that the 1972 election is the precedent to watch. That election resulted in an alliance between Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals and David Lewis’ New Democrats against Robert Stanfield’s Conservatives. Trudeau was the incumbent, and his party bested Stanfield’s by only two seats (109 to 107). The NDP netted 31 seats. Similarly, 1963 and 1965, with the two Lester Pearson minorities the Liberals won the plurality and secured an alliance with Tommy Douglas’ New Democrats.

The likelihood of a Conservative plurality victory on October 21 makes the current situation less like 1963, 1965, and 1972 and more like the minorities of 1957, 1979, and 2006 elections. Each time then, the Liberal prime minister from Quebec ceded office to the Conservatives’ plurality of a Western Canadian, Louis St. Laurent to John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau to Joe Clark, and Paul Martin to Stephen Harper, without attempting to remain in office propped by a third party’s alliance. 

What might come closer to present conditions is the attempt at seizing government by the three losing parties (Liberals, NDP and Bloc) following the 2008 federal election, except that the Conservatives were the incumbents. 

While no formal coalition government resulted from the 1925 and 1926 elections, the alliance between McKenzie-King and the Progressives is most similar to today precisely because McKenzie-King did not win as many seats as the opposing Conservatives under Arthur Meighen. 

That situation nearly a century ago seems closer to what Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May have expressed a desire for during the current election campaign. During the first National Commission English Debate, May sniped at Andrew Scheer categorically stating that he would not become prime minister. That kind of assured prediction shows May must have been thinking about alliances. Not much later, Singh declared his wish to block a Conservative government by doing “whatever it takes.” But institutions exist to limit our personal desires.

An alliance between the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens (and perhaps even the Bloc Quebecois separatists too), aiming at blocking the Conservatives from forming government, will have to ignore more recent precedents and will not meet the same reception than the 1920s alliance. 

If the popular reaction to the 2008 (Liberal-Bloc-NDP) triumvirate attempt at wrestling power from Harper’s Conservatives is any indication, the country will not accept such coalitions. Unless the Liberals win the plurality, their progressive loss of support since the start of the campaign will give any alliance with the Trudeau government the smack of an unseemly desire to cling to power at all costs. 

But whether the Liberals cling to power with or without a plurality victory, any Liberal alliance with the New Democrats and the Greens is likely to spell disastrous economic outcomes for the hydrocarbon energy industries in the only two landlocked provinces. Such alliance would further ravage Alberta and Saskatchewan export chances, even before setting in place the Liberal allies’ dream policies to go after the farming, mining, and cattle industries for all kinds of dreamed and alleged sins against Mother Earth. 

Although Justin Trudeau promised to bring the country together, his government has witnessed some of the most fractious times in this country’s history since his father was in office. A Trudeau-Singh-May alliance would be terrible for Alberta and for the country, and would be much worse if such alliance leap-frogged over a Conservative plurality.