Missing a Trick or a Treat? Rejecting a Coalition Government

Commentary, Government, Jack Buckby

On October 24th, the Prime Minister announced that he would continue his progressive agenda despite his Liberals losing 20 seats and 13 votes short of a majority in Parliament. A coalition government was widely expected to be agreed upon, with the NDP opening the door to talks. However, a strong left-wing, progressive presence in Parliament appears to have given the Prime Minister’s the confidence he needs to pass key legislation over the coming four years. 

The move is no doubt an attempt at maintaining a façade that he hasn’t been damaged by the revelations from what turned out to be an extremely vicious election campaign. Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks a coalition could hurt him, but if there’s anything we can learn from the 2010-2015 coalition in the United Kingdom, it’s that coalitions are more damaging for the smaller party. At least, if the larger party plays the game. A coalition partner could have been exactly what the Prime Minister needed to show the people of Canada that he needs a majority to do his job properly. 

In the May 2010 General Election, David Cameron’s Conservative Party was just shy of winning a majority in Parliament and teamed up with the Liberal Democrats to form the first coalition government in 36 years. After more than a decade of Labour rule, with the last couple of years under the decidedly uncharismatic Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the change was quite a big shock. Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg became the Deputy Prime Minister and David Cameron the Prime Minister, and in multiple joint appearances the pair described the merits of working together for their shared values of “Freedom, fairness and responsibility.” It was widely expected that the Liberal Democrats would ride the wave towards renewed relevance, but by the time the 2015 General Election came around, their fortunes had turned and they lost 49 of their 57 seats. 

The coalition was an unmitigated disaster for the Liberal Democrats, and not necessarily because of poor decisions. It was the very nature of the coalition, the fact that compromise was necessary to govern, that killed them off. Clegg had to accept policy directions that directly conflicted with promises he had made to the people during the election, and Cameron had to do the same. Clegg’s promise to vote against any increase in university fees came back to haunt him when he was forced to triple the cost of attending university, something that played a significant part in him eventually losing his seat to a Labour candidate. Whenever Cameron had to compromise, however, he could gently and subtly suggest that he wasn’t able to do his job properly while he didn’t have a majority to govern. 

It ultimately led to Cameron returning a majority in the 2015 General Election with increased support and energy behind him. On election night, he described it as “the sweetest victory of all,” and it was—for him. 

The short-term pain of working with the NDP might have well been worth it for the Prime Minister’s Liberals, as the threat of a populist government in Canada seems extremely distant. To my personal surprise, as a Brit looking in on the Canadian election, the People’s Party lost out on gaining even a single seat – and the Conservatives struggled to make enough headway despite the Prime Minister’s endless stream of gaffes and controversies over the last four years.

Had he thought ahead, the Prime Minister might have been wise to accept the Leader of the NDP’s offer of a coalition government, though, he would have needed to be scheming and cunning about it. The difference between the Liberals and the NDP seems to be merely a matter of specifics, rather than general worldview. Had the Prime Minister found a big enough policy gap and purposely failed to deliver on a promise he’d made to the Canadian people, he would have shown the country that coalitions simply do not work and that he needs their full support to enact the agenda he promised. But, he didn’t. 

Now, it’s anybody’s guess. the Prime Minister has decided to go it alone, and he has stopped the NDP from falling into the same trap as the Liberal Democrats. The Prime Minister simply hopes that his agenda will be passed with the support of the NDP and others. He should fully expect to work for those votes, and no doubt have to make compromises along the way. The problem is, he’ll have nobody to blame. When he’s governing alone, they are his decisions to make, and he could well find himself punished for them.

The Prime Minister has put himself in a position of weakness, and it’s a gift from the gods for the Conservatives. If a resurgent Conservative Party can pick apart the compromises the Prime Minister will no doubt have to make in the coming years, and deliver a positive vision for Canada that satisfies some disaffected liberals as well as those who have moved towards the populist right, then the next election is anyone’s guess. 

Did the Prime Minister miss a trick or a treat by denying a coalition offer? I think so.