Why is 'coalition' a dirty word?

04 Oct 2011

Chris Selley, for the National Post, has a suggestion for politicians and the c-word:

All any political leader needs to say is something like this: “We intend to win a majority, but in the event of a minority result we would be open to any sort of discussions whatsoever with other parties in order to make the legislature function properly. Any leader who tells you otherwise is fibbing. And that’s the last I’m saying about it.”

If only. Unfortunately, Chris misses the mark on one of the key problems with the formation of coalition governments: who leads? For starters, someone must be willing to cede power to one of their political opponents in order for the whole process to begin. Neither Mr. Hudak nor Mr. McGuinty would be willing to let someone else become premier while they played second fiddle. What would motivate their coalition-mates to be any better?

Before suggesting that politicians should be motivated by a commitment to functional legislature, consider that Canada has survived and operated under a number of minority governments–including three of the last four parliaments. Majority governments allow parties to pass almost any legislation that they see fit, while minority governments must gather support from their political adversaries in order to govern at all. Why, Chris, is this a bad thing? I thought that one of the keystones of the democratic process was communication and collaboration between opposing viewpoints.

Okay, so I’m being disingenuous. The underlying suggestion in Chris’ article is that a coalition would provide the same security and functionality as a majority government. This is pervasive misconception in Canadian politics: that simply forming a coalition somehow marries vastly differing ideologies and allows individuals that argue with each other on an almost perpetual basis to become staunch allies.

The truth is that both Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Hudak are willing to form coalitions, although they are not necessarily being dishonest when they disavow the very notion. If either of them are unable to secure a majority, there will be two options available: either force a new election, until one party gains a majority, or form a minority government that will, at every legislative instance, require the cooperation of members of the opposition parties. It does not matter whether it is ever formally declared; each legislative vote creates a coalition between the minority government and the opposition parties that vote with them. Thus, there is no more stability in a formal coalition than in a minority government. Every vote requires the same level of agreement between the parties involved.

I think that it is time we stopped using the word coalition, but not because it has become a dirty word that politicians throw at each other; it simply no longer has any significant meaning in Canadian politics.