avatar
A break in the Liberal-Conservative coalition


In Canada, the Conservative minority government might just become the opposition in parliament this week, replaced by a Liberal-NDP coalition with support from the Bloc Quebecois from the outside.

But it is far from a done deal. Something like this almost happened in 2005 when Paul Martin’s Liberals were in power. The election that later (in 2006) brought Stephen Harper’s Conservatives into power as a minority was deferred by a surprise event: a Conservative MP, Belinda Stronach, crossed the floor, left the Conservatives, and joined the Liberals. A surprise event could save Harper’s government too. A week can be a long time.

I have argued before that a better frame for understanding Canadian politics in recent years isn’t alternating Liberal and Conservative minorities, but a stable Conservative-Liberal majority. Instability in this system is introduced by the Conservatives, who don’t want to play by the same rules as their coalition partners. Conservatives and Liberals are in agreement on pro-US foreign policy and economic policies that favor investors and corporations over working people. Both have proven willing to persecute indigenous movements and stoke fears against Muslims. But Conservatives want to do this more brutally. And, perhaps because so much of their politics is based on fear and bigotry, they’ll play those up against whoever is in front of them – including Liberals.

There are two dimensions to the current (temporary) cracking of the Conservative-Liberal coalition: the real reason and the pretext. The beauty of the situation for the NDP and Liberals is that the Conservatives have already backed off of the real reason, but can’t seem to back off of the pretext, which is all their opponents need.

The real reason is the Conservatives’ refusal to play by the rules. Temporarily secure in their private sector funding and the state of their party organization, they decided to try to defund their political opponents. When that united their opponents against them, they tried to back off of it. But their campaign is still based on the notion that huge parts of the country, the 18% that voted NDP and 10% that voted Bloc (the 7% that voted Green don’t even exist in their estimation) are illegitimate. The Liberals, they say, are about to enter into a coalition with "separatists and socialists". Implicit in the accusation is that no political association with these parties is legitimate. The question can’t but arise: what do the Conservatives think Canada should do with the "separatists and socialists" that live here? If you lump the NDP, Bloc, and Greens together, as the Conservatives would, you get 35% of the popular vote. Considerably less than the Conservative-Liberal 64%, admittedly, but their eagerness to demonize this huge chunk of the electorate (a favored tactic during Mike Harris’s years in Ontario) is just more evidence of how the Conservatives view politics, and their political opponents. By trying to defund them, they showed the Liberals that when they feel strong enough, they won’t even accept them as junior partner.

Once their defunding proposal had united their opponents, they backed off of it. But the opposition can’t campaign on something so self-interested as public funding for themselves. They can, however, accuse the Conservatives of being irresponsible economic managers. And Finance Minister Flaherty, who oversaw the pillage of Ontario’s finances under Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, certainly presented an irresponsible economic package, based on avoiding deficits (which Harper later admitted he would run – and which Harris/Eves happily ran in Ontario, even as they slashed and privatized the public sector) and tax increases (which are, unfortunately, still a taboo, though the current US President-Elect managed to win despite acknowledging that it might be necessary to tax the wealthy) by plundering what is left of Canada’s public assets.

This is bad economics. If there is an economic crisis going on, with unemployment, spare capacity, and deflation, who will have the cash to buy public assets? How much cash would such one-time sales, which could only fetch extremely low prices, generate? If the assets are underperforming, why would the private sector want them? If they are not underperforming, why get rid of them when little else in the economy is working?

Conservative economics is not about responsible management, however. The policies make sense if the purpose is to transfer public assets into the private domain and destroy the capacity for public services and governance (see Naomi Klein’s "Shock Doctrine", or more recently, Thomas Frank’s "The Wrecking Crew", for more about this type of economics).

There is just enough disagreement on this specific aspect of economic policy, and on climate change, to crack the Liberals and Conservatives. The Conservatives can’t back off of it completely, giving their opponents the pretext they need to continue.

As for Harper’s accusation that the opposition is being "undemocratic", it reveals a confusion about his mandate and the parliamentary system in which he operates. Canada is not the United States. In the US, the electorate votes for a President. In Canada, no one votes for a Prime Minister. They vote for a party. A minority government is one where no party won a clear mandate, and must therefore present policies that are non-partisan and have the backing of at least some of the opposition. Harper failed to do so. The accusation of "undemocratic" could be equally applied to the Conservatives, but would best be applied to the entire electoral system, since it lacks proportional representation.

On the other side, a mutually suspicious coalition of liberals and social democrats can work if they agree on a minimum program. In India, the Left parties supported the Congress Party from the outside and allowed it to form a government based on some basic social democratic policies. When the Congress Party moved ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Left parties stopped supporting Congress, which still survived in power by finding other allies (and, quite possibly, buying votes).

Back in Canada, Liberal-NDP coalition could move forward on a more sensible social democratic economic program. The NDP showed in 2006 that it is willing to bring the Liberals down if forced to do so. I believed then that the NDP was correct in their decision, even though Harper won the ensuing elections. The junior partner has no credibility in a partnership unless they show a willingness to walk away. If the Liberal-NDP coalition succeeds in ousting Harper, both parties would do well to take the right lessons from those days.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment