Are Liberals the new Conservatives? Now that Michael Ignatieff has ruled out coalition as a means of forming a government, it seems that the Liberals are getting used to the opposition benches. Macdonald and Harper aside, Canada’s political history has generally been a case of Conservatives being too comfortable with losing, and now it seems that Iggy is catching that same disease. On the other hand, leaving policy aside for a moment and concentrating solely on political tact, Harper has clearly been reading the Liberal playbook.
“Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government,” said Ignatieff this week. If the party that won the most seats formed the government in Ireland, for example, Fianna Fáil would have been in power without a single break from 1932 to 2011. “That is our Constitution. It is the law of the land,” he went on to say. Not so. Those are the conventions of politics in Canada, not the laws. If that was constitutionally the case, he would not have had to answer questions about coalition. It would seem as though Ignatieff has failed to take into account some fundamental shifts that have taken place in Canadian politics over the last couple of decades:
Firstly, Canada looks bound to minority government for the foreseeable future. One of the underlying aims of the Bloc Québécois on its creation twenty years ago was to prove that the Canadian Confederation was ungovernable by making minority government a permanent fact of life in Ottawa. This was delayed by the Conservatives’ stupefying defeat in 1993 that led to a Liberal majority, but minority government now appears to be a permanent fixture. With a first past the post electoral system, the Bloc can take around 50 of the 76 Québec seats with only 40% of the vote in the province, about 9% nationally. This requires any other party to take close to two thirds of the remaining seats in order to form a majority government which, this time around, is just not going to happen. And it won’t happen any time soon. There is no Trudeaumania or Mulroney sweep about to happen, nor a Kim Campbell around for any party to capitulate.
Secondly, and with the above point in mind, federal politicians need to see the permanency of minority government not as a hindrance but as a challenge to be accepted, perhaps even enjoyed. Minority government and coalition (and remember that with such a large, diverse country any successful parties must be coaltions in themselves) ought to be seen as utterly Canadian. This country is a compromise, not a monolithic state where one faction dominates. Rather than presenting traditional conventions as consitutional “laws of the land”, Ignatieff and the Liberals need to embrace the idea that the country, founded largely on principles of compromise, is greater than their party or any other party.
If Ignatieff goes through the motions and does not begin to think more radically or progressively, he will lose and a third Harper-led government will ensue.