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Marriages of Political Convenience

Canada has a multi-party political system although the way they all tend to operate means that it isn’t much of a party for most of us.

At the federal level there are five main parties. I define ‘main’ parties to be those which actually have seats in Parliament. There are many other parties including the Libertarian, the Marijuana and the Communist parties but typically they are considered fringe parties, garnering a very small percentage of the vote.

The main federal parties are the Conservative Party of Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada. the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP), the Green Party of Canada and the Bloc Quebecois

Both the Conservatives and the Liberals are centrist parties. The Conservatives are right of centre, the Liberals to the left. They share more in common, however, than they do with any of the other parties and most non-committed voters swing back forth between them at every election.

The NDP is a true left-wing socialist party at both the federal and provincial level. The Greens are even further left with a primary focus that is almost exclusively on environmental issues and the Bloc is a Quebec-based sovereignist protest party that has no interest in Canada other than whatever cream it can milk from the federal teat.

Conventional wisdom is that the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens are closely aligned in thinking and ideology while the Conservatives are polar opposites. In practice, however, regardless of how they may campaign during an election or what policies they may enact to satisfy their hard core support base, both the Liberals and the Conservatives tend to govern dead centre of the political spectrum

Both parties place a high priority on international trade and both talk about environmental issues but do little to address them. The current Conservative government isn’t even close to meeting the commitments it made at the Copenhagen Summit on the Environment and the Liberals signed and then ignored the Kyoto Accord.

Both parties dealt with the Omar Khadr case in pretty much the same way and both parties have had their share of corruption and scandal. Select members of both parties have been, or are about to be, guests of Her Majesty’s penal system after having been convicted of election spending fraud, breach of trust and/or fraud against the government.

Typically, both parties promise much during election campaigns but once elected, tend to forget or ignore the agenda they put forth.

The NDP is socialist and they too have had their share of impropriety. Members of the current NDP caucus were spanked for failure to pay their income taxes, the party was charged by Elections Canada for improper election fund raising and recently the Speaker of the House has charged that a significant number of NDP MPs have improperly used their office budgets for partisan political activity.

So clearly, the NDP has much of the same attitude, when it comes to the mechanics of politics, as the other two and are therefore probably qualified to govern but they’ve just never had the chance at the federal level.

Despite all the crabbing from the far-right, conservative media pundits, Canada just isn’t as socialist as some folks like to think.

The Greens are minor players who have a somewhat hysterical Utopian view of the world. The party’s fundamental philosophy could be summed up as ‘the sky is falling – flee the village’. The party appears to be quick to embrace every new idea that supports their dystopian view of climate change while rejecting any of the realities of a modern global economy.

The Bloc have no real ideology other than pouting. Their primary focus seems to be to criticize everything Canadian while elbowing their way into the trough for more free slop from the country they condemn.

So what does all that mean?

It means that the conventional wisdom of left vs right might not actually apply and that the alliances and conflicts between parties may be more complex than just one side of the political spectrum or the other.

Following the 2008 election, the opposition parties which represented a majority of voters, attempted to form a coalition to form government rather than allowing the Conservatives, which represented less than 40% of voters, to form a minority government.

There is nothing wrong with coalition governments, at least not from either a legal or political perspective. Most major countries including Germany, Italy, Israel and countless others all operate with coalitions formed by various parties in their respective legislatures.

It wasn’t so popular, however, here in the Great White North.

The coalition was comprised of the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc and was immediately labeled an attempt by the left to cheat the Conservatives out of forming government. The coalition didn’t make it, however, and for a couple of reasons. The inclusion of the Bloc rankled a majority of Canadians, including those who supported the other parties in the coalition. The Bloc supports breaking up the country and that doesn’t sit too well with most of the rest of the villagers.

But I believe that the real reason behind the collapse of the coalition was that there is a greater divide between the NDP which is a true left-wing political party and the Liberals which is more comfortable in the centre.

Federal conservatives criticized the idea of the opposition parties forming a coalition but their own party under our current Prime Minister, attempted to do exactly the same thing before he was first elected to the office of Prime Minister.

It was an even more bizarre attempt to marry the NDP and the Conservatives to wrest power from the incoming Liberal minority government of Paul Martin. That was a coalition of polar opposites and didn’t last as long as a one-night stand.

And that may expose the real issue with coalition governments in Canada. If opponents make strange bedfellows, misaligned political parties that are used to hammering each other year after year tend to find it more than just a little awkward to cooperate to form government.

Many in Canada are dissatisfied with our ‘first past the post’ electoral system that can award a majority of seats in Parliament to a party that has less than 50% of the votes. This is less a function of our system than it is with the number of parties involved. First past the post tends to work best when there are only two parties campaigning to form government. As a result many now tout proportional representation as the means to correct that imbalance and it may well be the right thing to do but – and there is always a but – if political parties find it difficult to ally with each other now, one shudders to think of the challenges that lie ahead under proportional representation.

Virtually every country that has proportional representation also has coalition governments. There is nothing wrong with that and it works well in many countries but I believe it works because it is a form of government they’ve always had since become a democracy.

Canada is different. We have a Parliamentary system of government based on the British tradition and I suspect trying to warp into a completely different system might be a severe challenge for our political system, if not our politicians who don’t seem to manage change well – especially when it goes against their political self-interest.

Coalitions require both cooperation and compromise which are difficult to find when you spend every waking hour condemning your opponents.

It is an election year in Canada and the unofficial campaigning has been underway for some time although it appears somebody forget to advise the Liberal Party which is still dawdling about without much purpose or a campaign platform. No party has a commanding lead or even a lead in popularity outside of the margin of error in most polls.

This does not bode well for the formation of a majority government.

This, of course, provides media pundits lots of fodder to speculate on the possible formation of a coalition between the NDP and the Liberals to form government even if the Conservatives take more seats but do not hold a majority in the legislature.

It could happen but personally, I don’t think it would be all that successful at wresting power from the Conservatives; the gulf between the two is too broad. I think a more likely scenario is an alliance between the Conservatives and the Liberals. They have far more in common with each other than either has with the NDP.

Even now, just six months before the next federal election, the Liberals have supported the Conservatives on a number of key issues including granting increased powers given to law enforcement and CSIS to spy on Canadians, the war in Iraq and most major money bills. More to the point, for both parties obtaining or maintaining power trumps political ideology.

It may never come to pass, of course. I haven’t got a clue who will win the next election and there may well be a majority although that’s looking less and less likely. With a majority, the need for a coalition or even the pretense of bipartisan cooperation disappears.

It means that for now at least, all bets are even although that may change if the Liberals ever actually put out some policy ideas or as a result of the televised election debates.

More than anything else, I think it is the debates that are going galvanize support. Both Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair are more than just able debaters; Justin Trudeau – not so much. I think Canada’s Peter Pan will be just so much red meat for the other two which means, I believe this election may well turn out to be a fight between the NDP and the Conservatives.

Some in my circle think I’m nuts and they could be right but then they never believed the NDP would form the Official Opposition either and we all know how that turned out in the last election. If the Liberals and the Conservatives split the centre vote, the NDP could even get more seats than either of the other two parties under our current electoral system

I doubt it will happen but for the first time in Canadian politics – it’s a distinct possibility and you have to believe that’s keep political strategists awake at night.

A more likely scenario is that no party will win enough seats to form a majority government. At that point, they will be working overtime in an attempt to form a political marriage of convenience and it’s safe to predict that nobody really knows who will marry whom or for how long.

For some, crawling into bed with those you detest is almost as distasteful as not forming government – almost but not quite.

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© 2015 Maggie’s Bear

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Twitter: @maggsbear – Facebook: Maggie’s Bear  – ivmaki@sympatico.ca

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