The greenest shift : Ms. May’s coalition proposal

Oct 4th, 2008 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Elizabeth May[UPDATED OCTOBER 5, 6].With a mere matter of days left in the still rather obscure Canadian federal election campaign, desperation is setting in on various fronts. And why not join the party?

Many progressive voters up here in the true north strong and free do not want a Conservative majority in the 40th Parliament whose exact composition will be decided by the Canadian people on October 14. New Democrat leader Jack Layton is now saying that only he – and not Liberal leader Stephane Dion – can unite the opposition to Conservative leader Stephen Harper. But the most clearly Canadian suggestion has come from Green Party leader Elizabeth May, whom many feel was the real winner of the October 2 English-speaking leaders’ debate on television.

More exactly, Ms. May has recently “said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this election and also repeated her suggestion the opposition parties in a minority parliament could ask the Governor General to let them form a coalition government.” The immediate problem here of course is that the opposition parties would still have to unite around a leader. And with Stephane Dion and Jack Layton currently at each others’ throats, it couldn’t really be either of them.

The obvious natural leader of Ms. May’s coalition …

FedElxn Debate 20081002Prize-winning novelist Margaret Atwood would apparently vote for Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe. The thought of the leading Quebec sovereigntist (or separatist or independantist or whatever you want to call it) in Ottawa today as Prime Minister of Canada also has the kind of cosmic irony that can make great novels. But Canadian politics is at least supposed to be more serious than a novel. (Though if you watched much of the 39th Parliament in action you can be excused for thinking Canadian federal politics is actually less serious than a novel – and much more like a daytime soap opera on American TV.)

In the end, the more you think about Ms. May’s fresh and intriguing suggestion, the clearer it becomes that the only altogether acceptable and workable leader of the opposition coalition government she has proposed would be Elizabeth May herself. And then you start to think that, like Barack Obama, Ms. May aspires to use the quest for a new politics as a way of getting a leg up in the old political games that inevitably do carry on. But so what? In both cases it is arguably good for the progressive cause. That’s what counts in the end. And you do have to be realistic if you are going to get anywhere, etc, etc.

Besides, just think of the larger North American implications. If the USA today really is going to elect Barack Obama president, and inaugurate a positive and progressive new era of change, amidst a new wave of financial crisis, extreme weather, global culture shock, and who knows what else, what will it say about Canada if all we do is re-elect the boring, regressive, and somewhat overweight middle-age white anglo male Stephen Harper as prime minister?

On the other hand, if we wind up with an articulate and dynamic progressive woman as prime minister, tied to an innovative new political party (for North America at any rate) … well then we will at least be able to hold our heads up at NAFTA meetings, and so forth. We could even quietly imply, over drinks at gatherings of various alleged international bodies involving members from both Canada and the United States (and/or Mexico too), that in the true north we at least finally made up for the inevitable but still sad disappointments of Hillary Clinton (or even Sarah Palin, who has already had some foreign affairs with us), in the forward-looking person of Prime Minister Elizabeth May.

The precedent of a written accord … and the multi-party cabinet innovation

Gilles DuceppeJust to be clear about things, in the interests of constitutional propriety Ms. May’s coalition government would have to proceed on the basis of a written agreement among all the opposition parties involved – similar to, e.g., the Liberal-NDP Accord under which the Province of Ontario was governed from 1985 to 1987.

In federal politics in 2008 this agreement would no doubt have some time limit attached to it. And, unlike the Liberal-NDP Accord that governed Ontario in the mid 1980s (and served as a great bridge between an earlier era of Ontario political history and the one we have now), the federal Liberal-NDP-Green Accord led by Ms. May would have to involve a cabinet with members from all three parties.

Similarly, to start with, of course, the whole project would only be possible if Elizabeth May defeats the incumbent Conservative MP (and Harper government cabinet minister) Peter MacKay, in the Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova on October 14. And the smart money right now will still tell you this is not all that likely.

But even if it does happen, and even if Ms. May were to become prime minister in a coalition government that commanded a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons, not many (or any) of her Green Party colleagues are likely to be elected. So the cabinet in which she would be “first among equals” – or primus inter pares, as the prime minister used to be described in the classic accounts of Westminster parliamentary democracy – would have to be made up of mostly Liberal and New Democrat MPs (conceivably even including Stephane Dion and Jack Layton – as well as Bob Rae, who had a hand in the 19851987 Ontario Liberal-NDP Accord?).

Some other preconditions …

Harper's pitchAnother precondition, no doubt, would be a Conservative performance on October 14, 2008 not much better or even a little worse than on January 23, 2006. I.e., the Conservatives would have to have the largest number of seats in Parliament, but nothing even remotely close to a majority (155 seats or more). And then it probably wouldn’t work either if the Liberals had, say, three or more times as many seats as the New Democrats. (Or for that matter vice-versa, as unlikely as this still does seem to some of us.)

At the same time, the Liberals and New Democrats (and Greens) would certainly have to command a clear majority of seats in Parliament. And this majority of individual MPs would have to be willing to unite around a written agreement to pass budgets and otherwise govern credibly for some reasonable length of time – perhaps no less than two years?

Margaret Atwood aside, it might also be possible to somehow include Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois as some kind of participant in Elizabeth May’s new coalition government. Perhaps, like the New Democrats in the Ontario Liberal-NDP Accord of the mid 1980s, the Bloc would not have cabinet members, but would nonetheless agree to support the government, on the basis of some written program.

(And this could even arguably make up the difference, if the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens did not quite have a majority of seats in Parliament all by themselves. Though it would certainly be much better if they did.)

The impossible dream …

Harper and MayAlas, once you reach this point in your thinking about Ms. May’s suggestion, it does of course (again) become quite clear that this is all just day dreaming, and in technicolour at that.

In the real world of Canadian politics as it is today, virtually none of the things that would have to happen to make Elizabeth May’s kind of coalition government work are at all likely to actually happen. As authentically progressive as they may or may not be, both Stephane Dion and Jack Layton, just for starters, are far more interested in their own careers as political leaders than they are in preventing a Conservative majority government led by Stephen Harper.

And there is nothing wrong with this, of course, of course. They are just doing their jobs. That is how our system of parliamentary democracy works. Stephen Harper may be a lapsed or even not-so-lapsed neo-con near-fanatic with a hidden agenda, leading a party that has broken with the old Progressive Conservative past. But this particular past only began in the early 1940s. Stephen Harper himself is not an altogether unprecedented Canadian politician.

Canada has had other Conservative majority governments before, without falling to pieces. The present confederation’s founding government was Conservative. (Well “Liberal Conservative” was in fact the exact name of John A. Macdonald’s and Georges Etienne Cartier’s party, but let’s not worry too much about that – “liberal” meant something rather different in those days too.) As already noted, by making her coalition suggestion, Elizabeth May is finally just trying to play the old careerist game more adroitly than her other progressive colleagues. Even in a democracy politics is much more of a blood sport than a tea party, and so forth, on and on …

Yet even with all this said and done, and as unrealistic as it clearly is, for progressive-minded people who are not unalterably wedded to any of the Ottawa establishments, old or new, Ms. May’s “suggestion the opposition parties in a minority parliament could ask the Governor General to let them form a coalition government” may be the most interesting and encouraging thing that has happened in this rather strange Canadian federal election campaign so far.

It is almost certainly (or even just certainly) not going to happen. Of course, yet again. But it is still one of a few reasons to, as Jesse Jackson used to say, “keep hope alive,” at an otherwise quite discouraging juncture in the progressive political history of the true north, strong and free.

UPDATE: OCTOBER 5: A poll out today suggests some popular vote percentages that actually might be a bit compatible with the preconditions for the May coalition hypothesis sketched above:

Mounties get their woman“With just over a week until voting day, a new survey suggests Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have dipped to 34 per cent in support still 10 points ahead of the Liberals but short of levels needed to win a majority.

“The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey put NDP support at 20 per cent and the Greens at 13 per cent, while the Bloc Quebecois had eight per cent nationally and was leading in Quebec with 33 per cent .

“Harris-Decima president Bruce Anderson says the latest results suggest Tory hopes for a majority are dimmer than at any time since the campaign began a month ago.”

Or, Canada-wide: Conservatives 34%, Liberals 24%, NDP 20%, Greens 13%, BQ 8%. (Or Conservatives 34% vs. LIberals+NDP+Greens 57%.)

This is no reason, of course, for anyone to take Elizabeth May’s suggestion about a coalition government altogether or even slightly seriously. It just shows that the kind of numbers the concept would need to work are not entirely beyond what is possible in the real world … maybe!

UPDATE OCTOBER 6: Yet another opinion survey today continues to show numbers compatible with the Prime Minister May concept:

“The latest poll by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima put Tory support at a new low 32 per cent … However, that’s still seven points ahead of the Liberals, who crept up to 25 per cent … With just eight days until voting day on Oct. 14, the NDP was at 21 per cent and the Greens at 12 … The Bloc Quebecois had eight per cent nationally and was leading comfortably in Quebec.”

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