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And the future is: coalition

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The much ballyhooed Liberal-NDP coalition of December may be withering away. But as Parliament resumes today, there is good reason to believe that the possibility of coalition government will remain with Canadians for some time.

The experiences of other parliamentary democracies, where coalitions are commonplace, suggest there are three necessary conditions to their formation: minority parliaments, willingness of one of the major parties to govern in a coalition, and eagerness on the part of a minor party to join the government. The current state of our national politics suggests that these conditions will persist for the foreseeable future.

Minority parliaments appear to be the new norm. Since the end of the Second World War, Canadian elections have produced 11 majority parliaments. In the first eight, between 1949 and 1988, the winning party received an average of 47.5 per cent of the popular vote (and never less than 43 per cent). In the three most recent majority results, all won by the Chrétien Liberals, the winning party's share of the popular vote averaged only 40 per cent. Many have observed that these Liberal victories were artificial, produced by a fracturing of the party system on the right.

The three most recent electoral results, occurring after the reunification of the Conservatives, have all produced minority parliaments. In a book on the Canadian party system published in 2000, Lisa Young, Kenneth Carty and I argued that the Liberal majorities were aberrations and that a sustained period of minority parliaments was likely. Recent election results suggest that this may, indeed, be the case.

This scenario results from the continued presence of the Bloc Québécois on the national scene. As long as the Bloc takes 50 or so seats off the table, it is nearly impossible for the Liberals or Conservatives to win enough seats to form a majority government. While pundits, largely in English Canada, have often predicted the Bloc's demise, the party has displayed a staying power that may well last another decade or more.

The probability of continued minority results changes the calculus for the major parties. In earlier periods, both the Liberals and Conservatives correctly viewed minority parliaments as aberrations that were likely to be corrected in the next election. There was no need to consider coalition government as both parties thought their next majority was just an election or two away.

The Irish experience provides a good example. The country's dominant party, Fianna Fail, long maintained that it would never consider coalition government. It would govern on its own in either a majority or minority position or would sit in opposition. The party held to this stand for decades while the Irish party system often produced majority results. When the 1980s brought a fracturing of the vote and the party discovered minority parliaments were the new norm, it began entering into the coalition agreements necessary to produce majority governments.

We might expect a similar response from our Conservatives and Liberals when they reach the conclusion that a majority win is not in their immediate future. The Liberals' openness to last month's coalition likely reflects this reality.

The events of December make clear that the third condition is also present: the willingness of the NDP and Bloc to enter into a coalition agreement. While it might seem logical for static third-place parties to support a coalition as a way of getting to government, this has not been the norm. In the past, the NDP has not actively sought a coalition. Jack Layton, however, has championed the notion that being in government is a key objective. This was evident in the last campaign when he presented himself, with much hubris in the eyes of many, as a candidate for prime minister. The desire of Mr. Layton to be in government ensures that coalition talks will continue as long as minority parliaments persist.

Canadians may have largely rejected the proposed coalition, but they should get used to the idea. Coalitions have served many other parliamentary democracies well by allowing for the stability of majority government in cases where elections have not produced majority parliaments. In Canada, we have long relied on our "first past the post" system to remedy the lack of majority opinion among the electorate by producing an "artificial" majority parliament. Recent elections suggest that this is no longer the case and that minority results are likely to persist, significantly raising the likelihood of future coalitions.

William Cross holds the first Honourable Dick and Ruth Bell Chair for the Study of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University.

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