Monday, December 01, 2008

The Liberal-NDP Coalition Is Undemocratic

In light of the recent agreement between the Liberal Party, the NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois to provide an alternative government, Conservatives are suggesting that if a coalition government was to form it would be undemocratic. Though Liberals and other progressive supporters are providing strong counterarguments, when one considers the history of new leaders becoming Prime Minister and the holding of subsequent elections, it would appear that there is some validity in the accusation that this coalition government would be undemocratic.

The Conservative Party and a variety of Conservative supporters are utilizing one broad argument to frame this move towards a coalition government as undemocratic. They suggest that since there was just an election on October 14 and the Conservatives won the most votes, they therefore should be the government. From this point it is additionally propositioned that Stephane Dion garnered a sound defeat, the largest for the Liberal Party since confederation, and thus should not be Prime Minister.

Liberals and other progressive supporters are responding accurately, detailing the nature of our parliamentary system and providing a rational basis for why a coalition government headed by Stephane Dion would be democratic. They cite the important feature of our system where voters do not elect the Prime Minister, they elect MPs who then in turn based on their seats in the House of Commons determine the Prime Minister; thus justifying Stephane Dion becoming Prime Minister with a coalition government holding a majority of MPs' support.

Though Liberals and others are correct, when one looks at Canadian history they are only correct momentarily. This condition is a result of the convention that when a new Leader becomes Prime Minister, he or she must show they are supported by Canadians. Under the proposed agreement amongst the Coalition there would be no such election on Stephane Dion for at least a year and a half, and thus would at the very least weaken that historical democratic tradition.

Every Prime Minister since 1896 that was not Leader of their party at the time of an election held another vote within months of taking over. Arthur Meighen called an election five months after becoming Prime Minister from Borden in 1921. Pierre Elliot Trudeau called an election two months after becoming PM after Pearson resigned in 1968. John Turner called an election in 1984 just over two months after becoming PM after Trudeau. Kim Campbell called an election just over four months in 1993 after inheriting the office from Brian Mulroney. Paul Martin called an election six months after he took over from Jean Chretien in 2003. The larger delay for Paul Martin was a result of Shiela Fraser's report coming out two months after he became Prime Minister.

The coalition between the Liberal Party and the NDP with the support from the Bloc would put off an election for at least 18 months, where then the Bloc would be free to withdraw. So for 18 months Canada would have a leader that did not follow in the democratic footsteps of every similar leader since 1896. Now on this point it must be granted the coalition government though not completely undemocratic, as all MPs would still be elected and the government would still consist of a majority of those members, would nonetheless be partially undemocratic.

After three years of Conservative misrule progressives may be eager to right numerous wrongs, but they should do so open-eyed. A coalition is the right thing to do given the economic turmoil and the Conservative Party's inaction, but if it lasts longer then needed, without an election, at the very least our Prime Minister in Stephane Dion would be breaking a democratic tradition that has existed in Canada for over a hundred years.

It is my hope this coalition government acts on the economy quickly, and calls an election as soon as possible with or without the possibility of a future coalition as an item for the Canadian electorate to vote on.


WesternGrit said...

Scott, fixing the economy won't be a 6 month thing. We will need to move on it quickly, but it won't be that quick. As far as "undemocratic", Harper has also - by your definition been undemocratic in his refusal to act like every minority PM has since Confederation - namely, to work WITH Parliament.

These things are not a matter of "democracy", rather, they are issues of "tradition". We can always create a new tradition.

MississaugaPeter said...

I think "undemocratic" is what a partisan Conservative would call it, when it is really "unprecedented in Canadian history".

Saying it is "undemocratic" implies that our parliamentary system is not democratic (which it is), and that past and present, similar coalitions in other parliaments around the world, are also not democratic.

Anonymous said...

Westerngrit: I agree fixing the economy won't be a quick fix, but major solutions can be pushed through in that time.

I would agree Harper did act undemocratic in that regard, but the degree would be more extreme in our situation.

I agree tradition comes into it, but there should be debate on whether that tradition is the best, and I'm inclined to think it has substantial merit.

Mississauga: I think democracy can only be said to exist in parts or degrees.

I used the words I did because 1/4 or 1/8 democratic is hard to grasp much less to articulate. I don't think you could defend the idea our Parliament is absolutely democratic as seen with Emerson, Stronach, Brison, Governor General, Queen, Senate, Prime Minister, etc.


MississaugaPeter said...

It would be "undemocratic" if the majority of our recently elected parliament can't decide who is prime minister of Canada.

Please read the aforementioned.

Peter Wrightwater said...


You're reasoning is severely flawed.

1- In two of the four historical examples you provide the governmants (and parliaments) were heading into the fifth year their mandate. So rather than observing any "tradition", they were acting out of neccessity. These are not apt comparisons.

A more appropriate analogy might be with the following hypothetical: Suppose a PM dies two months after an election, would you expect his successor to call an election within months, or would two years seem like a more reasonable period of time between elections?

2- Moreover, in the four cases you site, none is similar to the current situation, i.e., a new PM from a different party.

You speak of "every similar leader" and "democratic tradition", when, in fact, there is no "similar leader", and therefore, no "tradition" to follow.

We are in completely uncharted territory here, and as result, your attempts to find fault with the Coalition's agreement by siting historical precedent is unsound.

You could argue that it might be preferable to have an early election, but not on the basis that the current situation is "partially undemocratic", since there is no law or convention of parliamentary democracy being violated.

JCKelan said...

The most important job of a Canadian Prime Minister is national unity.

Stephane Dion has failed on this point already.

By entering into a formal accord with the Bloc, he has:

- given them legitimacy in the eyes of soft nationalist and even federalist voters.
- made it easier for the Bloc to campaign in the next election as being "not really" about separation.
- made the separatists seem a whole lot less scary for voters.

The Liberal Party are creating winning conditions for separatists.


JC Kelan

Anonymous said...

Mississauga: I explained my use of undemocratic and I still believe the convention of voting on the PM by the electorate is still something we should at least consider if not continue.

Wrightwater: Those were just some of the historical examples, others include St.Laurant and Arthur Meighan.

In your thought experiment I'd also say if a PM died a new leader should go to an election.

Also your idea that the above examples are different does not imply they are to be treated differently or separately.

You conclude by saying this is not a convention in Canada, yet how would you explain this happening over and over since 1896?


RuralSandi said...

It is democratic in our system. We are a parliamentary system, the British Westminster system and we have a Constitution that allows this.

The only way to change it, is to sever ties with Britain and become a republic and change the Constitution.

The people/voters dictated how the House would be set up. The voters gave Harper a minority and the opposition the majority - and all Harper had to do was play well with others and not be dictatorial, insulting and play games.

Like it or lump it, that's the way it is.

Peter Wrightwater said...


You've missed the point. To put it simplely, you're comparing apples and oranges. Yes, they're both fruit (i.e., new PMs) but they are vastly different (i.e., the context).

The only historical comparisons would be other short lived minority governments, such Dief or Clark. But again, the context is unique - less than two months after an election and there was no coalition waiting in the wings to take the place of these governments.

The central problem with your argument is your use of the phrase "partially undemocratic". There is no law, or parliamentary rule, or convention being violated.

Examples of things that could be called "partially undemocratic" would be if the federal government used the disallowance clause since it has become a constitutional convention not to use it. Or, say, had PET repatriated the constitution without the support of a majority of the provinces. Legally both could be done but because they go against established constitutional convention it might be appropriate to call such actions "partially undemocratic".

There is no traditional way to handle this because it hasn't happened before. Why you can't see that is beyond me.

As I said, you could argue that it is desirable to have an election within the next six months but you can't rely on historical precedent to do so because there is no historical precedent for the unique situation in which we find ourselves.

Regarding my hypothetical: Are you seriously suggesting that if PM dies eight weeks after an election, a new election should be held immediately? (Please be specific in the number months or weeks)

Geekwad said...

If this seems undemocratic, it's because people do not understand what they are voting for. We're sold a election story about a prime minister or a party, but that's completely irrelevant to what we vote on in a national election, which is direct representation by an individual human. Parties like to obfuscate that. I would like to see MPs take power back from the parties, and this development seems like it could be a start in that direction.

JCKelan, there's no reason to be afraid of sovereigntists. They are not the debbil or boogeymen. They don't want anything from you. Quite literally nothing!

Anonymous said...

Wrightwater: It is not convention merely because you say it isn't. It's occurred every time in history.

A different context means nothing without reason why it would be different.

As for your last comment: "Are you seriously suggesting that if PM dies eight weeks after an election, a new election should be held immediately? (Please be specific in the number months or weeks)"

Please point out where I used the word "immediatly," and if you are having difficulty its because I never did.

If a new leader takes office and does not hold an election within months than that leader weakens the democratic tradition that other leaders have followed since Bowell.

I don't need to specify the exact number of weeks because that's how conventions work. They don't deel in minute specifics.


Peter Wrightwater said...

There seems little point in continuing this discussion since you appear to be more wedded to your flawed argument than a desire to understand the unique features of this particular moment in Canadian history.

Bo Green said...

In light of the fact that Canadians do not anticipate or expect coalition governments the way other countries do, and voted six weeks ago under the assumption (made explicit) that there would be no Liberal-NDP co-operation, I can totally understand why someone might call this idea undemocratic.

I think coalition gov'ts may be a great idea for Canada, but no one was thinking of one when they marked their ballots.

Still, Harper is going to have to go, either in defeat or in resignation with a new replacement to take his spot.

These things are not a matter of "democracy", rather, they are issues of "tradition". We can always create a new tradition.

Ummm... yes, we can, and I'm all for it. But making it up as we go, a month and a half after an election, with an experiment that Canadians did not condone or ask for -- that's a bit more complicated than you're passing it off as, really.

Geekwad said...

The game has rules. The rules allow it. When you're playing chess with a child and the child makes a dumb move, you might allow them to take it back. You might point out moves you plan to make in the future so that they can anticipate them and understand the flow of the game better. But you're not really playing chess anymore.

Voters are not children. They should know the rules of the game. If they voted without understanding the rules, it is not anyone's obligation to decline to apply them.

Though I'm sympathetic to Bo Green's complaints, one of the unwritten but utterly undeniable rules of the game is: politicians often say things that for many reasons turn out not to be true. I do wish this had been openly on the table a long time ago, but I guess everyone felt that would have negatively influenced their party's election performance. *That's* the true nature of democracy. Ain't it grand.

OneOfAKind said...

Scott, how can you call this proces undemocratic?

The Conservatives say that they have the support of the people, and that the people do not want this change. However, if you go and look at the elections canada results from the election, the Conservatives only have 37.6% of the popular vote. The Liberals and the NDP together have 44.4%. So, it follows that more people will support the coalition than its alternativ, either more Conservative rule, or another election. The stats are out there.

Anonymous said...

OneofaKind: I admit it actually is democratic, but only momentarily. I'm for this coalition government, but I support it only in the short term, 6-9 months or at most a year.

I put this temporal constraint on because of the convention in Canada where we vote on leaders who weren't elected. And to counter a possible reply, yes Stephane Dion was voted on, but not as leader of a coalition.

A Coalition government is democratic, but only for a short time, as seen in the history of holding elections when we have an appointed Prime Minister.


Don MacNeil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don MacNeil said...

Sorry, but Artur Meighen was Prime Minster for a year and a half between the time he suceeded Bordin in July 1920 until his defeat in Dec 1921.

You also forgot to mention the Conservatives governed with 4 unelected leaders from 1891 until 1896, two of whom were not even MP's (Abbott and Bowell).