Saturday, May 02, 2015

The Coalition Game

A revised version of this post has now been published at iPolitics.

Recently Justin Trudeau made headlines when he declared that he might be interested in a coalition with the NDP but rejected the idea because of Tom Mulcair's 'old-style' way of doing politics. By the next day he firmly closed the door on coalition saying he was 'unequivocally opposed'.

When Trudeau declared his opposition he was following a well-worn path for Liberal leaders. During the 2008 election campaign then Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion on September 23 rejected an alliance with the NDP, declaring, "We cannot have a coalition with a party that has a platform that would be damaging for the economy. Period".  But two months later he helped launch the coalition that failed when Mr. Dion was driven from the Liberal leadership after Stephen Harper was permitted to prorogue Parliament. As the 2011 campaign got underway Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said he would not enter a coalition with the NDP although he softened that declaration when called coalition a 'legitimate constitutional option'.

As we now know from the experience of Mr. Dion's behaviour in 2008, it is best to take Liberal pre-election protestations of this kind with a grain of salt. It is perfectly rational for a leader such as Mr. Trudeau, occupying first or second place in the polls, to seek votes from third and fourth parties in order to improve his standing.

However, after the election the choice of government rests with an electorate of 338, the members of the House of Commons, and the incentives change radically. If the Liberals are in second place but could potentially, with the support of the NDP, acquire the support needed to form a government their opposition to cooperating with the NDP will melt away. Expect to see Liberal enthusiasm even for a formal coalition with the NDP in such circumstances.

My current seat projections currently give the Conservatives a slight advantage in seats over the Liberals in recent polls but all surveys also report strong third party support for the NDP who currently would control from 18 to 25 percent of the seats post-election, with both Liberals and Conservatives falling well short of a majority. On average the Bloc and Greens together would control no more than 2% of Commons seats and won't be a factor in government formation.

The Liberals must confront the fact that sooner or later without a majority as appears likely, they must deal with the NDP.  Should the NDP make gains and get past the Liberals the incentives would switch parties but the overall dynamic would remain the same. In recent weeks the NDP share of seats in this potential coalition has been rising so one shouldn't rule out the possibility of them seizing the leading role here from the Liberals.

Seat projections I have made from polls dating back to June 2013 have almost all produced a House of Commons where the Liberals and NDP combined would control a majority of the seats.  If the Liberals finish first projections currently say they can only form majorities with the support of either the NDP or Harper's Conservatives.

They would need to define a relationship with the NDP that makes sense over the medium term to sustain themselves in government. They could not  'govern as if they had a majority'; they would need a working agreement with the NDP.

The last time the Liberals had to govern as a minority with the support of the NDP was after the 1972 election. While a recent Forum poll suggests Canadians support the idea of a coalition government in principle, an Environics poll conducted last year (see pages 294 to 299) suggests they would be much more comfortable if the dominant party in that coalition was in first place. However, even if the Conservatives finish first they will be headed downhill with limited prospects for lasting in office long, much like the re-elected Diefenbaker Progressive Conservative government in 1962-63. It lasted less than a year.

The 1972 to 1974 period of minority Liberal government supported by the NDP is described well in a Master's Thesis written in 1977 for Queen's University by Peter Harder who would later become Canada's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, having served as deputy in five other departments. The Liberal two-seat advantage coming out of the election was a key factor in the NDP's decision to sustain them in power.In a confidential interview for the thesis, a Liberal cabinet minister said that if the Liberals had come second in seats behind the PCs they could only have met Parliament if they had a formal, public understanding with the NDP.

The 1985 Ontario election gave the Liberals the most votes but the PCs four more seats. The outcome was a Liberal-NDP Accord.  It would not be surprising to see something similar this year. There is something of an absurd game played between parties and the media about this. The unstated inference the press makes is that it is a damaging admission to suggest that in order for Parliament to function two parties must cooperate. Those who assert this need ought to recognize that in the case of a minority it is a simple question of math. The historical precedents tell us there is a strong chance of Liberal-NDP cooperation later this year.