Coalitions: a brief history

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There are good reasons why we haven't had many coalition governments in Canadian history. The rigid party structure and antiquated traditions of our inherited British parliamentary system are hardly conducive to the kind of collaboration that lends itself to formal or lasting alliances. Also, minority parliaments have been the exception to the rule in Canada, and majority governments in our system have rarely initiated co-operation with those who sit across the aisle.
In fact, there have been precious few incentives to do so: Policy differences and incompatible personalities have usually loomed as insurmountable obstacles. The political courtship that might lead to a partisan union in government hasn't often proceeded past the stage of flirtation. And in the rare circumstances when relationships are consummated, they've often resulted in serious morning-after regrets.
The federal level boasts only a single example of a coalition -- one that occurred more than 90 years ago.
In 1917, during the First World War, Conservative leader Robert Borden formed a Union government. The galvanizing issue of the day, the conscription crisis, prevented former Liberal prime minister Wilfrid Laurier and most Quebec Liberals from joining the coalition. Nevertheless, the Union government's Cabinet was comprised of 12 Conservatives, 9 Liberals and independents, and one Labour MP.
Although efforts to make the coalition government permanent were unsuccessful, it certainly contributed to the destruction of the old two-party system in Canada. It also unwittingly encouraged the rise of new regional parties. At the next election in 1921, the Conservatives were humiliated, dropping to third place behind the Progressives -- a new western-based protest party -- and the Liberals, who formed a government under Mackenzie King. Canadian politics would never be the same.
If anything, the Union government experience demonstrated that a political divorce among coalition partners can produce unintended consequences and be very painful, particularly for those who initiated the marriage.
The provincial experience with coalitions isn't much richer. Some have pointed to Ontario in 1985, when the fabled Conservative "Big Blue Machine" under Frank Miller's leadership barely elected the largest number of MPPs in a minority parliament. David Peterson's Liberals signed an accord with Bob Rae's New Democrats to work together for a fixed period, thereby denying the Tories the opportunity to hold onto power.
While not a formal coalition, this two-year Liberal government, made possible by NDP support, serves as an interesting reference point to the current machinations in Ottawa.
The only significant provincial coalition governed in British Columbia. In the 1941 election, Liberal premier Duff Pattullo failed to win a majority and was subsequently ousted from the leadership of his party, which then formed an alliance with the Conservatives.
Holding onto power in B. C. for more than a decade, the Liberal-Conservative coalition had ostensibly been formed to ensure a united effort during the Second World War. In reality, it was a union committed to preventing the CCF (precursor to the NDP) from forming government.
The coalition was successful in this objective but, after almost three terms in office, policy differences and partisan tensions forced the partners to divorce.
As in personal relationships, breaking up is hard to do. The split proved disastrous for both coalition partners. The Liberals and Conservatives were banished to the outer fringes of provincial politics in B. C. for several decades, making possible the emergence and long-term dominance of the Social Credit party.
What can we learn from our limited Canadian experience to date?
Coalition governments are political marriages of convenience that can, in rare instances, be successful in the short term. But the impulses that inspire these unions invariably contain the seeds of their eventual demise. This, in turn, irrevocably changes the parties and their relationships.
The partners currently engaging in romantic advances in Ottawa may feel they've gone too far to cancel the wedding at this point, but given this cautionary context, they might be well advised to reconsider.
- David Mitchell is a vice-principal at Queen's University. In January he will assume the presidency of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa.


David Mitchell1 article

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Vice-principal at Queen's University. In January he will assume the presidency of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa.

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