Apparently, mentioning a word often enough makes it take on an entirely new meaning. In every speech on the campaign trail, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has brought up the word “coalition,” attempting to instill fear in voters by giving the word an implication of ominious dread. It seems to be Harper’s belief that he can ride the word “coalition” to a majority government.
A coalition in parliamentary tradition is by definition a formal arrangement between two or more parties to share government power, such as now exists in Britain, where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have jointly agreed to serve in the cabinet. The coalition was only formed after the Conservatives had been elected as a minority government (called a “Hung Parliament” in Britain).
On the other hand, simply because another party periodically votes en masse with a minority government does not imply that a coalition government exists. If such was the case, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have led a coalition for the past five years. At one time or other, the Conservative minority government relied upon the Liberals, the NDP, and even the BQ, for support.
A “coalition,” as now “incorrectly” defined by the prime minister, arose following the 1925 federal election. The Arthur Meighen-led Conservatives held 116 seats in the House of Commons, while the Liberals held only 101, but Mackenzie King still controlled the House with the support of 24 Progressive members. It wasn’t a formal arrangement, but the Progressive were told by the Liberals that their most pressing concerns would be dealt with in Parliament.
Progressive support for the Liberals crumbled with the eruption of a Customs Department scandal. In the wake of the scandal, Prime Minister King presented Governor General Byng with an order-in-council “directing” him to dissolve Parliament so that an election could be held. However, Byng refused to sign the document while a motion of censure was still under debate in the House. In effect, Byng was exercising his constitutional “reserve” powers.
The Liberal government lost a confidence vote in the House and King was forced to resign in 1926. Byng then asked Meighen to form the government. But Meighen also lost a confidence vote after just three days in power — he became known to history as the “Three-day Wonder” — and an election became a necessity.
King turned the election into a vote on Canada’s independence, claiming Byng had ignored the will of the elected House controlled by the first minister — himself. The Canadian public joined King in being incensed that the British-appointed Byng invoked what they believed to be an outdated and inappropriate procedure contrary to the concept of responsible government. The result was that the Liberals under King were returned to power with a majority in the House of Commons.
Since that time, Canada’s governors general have been fearful to test their reserve powers to refuse a prime minister’s request to prorogue Parliament.
While there is no Byng-King affair to attract the attention of Canadians in this federal election, Harper is attempting to make it a “confidence” vote on the leadership of the two front runners — himself and Michael Ignatieff.
Yet, Canada has a parliamentary democracy and voters only directly elect members to the House of Commons — not the prime minister. Any potential prime minister is elected leader of a political party by its membership, not by the Canadian electorate at large.
Technically, there cannot be a referendum on leadership when the leaders are not directly elected by the people. What a leader has to do is convince the people to elect more of his party’s candidates to the House in order that he or she forms the government and thus becomes prime minister by default.
The Canadian political system has evolved to the point that elections are often claimed to be referendums on the ability of one party’s leader to govern when compared to another party’s leader. Ironically, Canadians are continually asked to vote for someone who doesn’t even appear on their ballots. The only people to actually directly vote for a party leader are those in the riding where a leader is seeking election as an individual Member of Parliament.
Harper has brought up the fear of a second-place party wanting to overthrow the first-place finisher in the event that a minority government is again elected (something he contemplated in 2004). It has happened in the past, but under differing circumstances than today. In 1925, King entered the federal election campaign as the governing prime minister. Even though his party ended up in second place following the election, King still felt he had every right to remain in the top political position of the land as his party had the support of another party to give them a majority of MPs. He didn’t control a coalition, but an informal alliance of similar-minded MPs who were willing to vote with the government because the Liberal platform contained issues the Progressives supported. The fact that the Progressives refused to act as a unified political party, but believed they were a collection of individual MPs sent to Ottawa to represent the will of their constituents — they advocated free votes — also helped the Liberals. If anything, the Progressives grasped the concept that parliamentary democracy involves directly electing members to the House of Commons rather than a prime minister, although that realization proved to be their greatest weakness.
The Progressives only voted with the Liberals as long as the King-led party held their confidence. When that confidence was broken, the alliance was abandoned and King was placed in an untenable position. But always the crafty politician, King emerged from scandal and defeat in the House to once again become the leader of a majority government.
The Progressives shortly thereafter faded into political obscurity with a number of its former MPs switching over to the Liberals, including Manitoba’s Thomas Crerar, who had tried unsuccessfully to unify the Progressive MPs into a single entity and thus remain a forceful presence in the House. After he left the Progressives, Crerar became a valued member of the King cabinet.
It’s a circumstance only marginally similar to the uniting of the Progressive Conservatives under Peter McKay with the Canadian Alliance under Harper to form a new Conservative Party. But the blending of the PCs and Alliance was more of a bid to form a right-of-centre coalition with the goal of attaining political power than the Progressives abandoning their sinking ship in favour of the King-led Liberal juggernaut.