Friday, January 09, 2009

Another Coalition Perspective

During the Green Shift debate, I cited a column by Jared Milne in the Edmonton Journal, which gave a rare balanced perspective, that I found refreshing. I've had a few email exchanges with Jared, and the following is an essay he's written on the coalition, which I've agreed to post here on my site. It provides an interesting perspective on the coalition, and while it doesn't reflect my point of view, it is an opinion worth consideration:

An open letter to my fellow Canadians:

This letter is not meant to criticize or condemn any single political party or political movement. It is meant to urge Canadians to think about the opposing point of view in the current parliamentary crisis, to build understanding by summarizing the arguments both in favour of and against the coalition government. At the present time, we as Canadians have been set against one another, when we must come together from all regions, all languages and all races to resolve the terrible problems that confront us. I am equally dismayed and disappointed by all our current federal political leaders and the missteps they have all made, which have all deepened a crisis and harmed our national unity, putting their personal pride and petty goals before the national interest.

Consider first what provoked this political crisis-Stephen Harper’s proposal to end public subsidies to political parties based on their electoral performance in his recent economic update. How can Harper justify an action that the opposition parties were sure to oppose, when the election results made it quite clear that Canadians wanted the parties to all cooperate with one another? Was he simply short-sighted, or deliberately trying to goad his opponents? Either response is extremely irresponsible, particularly when the $30 million that would be “saved” from such a move is a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget. Also, in comparing the actual vote counts for the 2006 and 2008 federal elections, Harper actually lost 168,737 fewer votes-hardly a ringing endorsement and a clear signal that Canadians wanted all the parties to cooperate, not play partisan games with one another.

The move is also suspicious by itself. If Harper is opposed to taxpayer subsidies for political parties, then why did he seek to abolish only one type of subsidy, which just happens to be the one his opposition is most reliant on? Why doesn’t Harper eliminate the reimbursement of electoral expenses, the tax subsidies given for political donations, or other forms of subsidy that all, in one way or another, come out of taxpayers’ pockets? It should be remembered, after all, that we have had public subsidies in one form or another in Canada since 1974, and that Harper’s fellow conservative John McCain had no problem accepting such subsidies in the American presidential election, subsidies that were essential to ensure a fair shake on both sides of the contest.

Some may argue that they do not want to see their tax dollars going to support political parties they oppose, but this argument cuts both ways. Many progressives do not like seeing their tax dollars going to support such things as the war in Afghanistan, our military buildup, tax incentives for corporations, the prison system, and other causes that right-wing conservatives are more inclined to support, and yet their tax money goes to support these institutions and causes anyway. Similarly, many single mothers, working poor, and others who would be more inclined to support the NDP’s left-wing policies, cannot afford to make the same kinds of regular donations that wealthier businesspeople, who might benefit more from the Conservatives’ pro-business policies, can make to their parties of choice.

Finally, it should be remembered that in 2004, after the exposure of Adscam, Stephen Harper wrote a letter to the Governor General, co-signed by Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, advising the Governor General of her “constitutional options” and informing her of the consultations being made by the opposition parties. Harper was, in effect, proposing the exact same thing with the Bloc and the NDP that the Liberals are proposing now. Would Conservative supporters be as angry about a coalition government if their party had been the one to head it?

Some may see these arguments as sufficient reason for a coalition government. However, the coalition government as proposed by the Liberals under Stéphane Dion brings very serious problems of its own, not the least of which are the national unity ramifications. How can Dion, whose criticisms of the sovereignist movement were what brought him into federal politics, justify working with the Bloc Québécois now? It creates an extremely negative perception in the rest of the country, particularly among those who may not realize that not all Bloc supporters are sovereignists. Any coalition with a political party whose stated goal is the separation of one of Canada’s provinces will provoke a negative reaction in the rest of the country by itself…and who is to say what demands the Bloc will make in exchange for its support? Don’t forget, too, that Dion claimed during the election he would never form a coalition, and that Layton attacked him for not knowing how to handle the economy.

Arguably even worse for Canadian unity is the backlash this has already provoked in Western Canada. While not everyone in Alberta or the West in general supports Harper, the Conservative party has its strongest base of support in this part of the country, and is seen by many as the West finally having a strong voice in government after years of alienation. The coalition is seen by these Westerners as an illegitimate way of taking power away from the rightfully elected government, and as a slap in the face to their part of the country. While it was never intended this way, Albertans in particular would see this as an attempt to shut them out of the democratic process after overwhelmingly supporting the current prime minister. All this has done is refuel Western alienation and provoke a backlash against other parts of the country, and against the federal Liberal and NDP parties in general.

The question has been raised too about the constitutional workings of government, and it’s been argued that the coalition is in fact perfectly legal and in keeping with parliamentary tradition. Indeed it is, but another part of our parliamentary tradition is the idea of constitutional convention-that set of unwritten rules and expectations that dictate how political actors use their powers in practice. It is why the federal government no longer uses its powers to reserve or disallow provincial legislation, why the federal government can set national standards for social policy with legislation such as the Canada Health Act, and why the Trudeau government was forced to negotiate with the provinces in the constitutional patriation of the early 1980s.

It appears to me that the modern convention that has arisen is, that if a government loses the confidence of the House, an election must be called immediately. This is what happened after the Paul Martin minority collapsed in 2005, when Harper felt that he could win the resulting election. Now, it seems, whichever party receives the most seats in the House of Commons is automatically declared the winner, and called on to form a government. It is true that more than 62% of the population voted against Harper, but all of the other party leaders received even less support than he did. Going to a coalition was quite unnecessary, given that the opposition forced Harper to back off on the funding issue. What the opposition parties should be doing is working with the Conservative government, the way the people wanted them to! Both sides should remember that, in order to avoid the collapse of the Harper government and avoid an election that Canadians absolutely do not want, they must cooperate and compromise, which what they were elected to do in the first place.

With no party receiving a clear mandate of support from the voters, and with nearly 40% of the population staying home on election day, to me it seems clear what Canadians want, for their politicians to not play partisan games and cooperate with one another in dealing with our economic, environmental, and social issues. Harper does not have all the answers in dealing with the economy, nor do Ignatieff, Layton, Duceppe or May. Their infighting does nothing to rebuild the trust and unity we need to get through this crisis.

This applies more broadly to supporters and opponents of the coalition as well. Our insults and fighting is only making the problem worse-both sides of the argument have equally strong and legitimate reasons for their stances, and condemning one another is only reopening old wounds and grudges that we can’t afford to waste our energy on right now.

That is why, above all else, it is critically important for both supporters and opponents of the coalition to set aside their differences and cooperate. This crisis is larger than any single group or party, and the needs of the country must come before individual partisan desires. Try and see the other side’s point of view, and above all, please try and ease off the rhetoric on both sides-it’s not getting us anywhere.

Canada deserves no less.


Anonymous said...

First Flanagan, now this guy. It seems like these days only the Conservatives want to talk about the coalition.

Wonder why that is?

Greg said...

Nothing like an impending execution to focus the mind, and given the number of anti-coalition tracts you have published Steve, I would say it does reflect the spirit of your point of view, if not its letter.

bigcitylib said...

Totally OT but an excellent new poll result.

Steve V said...


Just posted on that one :)


I assure you, my decision to agree to Jared's request had nothing to do with my perspective. One thing I did find attractive, Jared's opinion seems somewhat representative of western reaction, but he also throws plenty Harper's way.

Jared Milne said...

I should like to state that I am as disgusted by Harper's foolish partisan games and his mishandling of the economy as anyone, and that I fully support, for instance, the idea of public subsidies for political parties.

After all, just look at the second through fifth paragraphs, where I tear a strip off Harper and the Tories for their foolish games. I summarize a lot of pro-coalition/anti-Harper arguments that I happen to agree with. I'm trying to present a balanced perspective, so that hopefully both sides of the debate can see where the other is coming from and we can defuse any potential national unity confrontations over this-and that is a serious danger, even considering the potential reaction among Westerners who aren't otherwise devoted Conservatives.

And frankly, as an Albertan I resent being lumped in with the likes of Flanagan, Harper and the rest of the neo-cons. Many of the Conservative supporters I know, for example, aren't so much enamored of Harper's neo-conserative approach, but rather think the Tories are the best choice based on bread-and-butter issues like crime and the military. There's an undercurrent of Red Toryism in Alberta that most people tend to overlook-if it didn't crop up, Klein would have privatized our healthcare system long ago and we never would have forced an increase in the oil royalty rate the province charges.