Thursday, January 14, 2010

Moment of the Decade: #2 The Coalition

If you missed it, I asked readers to nominate, then vote, on Canada's top political moment of the decade. Over the first two weeks of January, I'm counting down the top 10 vote getters. Tomorrow, I reveal the complete voting results and the number one moment of the decade.

If nothing else, it made Canadians pay attention to politics.

Over the past year, people had complained about how dull our politics were – the Americans had just gone through a thrilling election whereas you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could tell you anything memorable about our election that had happened around the same time. There’d been something about sweater vests and puffins, but nothing had really happened, and nothing had really changed.

Then, for a fortnight in December, everyone paid attention. And I mean everyone. That Christmas, friends and family who couldn’t name their local MP didn’t want to talk to me about anything except the coalition. And they all had an opinion. Someone had committed an affront to democracy – just who had committed what affront depended on who you asked. Those dastardly Liberals were going to use the separatists to steal an election! That bully Stephen Harper was using an economic crisis to play petty politics!

In one of my favourite political memories, I bundled up on a cold Toronto Saturday and visited a pair of competing rallies, both accusing opposites side of subverting democracy. At one rally, the coalition was described as “the saddest moment in the history of Canada” and a “coup”. At the other, Jack Layton talked about how Stephen Harper had “taken away your right to vote”.

Looking back, it’s actually easy to see how it all happened. The Liberals were weak and Harper went for the jugular. The opposition fought back with the only weapon they had. So Harper backed down. But this was the only chance Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton would ever have at power so they kept punching. So Harper used the only weapon he had and prorogued. Then Michael Ignatieff saw an opportunity to skip the unpleasantness of a leadership race and he took it.

It was wild, it was exciting, but even with emotions higher than they’d ever been, it really wasn’t anything more than a bunch of politicians behaving completely rationally, like basic game theory would expect them to. One by one, they saw an opportunity for power and they took it. Even though we faulted them at the time, can you really blame politicians for doing what politicians do?

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  • My personal favourite was being constantly told by Liberal supporters that I didn't understand how the Canadian Parliamentary system worked and that everything the Dion-Layton coalition was doing was perfectly constitutional.

    Then I'd simply ask how they would feel if the notwithstanding clause were used tomorrow to ban gay marriage. Great fun.

    By Blogger Feynman and Coulter's Love Child, at 8:06 a.m.  

  • I seem to recall that polls at the time showed 2/3 to 3/4 of Liberals opposed the coalition and 1/4 to 1/3 of NDP supporters opposed it too.

    Part of it was poor execution - signing an agreement with the Bloc in public - part of it was the Big Blue War Machine, but most of it was Canadians being more aghast with a change in government so soon after an election (without another election) with Dion at the head than they were aghast at Harper's never-ceasing petty political opportunism only a weak after he declared he'd heard the message from the electoral of working together in Parliament.

    In hindsight, the whole coalition thing takes on more historical precedent because of Harper's second prorogation in a year, again to avoid the will of Parliament. Once, Canadians accepted but only under the circumstances. That he would take that to think we had given him carte blanche to do it whenever he wanted is a big part of his plummetting numbers right now.

    Good choice for #2.

    By Blogger Ted Betts, at 9:21 a.m.  

  • Well, as someone who was pretty solidly against the coalition, I do think it was constitutional. I don't think it was the right thing to do, and it definitely wasn't the politically astute thing to do. But, yeah, it was constitutional. Had Harper not prorogued, Jean would have had to let Dion form government.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:41 a.m.  

  • That bully Stephen Harper was using an economic crisis to play petty politics!

    Someone who couldn't even name their local MP said that?!?

    It was obviously fed to them. You kind of have to know a lot about what's going on to know that, and to understand it enough to get angry about it.

    The only people I knew who were in favour of the coalition were people that hated Harper and saw it as the only way to get rid of him.

    Then again, I'm in Calgary (shrug).

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 10:14 a.m.  

  • I think Dion may have ruined the chance for Canada to have coalition governments (which are one way for us to have stability even with minority governments) for a generation by cynically moving to save his own skin, instead of waiting.

    The prevailing sentiment of the coalitionistas seemed to be that "this is constitutional" instead of "a coalition will be good for Canada because ____". That kind of tone deaf hubris is what killed them.

    The frightening thing for me as a Tory is to imagine a different scenario. What if the Liberals had waited till they got an election result putting the NDP + Liberals in a majority position? What if they had waited till they were rid of their lame duck loser leader.

    Without Dion's massive unpopularity and without the Bloc, a coalition could have been sold to the Canadian public. Should that happen it would reverse the centre-right drift Canada has seen since 1984 (even when the Liberals were in power, they governed to the right).

    In a world of coalitions, there are no possible dance partners for the Tories. The Liberals are the closest to them ideologically, but because the two parties view each other as challengers for power, they are not able to cooperate beyond the short-term. The Bloc may share the Tory vision of a Canada of regions, but differs elsewhere and would make a politically toxic ally.

    By Blogger french wedding cat, at 2:31 p.m.  

  • How ironic that the #2 and #1 are so very similar yet so very different.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 10:14 p.m.  

  • The pro-cos had to shout "this is constitutional" in order to drown out the astroturfing trolls who were wailing "this is a coup!"

    Also, you left the media out of the equation.

    BTW, I saw on the telly tonight that PR people now outnumber journalists 3 to 1.

    By Blogger lyrical, at 3:22 a.m.  

  • Dan, you are correct that it was formally constitutional for the Opposition parties to band together.

    You are incorrect in your assertion that they could constitutionally usurp power: The GG is bound to follow the advice of her First Minister, and if the PM had advised her to call a new election she would have been bound to do so. Similarly, if he had advised that she give them the opportunity to govern, she would have been bound to do that.

    Those who talk about "reserve powers" refer to instances where the Prime Minister's advice is outside the Constitution.

    It does not allow her to steal power away from her First Minister in favour of another.

    By Blogger Paul, at 4:06 a.m.  

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