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A Historical Note on Coalition Government

Mar 06, 2009

In his Address to the Nation on December 3rd 2008, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion waxed maudlin about the prospects of a Liberal-NDP coalition government;

"Coalitions are ... able to work very successfully. They work with simple ingredients: consensus, goodwill and cooperation. Consensus is a great Canadian value. In this spirit, we Liberals have joined in a coalition with the NDP. We have done so because we believe we can achieve more for Canadians through cooperation than through conflict. We believe we can better solve the challenges facing Canada through teamwork and collaboration, rather than blind partisan feuding and hostility ... Investing in our rural communities so that cherished ways of life are protected for future generations ... In times like this our compassion as a country is tested ... I will serve my country until my time to serve is at an end."

Heart-rending to be sure. I won't attempt to show that coalition governments are any better or worse than minority governments (though I will note that minority governments often have to work closely with the opposition, aligning and re-aligning themselves with other parties in order to pass legislation, whereas a coalition that has a majority need not always do the same); instead, while the thought of a Liberal-NDP coalition is still fresh in our minds, I'd like to take the opportunity to briefly examine Canada's experience with coalition government at the federal level.

"There has been only one coalition government at the federal level in Canada's history, and it was not as a result of a minority situation," and by no means was the coalition well received. In 1914, at the outset of Canada's involvement in World War One, the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden promised he would not implement conscription; however in 1917, the public watched as Borden sought to form a coalition with support from individual Liberals and independent politicians -- in order to obtain the political support he needed to impose conscription. The coalition was formed, conscription was instituted, and the public was outraged. Conscription was an incredibly unpopular policy, so unpopular in fact that it erupted into what is now known as the Conscription Crisis. Québécois, farmers, and pacifist groups vehemently opposed conscription, and observers commented that the Conscription Crisis threatened to rip the country apart.

In order to increase their chances at the polls, the coalition pushed two bills through the legislature and then dissolved parliament, thus cementing their bills and disabling challengers before they could even form a response. The first bill, The Military Voters Act, gave the vote to all members of the army, and if constituency was left unspecified on an army member's vote, then politicians were free to count that vote toward any constituency they chose. (If politicians could choose their votes, then why stage an election at all?) The second bill, The Wartime Elections Act, enfranchised the female relatives of non-Indian military members -- hardly a disinterested group of voters -- while denying the vote to conscientious objectors and immigrants that had migrated from enemy countries and become Canadians after 1902 -- again, hardly a disinterested group of voters. The coalition remained unpopular until it's dissolution in 1920, when Borden retired from office.

There are few parallels between the coalition of 1917 and the coalition of 2008, but the point here is that our history shows it is not reasonable to claim that coalitions "work with simple ingredients," as Dion claimed in his Address to the Nation. Though a coalition obtained control of the federal government in 1917, it was not done in a spirit of "goodwill and cooperation;" it was done because forming a coalition was an expedient way to overcome popular resistance to the government's policies.