The Intelligent Voter’s Guide to Coalitions and Accords

The Intelligent Voter’s Guide to Coalitions and Accords

By Lynn McDonald

Coalition governments are common in countries with proportional representation, that fairer electoral system which Canada does not (yet) have. Coalitions, meaning a government getting a majority of seats by bringing in a junior partner, and sharing Cabinet posts, are entirely consistent with our Constitution. An accord is a similar arrangement, typically with a time limit, but without Cabinet representation.

However, there is no good working example of a coalition in Canada. The Liberal-Conservative coalitions of the 1940s in B.C. kept the CCF (precursor of the NDP) out of government, but circumstances have since changed. The 1985-87 Ontario Accord, however, is a relevant example, both for its achievements and for the rewards it brought its two partners.

In 1985, the Progressive Conservatives won the most seats, 52, with only 37% of the popular vote, beaten slightly in votes by the Liberals at 37.9%, who got only 48 seats. The results, as for so many elections, show why we need proportional representation.

The process? NDP leader Bob Rae formally called on the lieutenant governor, John Black Aird, to tell him that they would support a Liberal government and gave him a copy of the Accord negotiated with the Liberals. When the House met, Rae moved a motion of non-confidence in the Conservative government, which passed, ending its 42-year rule. The lieutenant governor, meanwhile, had consulted a leading Constitutional expert, the late Donald Smiley, and agreed with his advice on the legality of the Accord. The outgoing Conservative premier advised the lieutenant governor to call David Peterson to form a government, which he did and Peterson accepted.

The Accord government brought in many progressive measures:

  • democratic reform: a greater role for committees and private members, election financing (spending limits and disclosure of contributors’ names), public servants’ right to partisan political activity; electronic Hansard;
  • housing: a rent registry, expansion of rent review; an Ontario housing program for coop and non-profit housing
  • employment: pay equity; “first contracts” in collective bargaining; workers’ rights to know about toxic substances in the workplace; affirmative action for women, minorities and the handicapped; better notice and justification on lay-offs and plant shutdowns; cost-of-living increases for Workers’ Compensation;
  • health: a ban on extra-billing, full hospital travel coverage in the North;
  • environment: independent audit of forest resources, measures for regeneration;
  • social policy: recognition of day care as a basic public service, not a form of welfare, measures for the disabled, including better employment opportunities; ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code;
  • education: full separate school funding.

Both partners increased their vote in the next election, 1987: the Liberals to 47.3% and a
majority government, the NDP to 25.7% and Official Opposition status (although they lost
some seats). in 1990, the New Democrats, under Bob Rae, won a majority, with only 37.6%
of the vote.

1985 Pop. Vote Seats
PC 37.0% 52
Liberal 37.9% 48
NDP 23.4% 25
1987 Pop. Vote Seats
Liberal 47.3% 95
NDP 25.7% 19
PC 24.7% 16

The Federal Liberal Minority Governments 1963 and 1965

Lester Pearson led two minority governments, 1963 and 1965, with no coalition or accord. He never won a majority, yet he became one of the most successful prime ministers ever, judging by lasting achievements. He considered himself “left of centre” and was open to a coalition with the NDP, but they were suspicious, while some Liberals would have preferred a deal with the right-wing Social Credit Party.

Pearson’s approach to minority government might be called proceed-with-caution, or thinkahead, in sharp contrast to Joe Clark’s strategy in 1979-80 to govern as if he had a majority. It lost a confidence motion before it could even pass a budget.

Pearson’s memoirs only briefly mention the tentative, behind-the-scenes discussions with the NDP. After they failed, he simply went ahead with the measures he thought most likely to win support. These included: national medicare, the CPP/QPP, Canada Labour Code (with a 40- hour work week, two week vacations and an increase in the minimum wage), Parliamentary reform (including an independent body to set constituency boundaries), improved family allowances (to include 16-17 year olds), Guaranteed Income Supplement, a student loan plan, more public housing, the Auto Pact with the U.S., refusal to send combat troops to Vietnam and the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag. All this without a formal accord!

Might it serve as a model to the NDP after October 19, if there is a hung Parliament, and Justin Trudeau won’t deal? Publish a list stating “This is what we would bring in, if we form a government, and this is what we will support if you do.”

Climate Change and the U.N. meetings in December 2015

The driving motive for a coalition or accord in Canada is the need for a serious strategy to combat the climate crisis. The present Conservative government’s commitment for the Paris talks is grossly inadequate. This, after all, is the government that cancelled Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, and has been a major hindrance at previous U.N.meetings.

If there is a hung Parliament after October 19, will the Liberals budge on climate change? So far, Trudeau has committed only to attending the Paris meetings, with the provincial premiers. He would negotiate with them in the 90 days post-election on what Canada’s position should be - but not in time for the meetings, which convene on November 30. Given his enthusiastic support for the tar sands, the wary voter must worry about the adequacy of the result. Liberal governments under Jean Chrétien signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, then failed to bring in the necessary measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Liberal governments had dedicated Environment ministers, whose good intentions were negatived by stronger Finance ministers, who gave subsidies to oil projects, including the tar sands.

Voters have reason also to check the fine print with NDP commitments. New Democrats in B.C., after all, ran an election campaign to “Axe the Tax,” meaning the carbon tax of Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell.

The intelligent voter will want substance in detail from both the Liberals and the NDP.

A backgrounder for the town hall, Sept 10 2015, “What If There is a Three-Way Split?”

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