Sunday, March 27, 2011

Canada Election 2011: Is there a difference between a coalition and co-operation?

This weekend, the mainstream media finally got around to covering an issue that has been commented on many times by those who take the time to express their opinions as commenters in the online versions of Canada's newspapers.  I don't know how many times I've read the comment about Mr. Harper's attempt to form a coalition back in 2004 when Prime Minister Martin led a minority Liberal government but reference to this letter appeared very frequently without any physical evidence that it actually existed.  Finally this weekend, Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois brandished a copy of the letter for the media.

Here is what the letter addressed to Canada's Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson and dated September 4th, 2004 said:

Interestingly enough, now that the Canadian public has been presented with a physical copy of the previously elusive letter, the Conservatives have been forced to respond.  They now maintain that the letter did not constitute a coalition agreement because it does not use the word coalition.  According to the CPC, the supposed intent of the three parties was to seek "co-operation".  You say tomato, I say tomahto.

The Conservatives have been using the Liberal-Bloc-NDP coalition of 2008 as one of their key campaign platform issues in an attempt to scare Canadians from what they term the "separatist coalition" bogeyman.   As some of us are aware, and since the Conservatives so dearly love to dredge up history, Mr. Harper, as President of the National Citizens Coalition, penned this letter which has become known as the "Firewall Letter" to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein advising that "...It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.".  Apparently Mr. Harper, it takes a separatist (NCC President, Conservative or Reform) to know a separatist (Bloc Quebecois).
Late last week, the National Post so kindly published this article where they noted that the 2008 document signed by Michael Ignatieff et al in their attempt to form a coalition had been removed from the Liberal Party website.  The Post went so far as to post a link so that their readers could still access the document.  I'll do one better – here’s the text from the entire document:
“December 1, 2008

An Accord on a Cooperative Government to Address the Present Economic Crisis
This document outlines the key understandings between the Liberal Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party of Canada regarding a new cooperative government.

1. Role of caucuses
The Liberal and NDP caucuses will continue to meet as distinct caucuses. They will receive briefings and be consulted as appropriate. Both are entitled to offer advice to the government. The two caucuses may meet jointly as agreed from time to time to jointly address issues. The caucuses will sit next to each other on the government benches.

2. Cabinet
Nothing in this Accord is intended to diminish or alter the power and prerogatives of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister will be the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The Minister of Finance will be appointed from the Liberal caucus. The cabinet will be composed of 24 ministers plus the Prime Minister. Eighteen of these ministers will be appointed from within the Liberal caucus.Six of these ministers will be appointed from within the NDP caucus, plus six Parliamentary Secretaries, sworn in as Privy Councillors, will also be named from the NDP caucus. In the event the Prime Minister chooses to appoint a larger cabinet, the NDP proportion will be maintained.

The specifics of these cabinet appointments will be made by the Prime Minister in appropriate consultation with the Leader of the NDP.

The rules and practices of cabinet confidentiality and solidarity will be strictly maintained. Normal processes of cabinet appointments and governance in the Canadian federal government will be respected. The cabinet is jointly and collectively accountable to Parliament for its work, including in daily question period.

3. A “no surprises” approach
Within the limits of common sense and the needs of cabinet government, the two parties agree they will work together on a “no surprises” basis.
Furthermore, upon its formation, the government will put in place a permanent consultation mechanism with the Bloc Québécois.

4. Appointments
Both parties are committed to restoring the integrity, transparency and efficiency of the appointments process in the Public Service and in federal bodies like the Supreme Court, the Senate and Commissions like the CRTC.
The Prime Minister will consult the Leader of the NDP as appropriate on appointments.

5. A standing managing committee of the Accord
A standing managing committee of the Accord, chaired by the Prime Minister, will be struck.
It will be composed of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the NDP, and such other persons as the leaders deem appropriate from time to time.
The committee will meet regularly to ensure the good order of the Accord; to deal with key issues that have arisen; to consult on key appointments; and to resolve any disputes which might arise from the Accord (for example, by referring issues
relating to the Accord to a trusted committee of experienced, distinguished Canadians).

6. Term of this Accord
This Accord will expire on June 30, 2011 unless renewed. Agreed on December 1, 2008.

Hon. Stéphane Dion Leader, Liberal Party of Canada

Hon. Jack Layton Leader, New Democratic Party of Canada”
Thanks to Scribd, the original document signed by all Liberal, Bloc and NDP MPs is available here.
There's no doubt about it, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc were going to form a coalition but it is interesting that they too, use the word “co-operative” when referring to forming the government.  I also find it fascinating that, in the interest of journalistic balance, the Post did not even mention the 2004 letter in its coverage, isn’t it?  Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t make for a fun news item when both sides are guilty of the same thing!
On the National Post website, many readers (quite frequently the same ones over and over again) post their comments on various news articles, most particularly those of a political nature.  After the above mentioned article, several commenters (obviously left-leaners) posted comments referring to the 2004 "co-operation" document as noted above.  It was interesting to read the rebuttals from those who are quite obviously leaning to the right.  Here's one:
"That was not a coalition doc lad it was a letter of interest to the GG. Check the UK for a real coalition."
It really is interesting to observe how history, even when presented in all of its glory, can be rewritten according to what one wants to see depending on one's political leanings, isn't it?
In closing, I don't know how many of you have read George Orwell's marvelous novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four".  While it is a work of fiction, it is a prime example of life imitating art.  In the book, the "Party" rules Oceania, one of three world super-states, with an iron fist.  Oceania is at constant war with other groups of nations and the Party uses their propaganda machine as a means of controlling their citizens.  Every so often throughout Oceania's history, their enemy becomes their ally and their former ally becomes their enemy.  The Party has formed the 'Ministry of Truth" whose purpose is to control information (propaganda) and to destroy and rewrite history to reflect the state's current situation.  This historical revisionism is used to control the citizens of Oceania since they very rapidly forget the past truth when presented with a newer version.
In many ways, I see rather striking similarities between what is happening in Canada's political sphere today to what George Orwell so profoundly recorded in his novel.  In the case of the 2004 and 2008 documents, the Conservatives (and to a lesser extent the Liberals) are rewriting history to their own advantage.  The Conservatives pretend that the 2004 document was not an attempt to form a coalition even though that was quite clearly its intent had the Governor General agreed to their request and have pretty much denied or, at the very least, ignored  its existence.  On the other hand, the Liberals have removed the 2008 agreement from their website in a desperate attempt to distance themselves from their own past.  As if that weren’t enough, they’ve posted a copy of the 2004 Conservative document.  One can only conclude that both parties are showing nothing but contempt (pardon my use of that much over-used word) for Canadian voters; in their estimation, they can invoke historical revisionism to cajole voters into swallowing their propaganda simply because we aren't smart enough to think for ourselves.  Our best option is to prove them wrong and to make them account for their past actions because we're not so stupid as to forget what they've been up to.


  1. What I find interesting is that the Harper Conservative Government is serving openly in a "coalition" with reference to the UN sanctioned action against the Libyan Government. They are not in the least shy about using the term to describe Canadian involvement. And the term "Coalition" is used repeatedly by Harper's Ministers. A Harper minority government cooperated with other parties for 5 years. So what would be wrong with a Liberal Minority Government cooperating with other parties?

  2. In the book, the "Party" rules Oceania, one of three world super-states, with an iron fist. One can only conclude that both parties are showing nothing but contempt (pardon my use of that much over-used word) for Canadian voters; in their estimation.

  3. I believe there is considerable polling data to indicate that Canadians wanted their parliamentarians to cooperate with each other. A coalition is a public plan to cooperate that defines the relationship; a pre-nup, so to speak. The trick with cooperation is to do just enough of it to not get blamed if the relationship goes sour and an election gets called. But not enough of it to make a difference or lose some power. It is rather like an intimate relationship breaking up; it is never one person's fault but loss trust in each other will certainly poison the well. So this is why an election is now a good idea

  4. Greysells2 - What is wrong with the Liberals co-operating as a coalition is that Mr. Harper wouldn't be in power and that would make Mr. Harper a very cranky Mr. Harper.

    I just loved the look on his face today at a news conference when Terry Milewski asked him a question about the 2004 coalition. There was a momentary look of pure annoyance that crossed his face before he recomposed himself.

  5. I think you are overlooking a very important point in that Harper in 2004 was suggesting to GG that an alternative via the cooperation of the opposition parties might exist if Martin asked for a dissolution of parliament in order to have another election to increase his party standings.
    In the 2008 the coalition was formed in order to force the defeat of the government thus gaining power by an unprincipled group of politicians entirely against the desires of the electorate!!! How else was Dion ever going to become Prime Minister and I suppose followed by Iggy. How else was Layton ever going to obtain cabinet position. How else was Duceppe ever going to gain the opportunity to wield such power with the governance of CANADA

  6. Further to my seems that coalition agreement of 2008 duly signed by all (I believe) liberal & ndp mp's is still in effect...thus Harpers concern! My mail is if any want to respond!

  7. If a government falls for whatever reason, it is well within the parliamentary tradition for the GG to call an election or ask the other parties if there is anyone else who can form a government which is able to enjoy the confidence of the House. The Harper Government through the cooperation of other three parties was able to govern until that cooperation was withdrawn. Elections are not that expensive, in the big scheme of things, and are always essential to democracy. There is no such thing as an "unnecessary election". Who is to "blame" for the election? They all are and we, the voters, get to decide what to do about it

  8. It really doesn't matter what spin is put on it, they are the same thing. My issue is in the different choices that were made in the wake of both groups forming a coalition/ cooperation.

  9. The situation is far too poison for a coalition/cooperation to work. A liberal/ Conservative coalition will result in the Liberals using every bit of inside information they get to discredit the Conservatives. Remember, it’s about money. The Liberal Party is in financial trouble so desperately needs to get elected to get the benefits a party in power has for fund raising.

    Conservative/NDP may work but the result would be costly as it’s the only way NDP gets any power as it will never get a majority.

    A Liberal/NDP government would be a disaster for Canadians as it would tax and spend. Both parties have a tax, tax, tax, spend, spend, spend, mentality.

    It’s also perfect for the Liberals because at the next election they can blame all the excess on the NDP and use this as leverage to try and force a Liberal majority.

    Just by the fact that the Liberals were ready to get in bed with the Separatists shows that their main concern is power.

    I can’t say I like everything the Conservatives stand for, but I don’t see a reasonable option at this time.

  10. The other night Jack Layton claimed he was willing to work with any government then in the next sentence criticized the Liberal party for voting with the conservatives policies 100 times since last election. It sounds like he doesn't think people should work together unless it is his way. Is that a coalition PM that we need? The NDP haven't even completed this election and are already planning to ignore the voting will of Canadians... sad times for Canada if this happens.