Why Britain has a coalition government and Canada does not

12 05 2010

Consider this scenario. A general election gives a centre-right political party the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, albeit less than the majority needed to pass laws. Doing what is customary after an election defeat, the incumbent government, which is a centre-left party, resigns. The leader of the centre-right party forms a coalition with the third-place party. The coalition produces a stable majority and gives the third-place party several seats around the Cabinet table. The coalition agreement is slated to run for five years.

This scenario has recently unfolded in Britain. David Cameron now leads a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. In contrast, coalitions are very rare in Canada.  In the Canadian election of 2006, Stephen Harper ‘s Conservatives got the largest number of seats but less than a majority. Rather than forming a coalition to produce a majority, he opted to govern as a minority, securing the support needed to pass each piece of legislation on an ad hoc basis. The result has been chronic instability and a second general election that largely duplicated the results of the first.

Palace of Westminster

Why didn’t Stephen Harper arrange a coalition instead of governing with a minority? Why didn’t he do a David Cameron? The differences in personality between Harper and Cameron may be factor.  As well, the ideological gulf separating the Canadian Conservatives from their only realistic coalition partner, the hardcore socialist NDP, is far greater than the distance between the British Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. However, the major reason Harper did not negotiate a majority coalition relates to history. Canada has a long history of fairly successful minority governments and almost no history of coalitions. In contrast, Britain had coalition governments for part of the 20th century, albeit none of them were in living memory, the last coalition having come to an end with the Second World War. The wartime coalition led by Churchill left a fairly positive impression with British people—after all, it had dealt with an existential threat to Britain.

Parliament Hill in Winter

The only real coalition in Canadian history, the Union government of the First World War, is tainted in the historical memory by its association with Conscription and linguistic conflict. Minority governments have fared better in Canada than in the UK. The Pearson government in the 1960s had a productive legislative record and Pearson is now regarded as one of the greatest Canadian Prime Ministers. Even Stephen Harper, a Conservative, compares himself to Pearson.


The last minority government in Britain, which existed for a few months in 1974, was a dismal failure, although it must be said that governing Britain in 1974 would be far more challenging than governing Canada in the 1960s, when the economy was booming.

British people have experience with coalitions because the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all coalitions. Indeed, power-sharing was central to the deal that created the Northern Ireland assembly. No province in Canada has a coalition government, although there was a coalition government of sorts in  Ontario between 1985 and 1987.

Another key difference between Westminster and Ottawa is that nationalist parties are a minor force in UK politics (the Welsh and Scottish nationalists have only a handful of seats, as do the parties that want Northern Ireland to leave the UK). In contrast, there is only one nationalist party in the Canadian parliament and it has lots of seats.

For Canadian reactions to the coalition in the UK, see here, here, and here.

Sir John A. Macdonald Birthday Messages from the Canada’s Two Major Political Parties

11 01 2010

Statement from Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff on Sir John A. Macdonald Day
Published on January 11, 2010 at 12:00, Ottawa time

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff made the following statement to commemorate the birthday of Canada’s first Prime Minister:

“Today we honour the memory of the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, who was born on January 11, 1815.

As one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, Macdonald set aside partisan differences to reform Canada’s political system, culminating in the confederation of the Province of Canada with the Maritime colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1867.

An adept and visionary politician, he applied his love and passion for Canada towards growing and unifying our country.   Amongst his many feats was the expansion of Canada’s territory, building the Canadian Pacific Railway and founding the North-West Mounted Police.

Macdonald overcame considerable personal tragedy to leave an indelible mark on Canadian politics, with a tenure in office spanning 18 years, making him the second longest serving Prime Minister of Canada.  Even after all this time he remains the only Canadian Prime Minister to win six majority governments.

On behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada and our Parliamentary caucus, I encourage Canadians to take a moment to reflect on one of our country’s greatest historical figures and how his wise and passionate leadership helped carve out this great nation.”

Statement from Stephen Harper, Conservative Party leader, issued at 21:17, Ottawa time

“Today, Canadians are celebrating the memory and legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, whose vision and enterprise were instrumental in setting Canada on the path to becoming the country we know and love today.

“Born in Scotland on January 11, 1815, John A. Macdonald emigrated to Canada with his family when he was five years old.  His spent his early professional years as a lawyer and city alderman in Kingston, Ontario, and then as a representative in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.  These experiences shaped his political ideas and ambitions through a long, illustrious and tumultuous career.

“He pursued his vision for a united Canada with conviction and determination, forging alliances across partisan lines and regional interests to promote and realize his national dream.  He will be forever remembered as Canada’s most distinguished public figure, enshrined as one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, as well as becoming our country’s first prime minister with the union of the first four provinces on July 1, 1867.

“Sir John A. Macdonald rose to meet the many challenges, professional, political and personal, that he faced in building our nation.  Along the way, `The Old Chieftan` left us a legacy of conviction, patriotism and achievement that remains an inspiration to Canadians today.”

Vapid boilerplate in both cases. I would have expected that the guy who once taught Canadian history at UBC would have had something more insightful to say.

The Economist on Canada: Criticism from Mother England Stings

8 01 2010

The Economist used to have a favourable impression of Canada. Think of the famous 2003 cover image of a cool Canadian moose wearing sunglasses. Alas, the Canadian chic is wearing thin with the London-based magazine. The sunglasses are off and the moose has been shot and carved up for meat. This week’s issue is very critical of the decision of the Harper’s government to prorogue parliament.

For Canadian reaction to the Economist‘s comments on suspension of parliament, see here, here, and here. The Economist‘s condemnation is getting a lot of press in Canada. Perhaps this is because the British magazine once condemned Paul Martin as “Mr Dithers” and endorsed Harper in 2006 and 2008. I also think that Canadians are stung by the fact a publication in Britain, which is the fountainhead of our political institutions, has suggested that the actions of our Prime Minister fly in the face of constitutional convention. Many Canadians may dimly remember from high school the part of the British North America Act 1867 that reads: “Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom…”

I don’t agree with the decision to prorogue parliament. However, it disturbs me that in 2010, the opinion of a British publication could carry so much weight in Canada. Is this colonial cringe?

Senate Reform

7 01 2010

Senate Chamber

The Harper Government has announced its intention to re-open the issue of Senate Reform. I have a few quick thoughts about this.

1)      The Governments of Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba, which have nearly half the country’s population, are in favour of the outright abolition of the Senate. Unicameralism seems to work well for the provinces. The last province to abolish its unelected upper house was Quebec. No province is considering reintroducing bicameralism at the provincial level. We should consider Senate abolition. Senate abolition has been discussed more or less continuously since the 1920s. Let’s act.

2)      According to the amending formula entrenched in the 1982 constitution, changing the Senate will require the consent of the provinces. What will the provinces ask for in return for going along with this?

3)      Canada’s House of Lords Senate is only one of the more objectionable parts of our constitutional inheritance from Britain. As I showed on this blog, the visit of Prince Charles prompted a great deal of discussion about the future of the monarchy in Canada. Most young Canadians think that Canada should become a republic. One could argue that changing our head of state is more important than changing the upper house. Senate reform is a largely symbolic issue, but the head of state is far more important symbolically. We don’t have pictures of the Senate on our coins. If we are going to scrap or change the Senate, maybe we should deal with the monarchy at the same time.

Update: Jeffrey Simpson has a very good article on this issue in today’s paper.

George Monbiot on Canada and Climate Change

1 12 2009

George Monbiot of the Guardian has published an article attacking Canada’s track-record on the issue of climate change.

Monbiot is quite right to attack Canada’s foot-dragging on the issue of climate change. His criticisms of the party currently in power in Ottawa are also justified, although it must be said that the old government’s _revealed preferences_ were basically the same.  I find, however, that Monbiot’s article lacks historical context. I don’t know if Canada’s record on the environment is significantly better or worse than that of the other settler countries, such as the USA or Australia. These are all societies based on consuming vast quantities of natural resources. That’s how they’ve been doing things for the past couple of centuries. The people in these countries are basically the same: big farms, big houses, big cars, and, quite literally, big people.  Given the attitudes to the environment that people in settler countries have inherited from their land-raping grandparents from the period in which their societies grew mainly through extensive economic growth,  there is a limit as to how much even a centre-left government can do. After all, the government needs to get re-elected and people in new world societies are far less willing to make sacrifices for the environment than their European cousins. It’s clear to anyone who walks into a British supermarket that British consumers are more interested in helping the environment than Canadian ones. These preferences need to be taken into account in designing a climate change strategy. I admire the committment to the environment of the former leader of the Liberal Party, but I must say that running a campaign promising a carbon tax was a foolish political tactic. Sometimes I think that Mr Dion forgot that he was now back in Canada, not in Paris.

I admit that Canada’s stand on CO2 has become a little bit worse under Harper than it was under the Liberals. But the Liberals did little on the CO2 file aside from pay lip service to the issue. The Liberals of the Jean Chrétien era were astute to enough to realize they needed the votes of minivan driving couch potatoes.  But it is a bit unfair to compare white Canadians’ level of concern for the environment to that of people in a densely settled countries where most of the population is descended from people who have lived in the same region for millenia and have a deep attachment to the soil. In general, New World folk are footloose people with less attachment to particular biomes. Canadians are less interested in solving the CO2 problem and that attitude is a product of our history.  It would be foolish to predict that North Americans would behave like Europeans when it comes to political and consumer choices about the environment.

It may be that North Americans will have to be coerced into making the right choice.

Behiels on the Monarchy Debate

6 11 2009

Prof. Michael Behiels, University of Ottawa

Prof. Michael Behiels, a historian at the University of Ottawa has been interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen about the monarchy debate. I agree with most of what he had to say, but I thought he was on shaky ground when he answered one of the reporter’s questions about the monarchy’s role in Canadian politics.

The reporter mentioned that there had been speculation during December’s constitutional crisis that if Michaëlle Jean had denied Stephen Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament, Harper would have asked Queen Elizabeth to fire her.  The reporter wanted to know whether the Queen would have agreed to such a request. Behiels said the Queen would have turned down such a request from Harper, “I’m sure she [Jean] was speaking with the Queen throughout the crisis. She would have been on the blower all the time, and they would have been on the same page.”

As a young assistant professor, I don’t know if I should dissent from the opinion of such an accomplished historian as Behiels! However, I’m not certain that Behiels is right about this particular point. In 1975, there was  constitutional crisis in Australia when Governor-General suddenly announced that he was dismissing Gough Whitlam, the left-of-centre Prime Minister. The GG appointed the leader of the conservative opposition as Prime Minister. The new Prime Minister quickly called an election, which he won. In the days immediately prior to Whitlam’s dismissal, the Governor-General kept his plan to fire the Prime Minister secret for fear that if Whitlam found out what was being planned, he would telephone the Queen and have the GG  replaced before he could act. In this case, it seems to be have been assumed by all parties that the Queen would have removed the Governor-General had the incumbent Prime Minister asked for it (in time). As it happened, the Prime Minister was fired before he had the chance to learn about the GG’s plans and telephone London. If it was assumed in 1975 that the Queen would automatically defer to the advice a Commonwealth Prime Minister, I think it is safe to say that in 2008 she also would have deferred to Harper’s request.

Aside from this quibble, it was a very good interview.

Stephen Harper on Colonialism in 2006

5 10 2009

Harper changed his mind on colonialism.

I recently posted about the controversy surrounded Stephen Harper’s  declaration in Pittsburgh that Canada had no history of colonialism. Harper’s remarks clearly imply that colonialism is a bad thing, which is the mainstream view, at least among most small-l liberals.

In the 2006 speech quoted below, Stephen Harper praised the British Empire and associated himself with the “unfashionable” view that colonialism could be a good thing. Comparing this speech with Mr Harper’s more recent remarks shows the extent to which he and his party have moved to the political centre since 2006. Harper regarded colonialism as essentially good in 2006, but as a bad thing in 2009.


Address by the Prime Minister at the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce

14 July 2006
London, UK

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is actually my first speech to a business audience outside Canada since becoming Prime Minister. And it is only fitting that it’s to your distinguished organization. Because the Canada-UK Chamber has been promoting commerce between our nations for almost 90 years. And because the business relationship between our countries dates back to the very founding of Canada.
In fact, for two centuries prior to our confederation in 1867, much of Canada was effectively owned, operated and governed under the red ensign of a London-based corporation, the mighty Hudson’s Bay Company. Our co-sponsor tonight, the Canada Club, owes its founding in 1810 to the fur traders of the North-West Company, the main rival and eventual partner of the HBC.

Still, business is but one aspect of our combined history.That history is built by layer upon layer of common experiences, shared values and ancient family ties. In my own case, the Harper family traces its known forefathers back to the northern England and southern Scotland of the 1600s. But a far greater orator than I – or any Harper of the past 400 years – once described Canada-U.K. relations this way:
The ties which join [Canada] to the mother country are more flexible than elastic, stronger than steel and tenser than any material known to science. Canada bridges the gap between the old world and the new, and reunites the world with a new bond of comradeship.

The speaker, as you might have guessed, was the incomparable Winston Churchill. The occasion was a speech in Ottawa in 1929, part of a cross-country tour of what he called “the Great Dominion.” He gave 16 speeches in 9 cities.  Every one of them was delivered to sold-out rooms and repeated standing ovations. On that same tour, Mr. Churchill reminded Canadians of what they owed to Britain. At the heart of our relationship, he said: “is the golden circle of the Crown which links us all together with the majestic past that takes us back to the Tudors, the Plantagenets, the Magna Carta, habeas corpus, petition of rights, and English common law…all those massive stepping stones which the people of the British race shaped and forged to the joy, and peace, and glory of mankind.”

How right he was.

Britain gave Canada all that – and much more.
Including: Parliamentary democracy; A commitment to basic freedoms; The industrial revolution; and
The entrepreneurial spirit and free market economy. Not to mention Shakespeare, Dickens, Kipling, Lewis, and Chesterton.

Of course, we haven’t accepted all of our inheritance from Britain.  The take-up rates on rugby and association football are certainly not as high as ice hockey. And Canadians remain utterly baffled by cricket.

But seriously and truthfully, much of what Canada is today we can trace to our origins as a colony of the British Empire. Now I know it’s unfashionable to refer to colonialism in anything other than negative terms. And certainly, no part of the world is unscarred by the excesses of empires. But in the Canadian context, the actions of the British Empire were largely benign and occasionally brilliant. The magnanimous provisions of the Quebec Act of 1774 ensured the survival of the French language and culture in Canada – to the everlasting benefit of our country. And the treaties negotiated with the Aboriginal inhabitants of our country, while far from perfect, were some of the fairest and most generous of the period. This genius for governance shown by the mother country at the time no doubt explains in part why Canada’s path to independence was so long, patient and peaceful. And it explains why your Queen is still our Queen, and why our “bond of comradeship” remains as sturdy today as it was in Mr. Churchill’s time.


Here are some links to new media items regarding the colonialism controversy.

Aaron Wherry, Maclean’s.

Colleen Simard, Winnipeg Free Press.

Le Monde, Paris.

Vancouver Sun.


The Western Standard, a far-right publication based in Alberta, has published some thoughts on the Harper-colonialism controversy.

Canada’s History of Colonialism

2 10 2009
First Nations, 1870

First Nations, 1870

Native Groups have called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to apologize for saying that Canada has “no history of colonialism”.  (Also see here, here, and here). Harper made these remarks at the G20 in Pittsburgh, a recent gathering of the leaders of developed (G7) and emerging economies (including China, India, and Brazil). You can watch Mr Harper’s statement in Pittsburgh here.

First Nations groups say that Harper’s statement overlooks Canada’s long history of domestic colonialism. They have also said that Harper’s “colonialism denial” is incompatible with his recent apology for the residential schools and efforts to engage with aboriginals.

I can certainly see the point that Mr Harper was trying to make. Unlike Britain, the United States, France, and some of the other industrialized countries, Canada never had overseas colonies. The fact that Canada never had a colonial empire does colour the way in which former European colonies, such as India and Singapore, see us. We don’t have the baggage that the other major western countries do.  However, in equating “colonialism” with having overseas colonies in the tropics, Mr Harper may have been making a common mistake, the “saltwater fallacy” that says that if you colonize a territory that is connected to you by land, you aren’t a colonialist. By this definition, Russia and China would not be considered “colonialist” powers, since they colonized contiguous territories, Siberia and Tibet respectively.

Colonialism involved seizing overseas territories in what is commonly called the Third World. But colonialism can also be about the Fourth World, the indigenous communities that live within the borders of industrialized countries such as Canada, Australia, Sweden, and the United States.

Both sides in the debate generated by Mr Harper’s colonialism remark have made excellent points. One hopes that this debate will help to increase the public’s interest in Canadian history.

The image above is from Library and Archives Canada and is the public domain.

Kevin Rudd on History Wars

27 08 2009

Kevin Rudd, the Labor Prime Minister of Australia, has called for an end to that country’s “history wars”.  See here, here, and here. The Australian history wars were between a group of professional historians and educators who wanted to emphasize the negative things in Australian’s past, the so-called “black-arm band” school, and a group of academic and educators whose political sympathies were largely with the political right. The debate centred on Aboriginal history and became wrapped up in the debate over  whether the Australian government should formally apologize to the country’s Aboriginals for past mistreatment. The leader of the second group was Keith Windschuttle, who argued that left-wing historians had essentially fabricated evidence in order to depict Australia’s first white settlers in the worst possible light. Windschuttle’s claims led to a fierce argument over whether the demise of Tasmania’s indigenous population could legitimately be called a “genocide”. This debate had obviously political overtones or implications. One of Kevin Rudd’s first acts as Prime Minister was to issue an apology to the country’s Aboriginal population, something John Howard, his centre-right predecessor, had repeatedly refused to do. [Note, John Howard has been quick to reply to Rudd’s statement regarding the history wars].

As a Canadian, I’m interested in the Australian history wars for a number of reasons. First, they have some definite parallels between the Australian history wars and the rather more muted struggles that took place within the Canadian historical profession in the 1990s. [In the 1990s, there was an acrimonious debate between Jack Granatstein, an outspoken historian of Canadian politics, and left-wing social historians. In his book Who Killed Canadian History, Granatstein suggested that the left-wing historians’ emphasis on Canada’s failings (e.g., racism towards Natives and Asian immigrants) had the tendency of undermining the patriotism of students.] Moreover, the issue of an apology also have Canadian overtones, although the preference of Canadians for more consensual modes of politics have meant that the differences between the two major parties on Native policy and related issues of historical interpretation are pretty minor. In Canada, it fell to the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to issue an apology for the government’s residential school program (which saw Native children snatched from their parents and educated by missionaries). Had the Liberal Party been in office at that time, it probably would have issued basically the same apology.   In Australia, it seems that the two major political parties are much further apart from each other when it comes to Aboriginal policy. This probably contributes to the acrimonious and highly politicized nature of the debate over Aboriginal history in that country.

Does Stephen Harper Have Lunatic Ideas About Taxation?

14 07 2009

Today’s Globe and Mail has a piece by Jeffrey Simpson analyzing some particularly idiotic comments uttered by Stephen Harper during a recent interview with the paper’s editorial board.

Mr Harper said: “You know, there’s two schools in economics on this. One is that there are some good taxes and the other is that no taxes are good taxes. I’m in the latter category. I don’t believe that any taxes are good taxes.”

Simpson correctly points out just how ludicrous this statement is. Mr Harper appears to be arguing against taxation, a position that leads one to believe that he is in favour of the effective abolition of the state. It is one thing to say “Canada’s current rate of taxation is higher than would be optimal” or “we should change the relative mix of taxes” or “this particular tax is the least bad tax” . It is quite another to come out against taxation, especially when one is the leader of a government that has, to date, engaged in only minor tinkering with the tax system, not to mention far more spending that the predecessor Liberal government.

Harper’s comment suggests that he secretly shares the beliefs of anarcho-capitalists and the other extreme libertarians who envision a society without any taxation. (As a very young man, I briefly flirted with such ideas, only to realize that they were wildly impractical). I wonder how Mr Harper would reconcile the position quoted above with, say, his frequently reiterated support for socialized medicine, an institution most Canadians regard as a defining national institution. A few other thoughts.

1) There is a problem with beginning sentences with “you know”. It is poor English. If the listener already knows a fact, why restate it?

2) Mr Harper prefaced his next comments with the words “there’s two schools in economics on this”. (I presume he meant “there are”). I’m struck that Harper adopted the pose of a teacher, explaining economics to the Globe and Mail’s editorial board. Mr Harper is not an economist. He took an undergraduate degree in economics and then wrote an MA thesis in political economy. He does not have a PhD and has never worked as an economist. In fact, I suspect that some members of the Globe’s editorial board have at least as much formal training in economics as Mr Harper. Some may even have actual graduate degrees in the discipline. The quasi-professorial presumption revealed by Mr Harper in this statement is amusing. Mr Harper’s comments suggest that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I am not an economist, but I am an economic historian who reads journals in which economists publish and who thus is tolerably familiar with the discipline of economics. I therefore feel somewhat qualified to report that there are many schools of thought in the economics profession about the best way of raising public revenue, not just two. Moreover, Harper’s apparent view, that all taxes are bad (and therefore should be abolished) is a position shared by few, if any, economists, certainly not by tenured economists at mainstream institutions. One possible exception to this statement is Murray Rothbard, an economist who adopted the extreme liberation view that all taxes were bad. Rothbard, however, was a marginal figure in academe and new held a tenure track position. Moreover, most economists disagree with the taxation policies of the Harper government, especially its decision to prioritize cuts to the GST, a consumption tax.

3) If they truly represent Mr Harper’s views, the man is well outside the mainstream of Canadian, or indeed, Western politics. Indeed, they are with few precedents in twentieth century Canadian politics. In the 1860s, a few of the more extreme Anti-Confederates adopted the position that “all taxes were bad” (see my article on the subject in the Canadian Historical Review), but one would hope that a serving Canadian Prime Minister would not want to identify themselves with the people who opposed Canada’s creation.

It may be that Mr Harper was misquoted. As someone who voted Conservative in 2006, I sincerely hope that this is the case. Mr Harper normally adopts a tone of moderation and reasonableness. In an attempt to win over centre-right Liberal voters, Harper has tried to associate his policies with the fiscal tradition of Paul Martin. But the statements reported in today’s blog post identify Mr Harper more with the lunatic fringe of right wing politics in the United States than with any identifiable Canadian political tradition.

If the quote is accurate, the best that could be said about Harper is that he was inarticulate, not an extremist.  We need to ask, however, whether we want an inarticulate person in charge of the nation’s finances?