Comfy with coalition

Despite media shock campaign, Canadians are warming to power-sharing in Ottawa


As Americans settle into a spanking new era, the tension are rising about our own political future.

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All eyes are on Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals and whether they will back or buck next week’s Tory budget. Meaning that despite the national media’s repeated pronouncement that the coalition is DOA, it is very much alive and in play.

Indeed, some experts believe that since Canadians better understand the options for forming a government, a coalition is an inevitability, if not now then sometime in the near future.

To grasp this, check out the January 11 Nanos poll that found 49 per cent favouring an election if the budget is defeated – and a healthy 42 per cent backing coalition rule. The key headline here that the Liberals will be absorbing is that while the coalition option is hated in the west (29 per cent in favour), it is loved in equal measure in Quebec (62 per cent), and Ontario tilts slightly away from the coalition.

Pollster Nik Nanos says he never bought the pervasive line that the electorate was “angry” with the Opposition. What was in play, he says, was the fact that “Canadians had difficulty with Stéphane Dion suddenly becoming prime minister.”

But that fascinating drama in early December, he suggests, may have laid the essential foundation for what is to come. “The last few months have been a civics lesson for Canadians,” he says. “The more they talk about a coalition, the less shocking or controversial it becomes. I think Canadians are over the hump.”

That re-education was hindered by Stephen Harper’s misleading and self-serving comments about coalitions being “undemocratic.” The Tory leader seemed to be verging on a new kind of populist interpretation of the Constitution that has it that you can’t change the PM without an election.

While most media outlets were quick to expose this deceit, it didn’t stop them from falling in line behind the Tories’ blustery outrage.

“There was a lemming-like move to the Harper line in the way the media rarely do,” says constitutional expert Peter Russell. “The only word I can use to describe it is ‘asinine.'”

While he was surprised at how steep the learning curve was for Canadians, more troubling was the utterances of public officials. It’s one thing for Canadians in general to have vague or even wrong ideas about how our system works, says Russell, but quite another when major political players like the PM himself call into question constitutional conventions.

“It is unhealthy and dangerous to have such divisions about major elements of our democracy,” he says. “But it is a new century for everyone, including journalists.”

U of T poli-sci prof Nelson Wiseman, too, believes things look much better now for the opposition taking the reins of power. Pointing to the fact that New Zealand’s move to proportional representation resulted in coalition rule, he says, “New Zealanders were aghast. Now they expect it and are no longer troubled by it.”

In Canada, “now that the word is out there” says Wiseman “we will be moving in that direction.”

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