Coalition and parliamentary democracy

by Dominic Rossi.

In the debate surrounding the current situation in Parliament, it is important to distinguish between two aspects of the situation. One question is whether this particular coalition is desirable at this time, which is a political question, and one which I won't address.

A more interesting question, and one that has gained some currency recently, is whether or not coalition is democratic in the Canadian parliamentary system. The idea that parliamentary coalition is undemocratic may be animated by a populist, direct democratic vision of the word "democracy". An appeal to this vision has normative, rather than descriptive force in a parliamentary system. Coalitions, per se, are not disallowed by the rules of parliament as they stand. In our system, citizens vote for those MPs and parties that most closely match their views, with the expectation that those views will be reflected in the laws passed by their elected representatives.

The principles of Parliamentary supremacy and responsible government mean that the executive branch of government (i.e. the Cabinet) is responsible to, and must maintain the confidence of, the House of Commons. This is easy to do when one party has more than half the seats in the House (i.e. a majority government), but when no party has such a majority, the largest single party will normally be given the opportunity to govern, either as a minority government or in a coalition, but it is legitimate for a coalition of other parties to form a government if they garner the support of a majority of the House, and therefore have the confidence of Parliament. It is strictly speaking an error to call the opposition coalition's efforts undemocratic, as this serves to perpetuate the misunderstanding of our democracy's principles. During the last elections, for instance, the Conservative Party of Canada obtained 37.6% of the popular vote, whereas the three opposition parties together got 54.4%; if their leaders can agree on a common platform, it should mean that it would reflect the will of a majority of Canadians.

While coalition governments are historically rare in Canada, they represent the norm in many other parliamentary democracies whose electoral systems are more likely to produce pluralities than majorities. Accepting coalitions is largely a question of political culture. In most cases, these coalitions work perfectly well, and ensure that the views of a majority of voters are reflected in Cabinet.

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