What got me thinking about this topic is the vehemence with which Stephen Harper is denouncing the prospect of a coalition government in Canada (ad nauseum), despite his own history toying with the concept. What’s at the root of his flip-flop?
Accusations of political “flip-flopping” have become commonplace in Canadian elections. Wikipedia defines the political flip-flop as:
“…a sudden real or apparent change of policy or opinion by a public official, sometimes while trying to claim that both positions are consistent with each other. Often it will occur during the period prior to or following an election in order to maximize the candidate’s popularity.”
Accusing your opponent of flip-flopping is an easy sound bite and an effective way to implicitly suggest that the positions they take are pragmatically self-serving. All too often we accept the accusation, and its implication, by failing to really contemplate whether there may be a legitimate and substantive reason why a politician has changed his/her mind.
Does it really make sense to hold somebody to a position no matter how circumstances have changed? Of course not.
As Jim Geraghty, an American conservative activist and pundit, wrote in 2008:
“I actually think that a candidate can even change his position in response to a changing political environment, as long as they’re honest about it. “The votes just aren’t there, public support isn’t there, so I have to put this proposal on the back burner for a while,” is a perfectly legitimate response to a difficult position.”
Seems defensible enough to me so long as clear and deliberate acknowledgment of a changed position is provided. Even more acceptable, and in fact laudable, is the politician who changes his/her mind as a result of greater knowledge and understanding of an issue.
For the purpose of trying to assess whether Harper’s current take on coalitions, which I would argue has certainly evolved, is enlightened or simply self-serving, let’s take a wander down memory lane.
Way back in 1997 Harper noted in a TVO interview that:
“…I think you’re going to face, someday, a minority parliament, with the Liberals maybe having the largest number of seats, and what will be the test is whether there’s then any party in opposition that’s able to form a coalition or working alliance with the others. And I think we have a political system that’s going to continue to have three or four different parties, or five different parties, and so I think parties that want to form government are going to eventually have to learn to work together.” (h/t to Aaron Wherry for digging this up)
In September 2004, Stephen Harper, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton wrote a letter to the Governor General which stated:
“We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.”
At the associated press conference all three leaders downplayed the prospect of forming government (you can listen to the audio here), without explaining what alternative options the GG might consider.
By 2008, facing the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition (supported by the Bloc), Harper’s perspective shifted significantly as he painted the option of a coalition as illegitimate and even undemocratic.
Aaron Wherry, of Maclean’s magazine, sums this history up succinctly:
“In 1997, as a private citizen, Mr. Harper predicted such a scenario. In 2004, as leader of the opposition, he dismissed it as hypothetical. Now, with Mr. Harper as prime minister, it is apparently undemocratic.“
All of which brings us to Harper’s ongoing efforts today to exploit the prospect of a Liberal-led coalition as undemocratic while simultaneously trying to distance himself from his own exploits in 2004. Faced with the prospect of either accepting his own apparent hypocrisy or making the case for why he has changed his views on the legitimacy of coalitions, Harper attempted to sidestep the issue, stating:
“As opposition leader, I was seeking to put pressure on the government to influence its agenda without bringing it down — without defeating it and replacing it.”
But soon after he made these comments a story broke in the National Post quoting former Harper chief of staff Tom Flanagan:
“I can’t see what other point there would have been in writing the letter except to remind everybody that it was possible to change the government in that set of circumstances without an election.”
UNB Prof. Don Desserud, an expert on Canada’s parliamentary system, suggested to John Geddes at Maclean’s that Harper “an odd (!) understanding of the GG’s role and what would have happened,” leading Geddes to conclude:
“That leaves two possibilities. Either Harper was poorly advised in 2004 on his real tactical options, or he did envision, as Layton and Duceppe claim, the possibility of forming a government with their support without an intervening election.”
All of which brings me back to the question at hand, what’s at the root of Harper’s apparent flip-flop? Is it enlightenment or simply self-serving?
The prominence of coalition governments elsewhere in the world (many of whom are allies whose leaders would not take kindly to being called undemocratic or illegitimate), and the views of constitutional and Parliamentary experts that a Canadian coalition government would be “perfectly legitimate,” suggest that an enlightened view on the matter runs contrary to that held by Stephen Harper. His only refuge, going back to American conservative activist Jim Geraghty’s take on flip-flopping, might be the lack of public support. After all, a QMI poll found 53% of Canadians disapprove of an opposition-led coalition. But given such a slim majority, far from a landslide, presenting this as sufficient political rationale is skating on thin ice.
As things stand today, and they might change tomorrow, I find it hard not to conclude that Stephen Harper’s exploitation of the coalition issue (in 2008 and today) is little more than a politically convenient, self-serving example of a political flip-flop. I can’t help but agree with Tuesday’s Globe & Mail editorial, which questions “Stephen Harper’s curious attack on majority rule” before moving beyond the question of coalitions to conclude:
“Mr. Harper said many times as Prime Minister that the number-one issue is the economy. Why not, then, focus the election on the economy? Let’s confront the real issues facing the country.”
To the credit of the Conservative campaign strategists, this coalition craze effectively changed the channel from the matter of Parliamentary contempt – although I can’t imagine the coalition issue played out exactly as they had hoped. Looking ahead, it’s questionable whether either Mr. Harper or Mr. Ignatieff can get a clear win on the coalition issue, muddled and tiresome as it has become. Hopefully they’ll realize this and begin engaging Canadian voters on more substantive and tangible issues, of which there is no shortage.