A travelling columnist returning to Canada from Europe finds surprising hints of the old Continent in his home and native land. Nowhere is this more true than in Ottawa, where the audacious experi-
ment in German-style “grand
coalition” government is now in its third year.
The junior coalition partner, Stéphane Dion, was particularly proud of his Liberal party’s contributions to the latest federal budget. A news release from his party office listed all the budget measures he had persuaded his fellow government leader, Stephen Harper, to implement: “making the gas tax transfer permanent, as we committed to in February 2007; providing direct support to the auto sector, as we called for in January 2008;... additional investments in infrastructure, as we advocated in February 2008”—and so on, listing eight budget measures. “The Conservatives are adopting Liberal ideas,” Dion crowed. To safeguard his handiwork, Dion announced his troops would protect the fragile Conservative-Liberal coalition: “We will find a way to not defeat the government.”
A grand coalition, as students of German politics will know, is simply a decision to exercise one of many options in a multi-party parliament. If no one party commands a majority, and there is no stable left-of-centre or right-ofcentre coalition available, the big centre-left and centre-right parties may decide to throw their lot in together. It’s obvious, yet it rarely happens: thanks to Freud’s narcissism of small differences, the big parties that most closely resemble each other are often the ones that hate each other most. Germany’s grand coalition, comprising Christian Democrats and Social Democrats under Angela Merkel, is only the second in that country’s history, and it’s in constant danger of falling apart. We haven’t had a grand coalition in Canada since Sir Robert Borden coaxed Liberals and Conservatives into his wartime government in 1917Since
then it’s been Liberal and Tory going at it hammer and tong, for longer than almost any of us have been alive.
But if anyone was up to the task of bringing Liberals and Conservatives together, it was Stephen Harper. He’s been a coalition-builder since he returned to politics in 2002: bringing dissident Canadian Alliance members back into that party, then reaching out to Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives and, when Clark spurned his advances, waiting until Peter MacKay took over the old party before arranging a merger that made the modern Conservative party possible. MacKay, it turns out, was only the hors d’oeuvre for the Liberal buffet that followed. The negotiations were carried out in such secrecy that almost nobody in Ottawa
It takes great courage, masquerading as cowardice, to stay in cahoots with Harper
knows about them. The parties sent emissaries with plausible deniability into each other’s caucuses until they reached a certain level of mutual comfort.
Liberal-Conservative coalitions are so alien to Canadian tradition that even today, everyone concerned pretends this one doesn’t exist. Liberals continue to criticize Tories, although Dion’s pathetic Question Period performances make it clear his heart isn’t in the game. Only Conservatives sit in the federal cabinet, but this is just part of the charade: to pacify his Liberal coalition partners, Harper does not permit his Conservative “ministers” to talk or do anything. The Liberals make a great show of blaming the NDP for the current government’s existence, but the lie is transparent. The NDP keeps showing up to vote against the government. The Liberals don’t. Of course not: it’s their government too.
As with the Borden precedent, grand coalitions normally form only at times of transformative change in the affairs of the nation. Otherwise, petty rivalries or simple self-interest would lead the parties to diverge. (Junior partners to grand coalitions are often crushed by the contradictions inherent in holding them together. The Liberals may not survive the current experiment. It takes great courage, masquerading as near-historic cowardice, for them to stay in cahoots with Harper.)
And indeed, the current Harper-Dion government is presiding over astonishing changes to the shape of Canada’s government. It’s all in that February budget, which the Liberals all but ignored before voting against it—wink, wink—in small enough numbers to ensure its survival. The budget provides for provincial revenues to grow, while federal revenues as a share of GDP decline. “The gap has widened in recent years,” the budget document says, and “will likely continue to grow over the coming years.” The gap between provincial revenues and federal revenues—in the provinces’ favour—has never been as great in more than 20 years. Federal transfers to the provinces, as a share of all federal spending, are half again as high as they were when Brian Mulroney took office a generation ago.
In 2000-2001, the gap between federal revenues and provincial-territorial revenues was $5 billion. This yearaccording to the innocuous-looking “Annex I” tucked at the back of the budget—it will be $36 billion. The Harper GST cuts, which the Liberals
have done nothing serious to stop, will ensure that Ottawa can’t grow its lost revenue back. Harper’s growing transfers to the provinces, which Dion—true to his word—found a way not to defeat, ensure the provincial governments will be the only ones with the resources to undertake ambitious new projects.
This massively revisionist overhaul of Canadian federalism flies in the face of everything the Liberals worked to achieve during Jean Chretien’s decade in power. If the Liberals were not absolutely dedicated to implementing this revolution, they would have voted to stop it long before now. Stéphane Dion and Stephen Harper are accomplishing great things together. It is a measure of their discipline and modesty that they continue to deny everything. M
ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells
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