Michael Ignatieff may be one of the English-speaking world’s public intellectuals, but he has a flawed understanding of the most basic tenet of British parliamentary democracy: that parliament — not the prime minister, not the cabinet, not the governing party of the day — is supreme.
In his newest book, /Fire and Ashes/, the former Canadian Liberal leader who took that party to its most humiliating defeat ever in the 2011 federal election, unleashes a bitter personal attack on his immediate predecessor, Stephane Dion, over the latter’s attempt, along with former NDP leader Jack Layton, to forge a coalition government supported by the Bloc Quebecois in December, 2008.
Ignatieff, it appears, has some unparliamentary views on parliamentary government.
In a recent interview with PostMedia’s Mark Kennedy, Ignatieff advanced a novel description of coalition government — that it cannot be composed of what he calls “a coalition of losers” but can only be formed by a “coalition of winners,” although he acknowledged that “you could put together a coalition among opposition parties that would give Canada good government.
“It came as a thunderclap, especially to me. Although I was the party’s deputy leader, I had been excluded from the secret negotiations with the other parties. What I saw was a desperate leader (Dion) clinging to power by any means, resorting to a coup de theatre to survive.
“We lost seats, we were not in good shape. The Conservatives were, what was it, ten, twelve seats short of a majority, and so I just thought a coalition was illegitimate in the sense that the public would say ‘[W]e just sent Mr. Harper back to Ottawa with more seats, what are you doing here?’”
Two political scientists disagree with Ignatieff.”Traditionally, it is Parliament, the House of Commons, who decides the formation of the government, the removal of a government, not voters directly,” the University of Manitoba’s Paul Thomas says. “So if you say that some combination of parties, second, third and fourth place, is illegitimate in forming a government that seems to presume that the only way of initiating the formation of a government is through winning a plurality of seats.”
Thomas notes that at the time of the 2008 prorogation crisis, many constitutional authorities warned publicly that Harper’s demonization of the coalition as politically illegitimate was an attempt to transform Canada’s parliamentary democracy. “And they said, ‘Well wait just a minute, he’s transforming our constitutional order here, our traditional way of thinking about how authority is granted in our system. And it’s granted through Parliament.”‘
The University of Toronto’s Peter Russell agrees.” There is only one test of a coalition government’s constitutional legitimacy: commanding the confidence of the House,” he said in an interview.
If Ignatieff has a flawed understanding of parliamentary democracy, he harbours real animosity towards his immediate predecessor as Liberal leader and has no hesitation in making it public.
A strong hint that Ignatieff occupied the right-wing business side of the Liberals and not the left-wing social side was the fact he continued to oppose a coalition with the NDP even after he replaced Dion.
In his book, Ignatieff complains that he was left out of the loop during the December 2008 coalition crisis when Dion reversed his decision to resign from the Liberal leadership and instead attempted to form a coalition with the NDPto be supported in parliament by the Bloc. The idea was that once the coalition defeated Harper in the Commons, it would go to the governor-general to be asked to form government — an event that is routine in parliamentary democracies all over the world.
But Ignatieff claims the coalition was unlike anything ever proposed in Canada before. “It came as a thunderclap, especially to me. Although I was the party’s deputy leader, I had been excluded from the secret negotiations with the other parties…What I saw was a desperate leader clinging to power by any means, resorting to a coup de theatre to survive.
“The problem was not the coalition itself,” Ignatieff continues. “You make can make coalitions among winners. It was a coalition of losers. The government had just increased its seats in the House of Commons, while we had lost seats. How were we to explain to the people that we were throwing out a government duly re-elected two months before?…
“It was an episode that serves to remind just how unfathomable behaviour can be in politics,” Ignatieff writes. “Here was a principled political leader with a fine reputation for standing up to separatist rhetoric in Quebec, now making a secret deal with the leader of a separatist party.
“Here was a leader who had written eloquently about politics, now unable to explain the coalition in simple terms voters could understand,” he continues. “Here was a constitutional expert who failed to grasp that a coalition, however, legitimate it might be in theory, lacked all legitimacy in reality.”
Former Manitoba Liberal MP and Manitoba Lieutenant Governor John Harvard has some harsh words for Ignatieff’s disdain for the 2008 unsuccessful coalition and its author Dion.
“It seems that Ignatieff doesn’t seem to understand how the parliamentary system works,” Harvard said in an interview. “He doesn’t understand that the government is supposed to be responsible to parliament and if a majority of MPs, irrespective of party colours, decides to oust the government of the day, it has to go.”
Given it is politics, the optics around a coalition can be difficult, Harvard acknowledges. However, “Harper played on the ignorance of voters and convinced likely a majority of them, including Ignatieff,that the formation of a coalition was illegitimate and constituted an attempt at a coup d’etat. Nothing could be further from the truth but Harper, unfortunately, got a away with it.
“What if a government fell on a non-confidence vote?” Harvard asks. “Would Ignatieff think that that, too, would be illegitimate?
“Because it didn’t happen, we will never know how successful a coalition might have been,” Harvard said. “Harper might have ridden to victory on it when the coalition government came to face the electorate. On the other hand, it might have been a wild success. We will never know. Anyway, I am disappointed in Ignatieff. He has a first-rate mind but he doesn’t get the intricacies of politics or perhaps even some of its fundamentals”.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.