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Cold, hard coalition lessons from this side of the pond

British Prime Minister David Cameron greets Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at 10 Downing Street on Wed., May 12.

Matt Cardy/2010 Getty Images

The mother of all Parliaments has taught Canada a lesson. We have some for her, too.

Britain's new government has demonstrated that coalition governments are possible, even outside of wartime, in the modern era of Westminster-style parliaments. At the very least, it will revive questions for our politicians here: Would Michael Ignatieff, or even Stephen Harper, invite Jack Layton's NDP into a coalition?

New British Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal-Democrat deputy Nick Clegg have even devised a new plan to ensure stability in a hung Parliament: a five-year fixed term for elections to be set out in law. But Canada's lesson is that politicians' electoral calculations are not easily contained.

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Pure politics are the driving force that makes and breaks minority governments. Mr. Harper, like Paul Martin before him, governs until the other parties think they'll do better in an election. Or until the Prime Minister does. Can a coalition escape those forces?

Paul Martin persuaded Belinda Stronach to cross the floor and stayed in power with the backing of independents and the Speaker's tie-breaker vote. He lost when the NDP switched sides. Stephen Harper passed legislation adopting "fixed," four-year terms, but then called an election after less than two. He won a stronger minority, but the three opposition parties reared up under defeated Liberal leader Stéphane Dion in a bid to form a coalition to unseat him.

In six years of minority Parliaments, you would think Canada had seen all the cliffhanger twists. But we haven't seen this one: two parties actually forming a real coalition, with each holding ministerial posts in cabinet.

One might think the prospect for that in Canada died with Mr. Dion's attempt. Mr. Harper painted it as unholy, and relishes the idea of campaigning against the coalition bogeyman. The new Liberal Leader, Mr. Ignatieff, killed it. But what made it politically untouchable was two things: it depended on support, in Parliament at least, from the separatist Bloc Québécois, and it would be led by a Liberal Leader who had been beaten into a distant second place.

Another election, and another minority Parliament - our new normal - could leave either Mr. Ignatieff or Mr. Harper in a mathematical position to form a coalition with the NDP, and a British example to point to. Canadians will certainly expect their political leaders to say if they would, too. It's no longer quite as hypothetical.

What is still very hypothetical is the Cameron-Clegg deal to ensure a five-year government.

Canada has found those offers of hung-Parliament stability to be a mirage. Mr. Harper passed a law for four-year fixed terms, but held an election after 20 months. Opposition parties can combine to defeat the government if they want an election.

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Canada's fixed-election law had an out, because it had to. Calling elections is the Crown's power, and our Parliament can't change that without a constitutional amendment approved by provinces. So the fixed-term law left the Governor-General's ability to launch elections whole, and Mr. Harper asked for one.

Britain's similar, but not the same. They have no written constitution, and Parliament can limit the Crown's powers. Its coalition can pass a fixed-term law.

But another part of that agreed law is less likely to fly: changing the convention so that it will take 55 per cent of MPs to defeat the government. That would effectively give Mr. Cameron's Conservatives, with 47 per cent of MPs, a veto on its own survival. Changing that convention may be constitutionally questionable, especially if all the parties in the Commons disapprove, according to York University constitutional expert Patrick Monahan.

At any rate, it would present a problem for the Queen if, for example, the Cameron-Clegg coalition split apart over a budget: in Westminster systems, governments that can't pass money bills can't stay in power. Could the Queen keep a government that doesn't command the confidence of a majority, and can't pay the bills?

So the fixed-term bill appears to make it impossible for Mr. Cameron to call an election. But it probably can't bind Mr. Clegg from splitting away and forcing one - given a pretext, and good polls. And if Mr. Clegg can't be bound, it's not impossible for Mr. Cameron to trigger a split by pushing measures the Liberal Democrats can't accept. Financial markets hoping a stable government will really tackle deficits aren't betting on a sure thing.

Nick Clegg has tied himself to Mr. Cameron's Conservatives for now, but only after flirting with Labour, and deciding teaming up with the losers was bad politics. There'll be another election, and Britain can't be sure when.

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Britons are pushing Canada's politicians to answer the coalition question. But if they looked here, they wouldn't be so confident they have tamed the political forces that lead to snap elections.

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs in Ottawa

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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