Better Off Apart: If the Liberals Finish Third They Have Little Incentive to Join a Coalition

After three weeks of campaigning, polls in Canada’s federal election suggest that a minority government is likely. The NDP is sitting in first place with just 33% of the vote, likely not enough for a majority while the Conservatives and Liberals are hovering around 30% and 27% respectively. This has raised the possibility that Canadians will see a return to the minority governments of the 2000s, with the survival of the government contingent on support from at least one opposition party. The prospect of a minority government has led to speculation about the possibility of a coalition, with this Toronto Star piece suggesting that if the Conservatives fail to win a majority the NDP and Liberals will band together to form a government. While the NDP has suggested that it would be open to forming a coalition, Trudeau has rejected the idea. The Liberals have strong incentives to not to join a coalition with the NDP. Such a coalition would likely hurt them electorally and would limit their influence in parliament.

One of the largest barriers to a coalition in Canada is the presence of three parties with reasonable chance of winning elections. This reduces the incentive for whichever party finishes third to cooperate with one of the other parties. By forming a coalition, the third party hurts its ability to distinguish itself from its coalition partner and can begin to look irrelevant. This is particularly the case for the Liberals. An NDP-Liberal coalition with the NDP as the senior partner would likely benefit the NDP at the expense of the Liberals. The Liberals are currently fighting to demonstrate that they are both distinct from the NDP and are better able to form an alternative to the Conservatives and a coalition would undermine their ability to do both. It would require that the NDP and the Liberals agree on a policy program and would give them the exact same record in government. This would make it more difficult for the Liberals to distinguish themselves in subsequent elections. Additionally, by being the weaker of the two coalition partners, the Liberals would have trouble arguing that they are best positioned to keep the Conservatives from winning government. The loss of the ability to distinguish themselves and the appearance that they were the weakest of Britain’s major parties were significant factors leading to the decline of the British Liberals in the late 1910s and early 1920s. In a coalition the Liberals risk looking like a weaker version of the NDP, which would be problematic in future elections.

Entering into a coalition would likely divide the Liberal party. Because they are in the centre of the political spectrum, the Liberals have both voters who are closer to the Conservatives than they are to the NDP, and voters who are closer to the NDP than they are to the Conservatives. These voters would likely have differing views on a coalitions. The voters closer to the NDP would likely be quite comfortable with their party joining an NDP coalition, but the voters closer to the Conservatives would detest it. Because the coalition would move the Liberals to the left, centre-right Liberal voters (the ones closest to the Conservatives) would be likely to defect to the Conservatives. Voters closer to the Conservatives are likely to want to keep the NDP out of government, and a NDP-Liberal coalition would mean that the only way for them to do that would be to vote Conservative. This would weaken the Liberal party significantly, which in turn, would make centre-left Liberal defections to the NDP more likely. As centre-right defections strengthen the Conservatives, centre-left voters are likely to become more concerned about the possibility of the Conservatives forming a government. An NDP party leading a coalition government would look like the best bet to keep the Conservatives out of power, giving centre-left Liberals a reason to vote NDP. Joining a coalition would thus exacerbate a lot of the problems that Liberals face as a result of being in the centre of the political spectrum.

A coalition would also limit the Liberals’ options in parliament. In a coalition the Liberals would have to support whatever policies they agreed to at the beginning of the coalition government. Outside of it, the Liberals would be free to adjust their policy on a bill by bill basis. They could use the threat of a no-confidence vote to extract concessions on each piece of legislation proposed by the government. Because the Liberals sit in the middle of the political spectrum they could do this under either a Conservative or NDP government. On motions that are not confidence motions the Liberals would be even be free to join with the opposition to pass private members bills that the government opposes. In a coalition the Liberals would be committed to the support of a party and the agenda that it agreed to with that party. Sitting in opposition as the third party would force the Conservatives and the NDP to compete for Liberal support of each piece of legislation they want to pass. The Liberals have a much greater ability to extract policy concessions in the latter situation.

If the Liberals finish third in this election and no party wins a majority there will be a lot of talk of coalitions (especially if the Conservatives win the largest number of seats). The Liberals have good reasons to be nervous about a coalition. An NDP-Liberal coalition could do a great deal of damage to the Liberals likelihood of success in future elections. It would limit their ability to distinguish themselves from the NDP, weaken their party, and limit their parliamentary influence. A coalition with the Conservatives would likely have similar effects, with the Liberals losing their ability to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives instead of the NDP. As a result, the election of a minority parliament is unlikely to produce a coalition government.

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