Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wherry on coalitions... in 1867

Always nice to see journalists reading history. Aaron Wherry, at Maclean's Online, recently teased Justin Trudeau with comments about coalition government that he found in an 1892 biography of the first Liberal prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie.  The Liberals of 1867 (Wherry has 1864, but he means well) said this about coalitions:
That coalitions of opposing political parties, for ordinary administrative purposes, inevitably result in the abandonment of principle by one or both parties to the compact, the lowering of public morality, lavish public expenditure and wide-spread corruption. That the coalition of 1864 could only be justified on the ground of imperious necessity; as the only available mode of obtaining representation for the people of Upper Canada, and on the grounds that the compact then made was for a specific measure and for a stipulated period, and was to come to an end so soon as the measure was attained.
The threat to "public morality" that 1867's Liberals perceived about cross-party coalitions lay in how easy it was to tempt handfuls of MPs out of their own party affiliation into support a government, not out of political or ideological conviction, but simply for the perks of office. David Emerson, Belinda Stronach, and Danielle Smith would never be accused of doing anything like that, would they?  (And what became of their careers, anyway?)

The difference in coalition politics then and now is the situation of the ordinary MP. In 1867 parties were relatively weak and MPs relatively strong. As Aaron describes, William McDougall and William Howland retained their cabinet seats when their Liberal Party left the confederation coalition, and they survived in politics on their own standing, whatever their party thought of them. Today, only Trudeau, Mulcair, and Harper have any authority to make coalition choices. Individual floor-crossers are understood to have signed their electoral death warrants.

The Alexander Mackenzie quotation I'm finding really pertinent right now is from the confederation debates of 1865:
It is my opinion that we would be better off without an upper house
He hoped, he said, the Senate would only be a "court of revision," not a real legislative chamber with genuine authority. George Brown interjected to say that that was what the new constitution was providing. It's all explained in Three Weeks in Quebec City, page 108.

Follow @CmedMoore