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Coalition is the Canadian way

With the election campaign underway, party strategists are bidding to frame the “ballot question” that Canadians will be looking to answer when they cast their votes.

Conservatives would like the ballot question to be a choice between a Harper Majority and an Opposition Coalition — an”unholy alliance” of Liberals, socialist NDPers, and separatists of the Bloc Québécois. The Tory message is a powerful one and it is clear it has set the tone for the first few days of the campaign. It’s also a clever way to dodge answering the real questions facing the electorate.

Conveniently forgotten in the hurly burly is both the budget and its “little goodies” and the historic vote on which the Harper regime fell — branded as the only government in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament.

The media have taken up the cry of Coalition, demanding a more explicit answer from Michael Ignatieff than he has so far chosen — or been able — to provide. And they’re not likely to let up.

Mr. Ignatieff needs to dispose of the Coalition conundrum once and for all.Given how the Conservatives have managed to distort the issue, painting the prospect of a Coalition as something that would rob voters of whatever choice they might make on election day, he is going to have to find a way of putting the issue to rest.

It’s well-known he was a reluctant supporter of the Stephan Dion bid to push aside Mr. Harper after the 2008 election with a Coalition of Liberals and the NDP, backed by a pledge from the Bloc for a year of support. The Bloc’s involvement enabled the Conservative to tar the Coalition as a bed-in with the separatists, something they (horror of horrors) would never allow.

Of course, Mr. Harper conveniently overlooks that he tried to get exactly the same deal from the NDP and the Bloc in 2005 during the Martin minority.

Coalition government is totally consistent with our parliamentary system. And Mr. Ignatieff can answer the question clearly and unashamedly. Being the gifted writer that he is, he should have no difficulty. Here’s how he might put it:

“The party that wins the most seats on election day will form the government. Our aim is to see that this is the Liberal party. Whatever government is formed, it will have to meet Parliament and win a confidence vote. And if it cannot, the Governor General will be obliged to give the next largest party — Liberal or Conservative — a chance. In either case, it would be entirely proper for either one to seek the support of another party if that is necessary. That’s the Canadian way.”

Beyond that, he need not answer hypothetical questions. What party would he ask for support, what terms would he offer, would he take members of another party into his cabinet? All those are questions that could be equally directed to Mr. Harper, and they are questions that need not and could not be answered ahead of the fact.

Most European countries, including the United Kingdom, are governed by coalitions of parties. Canada had a coalition government during the dark days of the First World War.

Mr. Ignatieff needs to put the Coalition question to rest. Then we can get on with discussing the real issues of the campaign — including economic recovery, health care, the outlook for our involvement in Libya, and the future of the nuclear industry in Canada.

Until then, the spectre of Coalition is a giant distraction, working to the advantage of the Harperites who would prefer not to have to answer to their own undemocratic and spendthrift ways.

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