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The way we (briefly) were

It all seems like such a hazy dream now. The camaraderie of the Liberal-NDP partnership along with the support of the Bloc seems almost too good to have ever been true. Mere weeks after news of the coalition was on the front page of every newspaper in the country, new arrival to the Liberal leadership post Michael Ignatieff quashed virtually all hope for the impending alliance faster than you could say prorogation.

And where does that leave Canadians?

It leaves the Conservatives on probation under the watchful eye of Ignatieff and his Liberals, Jack Layton and the New Democrats hoping to maintain relevance in a time of economic uncertainty, and the Bloc still holding a relatively large stake of power on Parliament Hill. But what about us – would Canada’s citizens have been better off with a coalition government?

In theory, coalition governments sound pretty snazzy. It’s an idealistic, utopian style of governance where partisanship is suddenly erased from the memories of those engaging in consensus building and decision-making.

For us students, the idea of a coalition reminds us a little of group projects we’ve all been assigned in classes. The benefits are obvious: you have less work to do yourself, you can bounce ideas off your partners, and if something goes wrong there’s always someone else to share the blame with. But, like that one unreliable group member everyone always seems to end up with, coalition governments have known to be unstable and often volatile in nature, which can lead to disaster when attempting to effectively run a country.

There are certainly models for success, however. Ireland has been run by coalition governments for 20 years, with a single political party not having governed since 1989. Currently, the state of Ireland’s affairs is being maintained by a three-party coalition government supported by the independents. Similarly, it has become commonplace for Australia to have in place a form of coalition government, with the current conservative Liberal and National parties co-governing the country in what has become an institutionalized and stable coalition. Moreover, the executive branch of the Switzerland government was engaged in a stable and lengthy coalition between four Swiss political parties until just last year, when the Swiss People’s Party was left in opposition for the first time since 1929.

These historical stabilities seen in some coalition governments can be contrasted with the volatile and unpredictable nature of others. Italy’s coalition governments are an often-cited example of the instability of coalitions – an increase in referenda and elections due to disagreement between coalition members has seen political apathy increase across Italy. Much more recently, and to a drastic result, Iceland’s coalition government was dissolved just last month.

Although the dismantling of the government was more directly related to the deepening financial crisis Iceland finds itself embroiled in, the fact that the coalition government could not effectively manage the country’s economic meltdown led to increased pressure from Icelanders to dissolve Parliament and call for early elections this spring, two years ahead of schedule. In the interim, Iceland is being governed through a four party coalition headed by Iceland’s first female Prime Minister.

Although time will tell in the case of our Nordic neighbours whether or not another coalition government will emerge, the history of Western politics in recent decades points to a troubled past for the coalition along with the promise of optimism in governing style. It may not be the right solution for Canada, but we won’t know until we give it the old college try – there’s lots of time for the partisan manoeuvring Canadian politics is historically known for to continue, but for now, federal politicians should at least give it the old college try – for history’s sake.

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