What not to say about a hung Parliament

The initial promise of Canadian Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s campaign is fading badly as polling day approaches on Canada and one of the main reasons is one very familiar to British politics. It’s the failure to have a good answer to the question, “What would you do in a hung Parliament?”

As Adam Radwanski puts it The Globe and Mail when looking at how Ignatieff and Conservative Premier Stephen Harper are faring:

If the two men were being graded by civics teachers, Mr. Ignatieff would indeed be winning. His explanation of how another Conservative minority would work – the need for Mr. Harper to gain the confidence of Parliament, the possibility that a failure to do so will lead the Governor-General to turn to Mr. Ignatieff instead – is grounded in parliamentary conventions. Mr. Harper’s insistence that only the party with the most seats can govern, and anyone else attempting to do so is usurping the will of the people, is an open defiance of those conventions.

But the leaders are not being judged by civics teachers; they’re being judged by an electorate looking for a reasonably concise explanation of what its options are. Mr. Harper is providing that, however misleadingly. Mr. Ignatieff is not.

When the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge pressed him for answers on post-election scenarios, during a nationally televised interview on Tuesday, Mr. Ignatieff spent five minutes talking in circles. None of what he said was factually incorrect. But he came off exasperated that he had to keep explaining his openness to work with other parties, and evasive on the matter of what that co-operation might lead to.

The one big difference from the UK is that the Canadian media (helped by experience from the frequency with which their first past the post electoral system throws up hung Parliaments) rightly realises that the leaders of the two largest parties are absolutely key to what happens in a hung Parliament. As a result, they have repeatedly been asking them both about this.

By comparison, in the UK the media usually behave as if decisions in a hung Parliament will be nothing much to do with either of them and so focus almost all their questions on the leader of the third party. That approach was shown up extremely badly last year, where Cameron’s willingness to offer a full coalition was central to what happened, yet journalists had barely raised the issue with him before polling day. Similarly, though there were many reports about how Labour hoped to be the largest party in a hung Parliament, there was almost no questioning of Gordon Brown on what he would do in such a situation. (Ironically, putting him on the spot might even have helped Labour by focusing minds given how unprepared for a hung Parliament the party turned out to be.)

If we paid a fraction of the attention to Canadian politics that US politics gets in the UK, that’s a mistake the media would have most likely avoided – and it’s another lesson (cf TV debates) in how looking at foreign Parliamentary democracies is often a better political guide than looking to Presidential systems.

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3 Comments

  • Old Codger Chris 24th Apr '11 - 11:40am

    It’s far too soon to know whether hung parliaments and coalitions will become commonplace or whether the current situation will be remembered in years to come as an aberration.

    But it would be good if parties graded their manifesto commitments into (a) we won’t budge on this, no matter what (b) we’re prepared to negotiate on this one if we have to (c) we’d love this to happen but we recognise it won’t be easy to get it past a potential coalition partner.

  • Patronising intellectual fails to communicate clearly with electorate shock.

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