Negotiating in Coalitions: some thoughts

A few people have asked me about the how to handle negotiations in coalition like the one proposed by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc. Here are a couple of thoughts.

First, coalitions like these are very different then alliances and partnerships in the private sector. This is, most importantly, because corporate alliances and partnerships are very rarely zero-sum games. Usually, the total amount of money to be made is not fixed. So if every one cooperates, everyone stands to make more money. This is a strong positive incentive. (It also creates incentives for free rider, but this is another issue)

While political alliances are not entirely zero-sum, they are much more so. The benefits to be accrued for the country by cooperating are potentially unlimited, but the benefits to who ends up being credited with creating these benefits is are not. Specifically, there are a fixed number of seats in the house and so, benefits to one party necessarily come at the expense of one of the other parties. Were the downside only to be experienced by the Conservatives, this wouldn’t be a problem – potentially all coalition members could increase the number of seats – however, there is real risk for all coalition members that they will lose seats to another coalition member. Should one party be seen as making particularly strong gains, the coalitions will likely become fragile or will fall apart all together. This means – paradoxically – that success can be as much a threat to the coalition as failure. One question I might have is: have the parties talked about how they will manage success?

The second challenge has to do with unknowns. On the one hand the Liberals, NDP and Bloc have been wise to craft a deal that is narrow in scope (my understanding is that it focuses largely on creating an economic stimulus). However, the challenge for any alliance or partnership is not dealing with knowns, but dealing with the unknowns. Further economic turmoil, a terrorist attack, an international crisis, all of these events demand – a sometimes very quick – response from the government. And these are extreme examples, bad press on a failed program can, on its own, generate a political crisis. A coalition posses real challenges to the capacity of the government to react, especially if there is disagreement among coalition members. Have the parties talked about what their deal breakers are? About a process for responding to crises?

Finally, there is the simple capacity of managing a coalition government. It is one thing for a leadership cadre to negotiate an overall agreement for how to work together in the face of a common threat. It is something else for the working members of groups to cooperate and negotiate on a day to day basis. The leaders may have forged a common bond and understanding, but it probably does not trickle very far down into an organization – particularly partisan organizations which are used to working against one another. While one small challenge or disagreement is unlikely to derail the coalition, a series of them can be devastating. Is there a process and guidelines for how MPs might handle disagreements and does the leadership have a plan for how to deal with them? This challenge may seem simple today, but as the immediate threat of the conservatives disappears it becomes increasingly problematic.

I remain skeptical that a coalition government this diverse can function for any period of time (especially if the press starts assigning “winners” and “losers” early on, or if polling data shows the public breaking towards one party. That said, it is possible for such a coalition to function, but it will take incredible negotiation skills and discipline, particularly among the parties leadership (including political staff) but also among its rank and file.

Also a postscript, I’m a big beleiver that sometimes as Eisenhower out it”If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The biggest problem for this coalition is that it could defined by being anti-Conservative as opposed to “the coalition to rescue Canada’s economy.” This is why, although it would create some more challenges, it might also cause everyone to reframe what the coalition is about if they followed Kinsella’s advice and brought some conservatives into the fold.

8 thoughts on “Negotiating in Coalitions: some thoughts

  1. Ron

    Your comment – (my understanding is that it focuses largely on creating an economic stimulus) – should ring major alarms. If what you say is true, how will the other hundreds of important issues a government must deal with on a daily basis be handled? Surely we can't just set aside our foreign policy – where is the coalition on Afghanastan? Both the Bloc and the NDP are dead set against further involvement and want the troops home NOW. What about health care, interprovincial trade barriers, and the environment – surely they aren't planning to put the environment aside — no – this coalition is about a lot more – they envision governing for about two years but they are not telling us what their priorities will be – we are about to have a government and we don't know what secred deals were made; what tradeoffs were made to secure support. We do know from public comments that Mr. Duceppe (in a scrum) stated he signed on to the coalition because it will be good for Separatists and their cause. We do know (from Jean LaPierre reporting) that Mr. Jacques Parizeau is coming out publically in support of the coalition because it will further the movements goals. We do know (Mike Duffy Live) that Ms Marois (PQ Leader) has pubically thrown her support behind Mr. Dion's selection as PM. And, we do know (CTV news) that 3 western Premiers have made public appeals for the Liberals and NDP to re-think this matter and not to go ahead ; even Mr McGuinty has said this political instability is “unhelpful” -not a ringing endorsement. Surely you can't still believe this coalition is in the best interests of Canadians. Mr Dion has gambled the existence of the Liberal party on this roll of the dice. Failure will mean the total extermination of that party by the voters at the first opportunity. The only winners in this is — surprise, surprise — the two that came up with the plan in private talks – Mr Layton and Mr Duceppe.

  2. Jeremy Vernon

    Your op-ed in the Toronto Star remains salient. It doesn't strike me as unambiguously good that the Conservatives might be kicked out of office – it simply strikes me as desperation for Dion to not blemish the Liberal party record with his not being elected PM (as every other leader of the Liberals has been).Further, the disastrous performance during the election should strike people as a demonstration of Dion's (in)ability to manage a coalition – which is in effect what the Liberal party was during the campaign.One irksome meme that seems to be circulating is the false dichotomy of “election or coalition” – the Conservatives have more popular support now than in the last election – how is it desperation now but not then? The fervor over the economy (something that won't be fixed in a year's worth of policy) derogates the importance of a slew of issues which weren't sufficient for the Liberals to vote them out.As Ron points out this is beneficial only to the least democratically supported parties in Parliament. There is some truth to Harper's shrill bleating about undemocratic back-door politicking.

  3. david_a_eaves

    Thank you Beltzner.Ron – I think there is a little “the sky is falling” in your piece. I think dealing with this will be challenging, but not impossible. Other, more complex coalitions have existed in other countries. The bigger issue (my post was in part implicitly trying to point out) is that we have no history, nor demonstrable capacity here. So it will be difficult. But let's not go overboard. It isn't impossible.Jeremy – hope to have a piece up on how all this relates to the Star op-ed soon. So much to write, I still owe my friends at StatsCan a blog post I promised I'd write last week…Dave

  4. david_a_eaves

    Gary, thank you for these links. Exactly the type of document I've been looking for. Strongly encourage people to check these out. If I can, I'll try to reblog this stuff based on these.

  5. david_a_eaves

    Gary, thank you for these links. Exactly the type of document I've been looking for. Strongly encourage people to check these out. If I can, I'll try to reblog this stuff based on these.


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