Saturday, December 13, 2008

Oh Canada!

It comes to two years now that Crane and Matten have lived in Canada. We must say – it has been a great time. Mind you, not that we know too much about Canada, but Toronto is certainly a vibrant city and our new School is just fantastic.

And now, for the first time, even Canadian politics gets (a little) interesting! Who would have thought? Here is the deal (esp. for our non-Canadian readers): in the last election, the Conservatives came out the strongest party, but with only 40% of the votes, Stephen Harper could only become a prime minster with a minority government. A couple of days ago though, he presented a budget considered rather partisan and right wing – which to swallow was impossible for the Liberals (centre-right) and the NDP (leftish) – the two other main parties. So what they did, was to rustle up a Liberal-led coalition (including the Québec-only party Bloc Québécois) and attempt at replacing the minority government. For now, Harper pulled the plug on this by initiating the ‘prorogation’ of parliament until January to buy some time.

So here we are - a coalition. Why the fuss? Well, here is the thing. And from a (business) ethics perspective this is interesting. Technically, the Canadian constitution allows this and it’s done in many other democracies. But, in a Westminster-style parliamentarian system, this is not customary practice. In other words, the law allows it, but its still not considered ethical.

So, most commentators here are fuming. The coalition, so the argument goes, is ‘undemocratic’ because the Liberals and the NDP lost the last election – so they should not govern. Further - a very Canadian nettle to grasp – they need the support of the Bloc Québécois, a party whose main concern used to be to leave Canada anyway.

As born and raised in Europe, we watch this with amusement. What’s ‘undemocratic’ about a coalition? After all, 62% of Canadians did not vote for the conservatives. True, the liberals are in bad shape and have now replaced their leader Stéphane Dion – a guy toppled in charisma by any director of a provincial post office – with Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard professor who hasn’t even lived in Canada for the best part of his life. But fair enough, all this doesn’t make this coalition necessarily ‘undemocratic’.

It goes to show, how important ethical issues are, even in a context where the law gives clear directions. The legitimacy of the new coalition will not rest on whether it’s legal but whether it conforms with Canadians’ customary ethical views and practices. Secondly, it shows how contested core terms in political life are: what actually does ‘democratic’ mean? The majority of the popular vote? The majority of seats in parliament? ‘First past the post’? The contested nature of these concepts then points to the persistent need for ethical debate, reflection and decision making – not only in business, but as in this case, also in public politics.

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