Coalition issue

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Analysis of coalition issue during federal election campaign

On March 28, 2011, in the first days of the federal election campaign, carried an analysis by CBC Senior Political Correspondent Terry Milewski. It focused on the attention in the campaign to speculation about coalitions in a minority government.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was suggesting at the time that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff wanted to form a coalition government with the Bloc Quebecois and New Democratic Party.

Milewski wrote that the coalition issue remained unsettled at that early campaign stage and he focused on the lingering ambiguity about the intent of a 2004 letter from the Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois and New Democratic Party in opposition in a minority government led by the Liberals.

He drew attention to comments by Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary political scientist and a former chief of staff to Stephen Harper while opposition leader. Milewski concluded that Flanagan “has now said that the 2004 arrangement was, indeed, aimed at installing Harper as prime minister.”

Milewski quoted Flanagan (from a recent Postmedia News piece) as saying: “I can't see what other point there would have been in writing the letter except to remind everybody that it was possible to change the government in that set of circumstances.”

The complainant, Bruce Smith, wrote March 30 and 31 to take issue with Milewski's conclusion that Flanagan had indicated the 2004 arrangement was aimed at installing Harper.

Smith wrote that Flanagan had taken issue with the interpretation of the remarks on the CBC News Network program, Power & Politics. He said Milewski's statement about Flanagan's observation was now invalid and should be withdrawn.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Smith on April 13, 2011, to say that Flanagan had discussed the possibility of the opposition parties reaching an arrangement to form the government. He had asserted that the plan had not gone so far as to formalize a coalition.

Enkin wrote: “Mr. Flanagan might have been cautious on Power & Politics that afternoon – perhaps, befitting his expert understanding of such things, drawing careful distinctions – but I do not believe there is a contradiction between what he said to Mr. Solomon and Mr. Milewski's reporting of what he said.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accurate reporting, including careful selection of language to “present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

Opinions can be expressed in its programming by guests and commentators, but CBC journalists remain impartial under its policies. Analysis is permitted, provided it stops short of casting opinion.


Terry Milewski was judicious in the selection of terms to describe the arrangement among the opposition parties and Tom Flanagan's description of it.

In reviewing the column and television segment, I found Milewski did not say Flanagan asserted there was a coalition. Rather, he described Flanagan's observations in more cautious and precise terms as an arrangement, albeit one that might install Stephen Harper as prime minister. While he, too, was cautious in his language, Flanagan concurred with this observation on the Power & Politics program.

I found there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman