It’s hard to believe that, one year ago, political Ottawa was in a tizzy of coalition madness, and even in the rest of Canada, the political interest alert system rose from “who cares” to “meh, wha?” Looking back one year later, who were the winners and losers and what are the lasting impacts?
In the short-term, certainly, while they may have over-played their hand the coalition was the right move for the opposition parties. With the Conservative economic update that ignored the worsening economic realities and instead tried to destroy their political opponents, the opposition parties had to act.
The coalition succeeded in forcing the Conservatives to introduce a budget in January that, while unfocused and imperfect, did make needed changes in areas such as Employment Insurance as well as spend billions in necessary stimulus to help the economy. It wasn’t the budget we’d have written, but it went much further than the Conservatives wanted to go because their feet were held to the fire by the coalition.
At that point, while I had misgivings at the time as well as quibbles with the strategy, Michael Ignatieff made the right decision in backing-away from the coalition. If they’d tried to take the government, after it has gone a long ways toward meeting their demands, the public would have revolted. No matter how constitutionally legitimate it would have been, in the eyes of much of the public it would have lacked moral legitimacy, and without such legitimacy no government can, or should, govern the people.
So, on the positive side for the opposition, the coalition forced the Conservatives to address the economic reality, dramatically change their policy in our direction, and bring in necessary economic policies to help Canadians deal with the recession. And for the Liberals, however messy the aborted leadership process triggered by the coalition drama may have been, it did get our new leader in place much sooner, saving us many, many dollars that could instead go into party coffers. We emerged with a new leader, a united party, and a healthy war chest.
That said, there were missteps and many negatives.
Did we overplay our hand by proposing a formal coalition, rather than just a Liberal government that would seek to govern with NDP and BQ support on a case-by-case basis? Certainly the NDP saw this as their opportunity at real power and wanted seats at the table. And it was important to demonstrate to the Governor-General and Canadians that the new government would be stable. But it made the separatist-socialist coalition messaging easy, and that resonated with Canadians. And we needed public support for legitimacy. We may well have over-reached.
Having Gilles Duceppe at the table for that press conference/photo-op was a mistake too. It lent credence to Conservative lies about the BQ being in the proposed government when they weren’t, and hurt our chances to sell this to the public.
And as much as it pains me, having Stephane Dion at the head was a deal-breaker for many Canadians. I argued at the time it had to be Stephane, and for us, there was no other viable option at the time. But he had just been pretty soundly rejected by the electorate and I talked to many Canadians who said, they’d support the coalition, but not with Dion. While he was the PM we needed, he wasn't the salesman we needed to sell it. It was another factor that made it harder for us to gain public support.
Looking back now, I’d have to say I total more wins in the Conservative column one year removed from the coalition crisis.
While they were forced into stimulus spending they’ve embraced it, using the opportunity to paint themselves as Conservative Santa Clauses with a multi-billion dollar slush fund. They’re showering money on their own ridings to cement their re-election chances and on key swing ridings they need to get to their elusive majority, all with giant prop-cheques emblazoned with the Conservative logo.
We can point out all we want that the distribution of funds is politically-motivated, that they’re blurring the partisan/government divide, but for most people any outrage is largely of the “a pox on all their houses” variety. Conservative popularity has largely held steady through this downturn. That’s a remarkable feat, and due in no small part to the stimulus spending forced on them by the coalition.
More long-term, the prospect of a future coalition government, which would be perfectly democratically legitimate and could be an antidote to both the perpetual minority governments that Canadians are tiring of as well as a good opportunity to unite the centre-left against the Conservatives, has been poisoned and will likely be a no-go for a generation.
We had to sell Canadians on the concept, and we blew it. We were hobbled by the factors mentioned above and we couldn’t overcome the Conservative campaign of smears, lies and distortions. Now the concept of coalition governments, which are the norm in so much of the rest of the world, is as politically toxic as, well, the green shift. Which is a victory for the Conservatives that greatly increases their chances of continued governance by playing the NDP and Liberals off each other. A divided left helps a united right.
So, overall, while the opposition parties largely played their cards as best they could and did achieve some tactical victories, in the long-game it’s Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that emerged as the winners from the coalition madness of one year ago. They continue to govern, their opposition is divided, they held (and even increased) their popularity through a punishing economic downturn, and are inching closer to majority nirvana.
It has been quite a year.