Much controversy and debate within and without the Liberal Party lately about coalitions with the NDP and/of the Green Party. And unfortunately, according to media reports (so take it with a grain of salt), it may be breaking-out along leadership lines. I don’t put too much stock in that.
There does, however, appear to be two emerging schools of thought. One that wants lots of debate and discussion to start happening now at the party grassroots, favoring options ranging from a post-election coalition to a pre-election coalition to, for a minority, an outright merger. And, on the other side, those that say coalition never ever, we promise.
Like a good Liberal, I suppose, I think the proper course lays somewhere in the middle. Coalition if necessary, but not necessarily coalition.
First, I don’t think an outright merger makes any sense. “Uniting the left” is nice in theory, but the practice would be very different. The merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance wasn’t as much “uniting the right” in the broad sense as it was re-uniting the party that was broken apart when the Reform Party tore a big chunk out of the old PCs. And even then, you saw many of the more progressive Conservative, both voters and MPs such as Scott Brison, come to the Liberals. It wasn’t a 1+1=2 scenario at all. A Liberal/NDP merger would be even more inefficient, as they really are very different parties with no common history. I think you’d see bleeding on the Liberal right to the Conservatives, and on the NDP left to possibly a splinter, more ideologically pure “Real NDP” party, so just how much of the two parties’ former support would be retained is debatable. It would be more like 1+1=1.5.
Second, I don’t think we (as an official party) should be spending much time pre-election discussing coalition scenarios. I think we should run candidates in every riding, and we should be running to win. As I’ve said before, the more we talk coalition before an election, the more Liberal votes bleed to the NDP. Both parties want to position themselves as the stop-Harper alternative, and while that’s a well we’ve gone to too many times with diminishing returns, we can’t afford to cede that ground entirely.
Third, the current OLO line, which seems to be flatly ruling-out a coalition, is a mistake. I understand the rationale – I outlined in above – but it’s still a tactical mistake. We may find ourselves post-election in a situation where a coalition arrangement would be advantageous. But the ONLY way it would be feasible is with public support and credibility. And if you’d just said coalition never during the campaign, that credibility is hard to achieve. Ruling it out now – particularly for the increasingly fleeting dream of a big solo election victory – is unnecessarily limiting your options in advance. I'd also add there's a reason the Conservatives want us to rule it out -- they see a coalition as the best chance of them losing power. Let's not play into their hands.
As I’ve said before, I think our line should be simple, and it’s really not that far from what either side are calling for. We should simply say: “We’re running to win in all 308 ridings and are asking Canadians to elect a Liberal government. Post-election we’ll look carefully at what the Canadian people have said, and move forward in the best interests of the country.” Period. Repeat ad-nasaeum. Run to win, rule nothing out. Don’t get drawn into coalition speculation, just pivot to our plans and platforms (assuming we have one by them), but don’t rule anything out.
Finally, on the possibility of a coalition post-election, those of us that aren’t party spokespeople are free to speculate, and so I will. I think much, obviously, will depend on the results.
First, I think the party with the most seats is in the driver’s seat and gets the first crack at either governing solo or seeking an arrangement. So if the Conservatives again get a minority, they get first shot. But if they fail or are brought down in the House within a short period of time (let’s say less than one year, and only if it’s with good reason) then I think the Governor-General should seek options within the House before dropping the writ.
Second, a coalition may not necessarily be necessary.
Let’s say the Liberals win the largest minority of seats. I think their negotiating power, and their actions, would depend on the size of that minority. If it’s a large one, they could (and should) just govern solo, seeking support in the House on a case-by-case basis. As long as they govern responsibly, in the public interest, and treat the House with respect, that’s entirely feasible.
With a smaller minority, a formal coalition may still not be necessary. A governing arrangement could be worked out, where support is secured for a defined period of time in exchange for a serious of legislative promises. Think the Pearson minorities of the 1960s.
With a small minority, the NDP’s bargaining position becomes stronger and the likelihood of a formal coalition, with shared cabinet and the like, becomes stronger. Which way of the three it goes will depend on the bargaining power of each of the parties, based on their post-election seat counts.
Third, no coalition agreement can include the Bloc Quebecois. As a sovereigntist party their presence, even at arms-length, is toxic and will make obtaining the public support and credibility crucial to any possible coalition impossible. While desirable, it’s not necessary for the LPC+NDP number to equal a majority for any coalition or arrangement to work. Even with a minority, it’s perfectly acceptable and feasible to govern seeking majority support on the House on a case-by-case basis, as the government does now.
Anyway, while it’s all academic now, ruling anything out in advance is just silly. And for those Liberals who shudder at the thought of cooperation, I say this: we wouldn’t even be having this conversation were we not so low in the polls and public support. So rather than trying to rule these scenarios out, the better course of action is working to make them unnecessary in the first place by strengthening our position.
Until that happens though, the debate will continue.
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