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Laurier, King and other Liberals have always insisted on institutional integrity and independence (The Canadian Press, Library and Archives Canada)
Laurier, King and other Liberals have always insisted on institutional integrity and independence (The Canadian Press, Library and Archives Canada)

Scott Reid

Don't sacrifice the Liberal Party for a coalition of the centre-left Add to ...

Inexact language and a shocking lack of constitution are lending momentum to the dangerously flawed idea of a formal coalition between the Liberals and NDP prior to the next election campaign. Sadly, it is the few Liberal advocates of such an alliance who are most at fault.

Indeed, from a Liberal perspective, a pre-campaign coalition of the centre-left is far worse than a bad idea. It is a betrayal of the party's identity, history and future prospects.  Why? Because what's being proposed is not a true parliamentary coalition. It is a political combination or, more accurately: a merger. 

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t's important to clarify these terms. Typically in Canadian experience, a coalition between parties is understood to mean a parliamentary alliance established in the aftermath of a general election - usually a minority circumstance. This is in keeping with accepted traditions of both the country and the party. Post-electoral coalitions of a formal and informal nature have populated minority parliaments frequently over the past century and Liberals have often taken part. Consideration of such coalitions should definitely be maintained in future.

The idea of a coalition formed in advance of an election is quite a separate matter.

In fact, the history of the Liberal Party reveals an aggressive resistance to such efforts even at the expense of short-term electoral interests. Consistently, the Liberal Party has insisted on maintaining its institutional integrity and independence, even in times of war. Wilfrid Laurier, as an example, led the Liberal Party against Robert Borden's Unionist government in 1917 even as some Liberals sat in the war cabinet. In the 1920s, Mackenzie King slowly cannibalized the Progressives rather than combine with them and in 1940 he won election under the Liberal banner, defeating Robert Manion's reprised unionist option.

Notwithstanding its other faults, a pre-election pact with the NDP would at minimum, be at direct odds with the Liberal Party's pedigree.

To the current debate, Liberals should bring a dose of doubt toward what would, in truth, constitute a de facto reverse takeover. How else to characterize an effort to provide voters with a common policy platform, the promise of a combined cabinet and most importantly, an integrated electoral strategy? This last point has been largely obscured in the sloppy discussion of this idea to date. But it is an inescapable aspect of the proposal.

A so-called coalition would hardly be worth the effort unless it attempted to collapse the anti-Conservative vote around fewer opposition candidates. The practical consequence is crystal clear: Liberal and NDP officials would need to carve up the electoral map and agree together which candidates would run in what ridings. No longer would the Liberal Party - which since the days of Laurier has embodied the principle of national reconciliation - stand as a truly national institution. Clearly, it would have to vacate some yet-to-be arbitrated number of constituencies. Would the NDP insist that they pose the greater threat to Conservatives in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia? Would the Liberals seriously contemplate such a concession?

The impetus for this discussion is valid. The Liberal Party today stands closer to the NDP than the Conservatives in terms of public opinion support. That is a clear cause for Liberal concern. And among the obstacles to defeating the Conservatives is some 25 per cent of popular support held between the NDP and Greens. There should be impatience, urgency and attention dedicated to remedying this circumstance.

But Liberals would be profoundly mistaken to believe this is cause to sacrifice the party itself. The NDP cautions the Liberals to act now - that they occupy an elevator that can only go down. Nonsense. Liberals have found their way through far darker days without losing their nerve, much less their name. 

Who would suggest the party should now sacrifice its identity in the face of an opponent who has three times proven unable to secure a majority mandate? A Prime Minister who has rarely been able to rally more than 34 per cent of public opinion to his side?

The Liberals need to persist, not panic. To remember their history, not fear the future. The Liberal Party of Canada is the most successful political institution in the Western world. It has governed and shaped Canada into the country it is today. From medicare to public pensions to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those who would sacrifice that legacy with so little spirit should be greeted with skepticism. Or worse.

There is an obvious and superior alternative: Do better. Improve the effort, sharpen the message and bring the fight. In the weeks and months to come, the ambition of the Liberal Party should be to defeat Stephen Harper. Not surrender to Jack Layton.

Scott Reid is principal of Feschuk.Reid and former director of communications for Paul Martin.

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