Douglas Gibson is former president and publisher of McClelland & Stewart. He has recently published Stories About Storytellers (ECW Press), relating tales from his 40 years of editing and publishing a who’s who of Canadian literature and life. A book tour takes him to Kingston (Indigo Books, Nov. 12), Toronto (U of T Faculty Club, Nov. 14) and Montreal ( Le Centre Sheraton, Nov. 20).
New Democrat-Liberal merger – a good idea?
Well, of course, in the background what we have looming over it all is the success of the Reform-Conservative merger. We all remember that that was regarded as totally unthinkable, and many of us remember that Peter MacKay got the leadership of the Conservative Party on the platform that he would never entertain any merger between the two parties. Guess what happened?
Demonstrably, it has worked very well. And, of course, we are all looking at history and saying, Is this like the Liberal Party in the U.K.? Everyone is looking at different parts of history and drawing different lessons.
Everyone? Or does a large percentage of the population not give a damn?
More thoughtful Canadians who do give a damn care greatly about the progress of a strong opposition party or parties.
Is a merger needed to combat a Conservative majority?
It is needed to combat any government. In a democracy, you need a strong opposition.
Assuming a merger, is the new party almost guaranteed a majority in the subsequent election?
The mathematics don’t work quite so neatly. It is one of the great conundrums of our “first past the post” politics that you can never predict, with total confidence, how it is going to shake out.
Both the NDP and the Liberals are headed by caretaker leaders. Is this a good time or an inopportune time to consider merging?
I suppose the ideal situation to have one party – and please note, I’m not picking one – to be united behind an inspirational leader and the other riven and conflicted. At the moment, I think it is fair to say there is a weakness in evenness.
Is a weaker party’s desperation a good motive for merging?
Inside any party you will have optimists saying, “No, this is just a time for retrenching. We’re coming back!”
So there is no sense of who joins whom?
I don’t know of it. I do know there must be endless conversations going on within the parties as to how this is going to play out and how it can be made to play out to their advantage.
What will any new, merged party be called?
The New Liberal Democrats?
Discounting the Greens, would this herald a U.S.-style two-party system?
Not necessarily. I’d argue that the people who really want two parties are the press, who are raised on sports stories. They want two teams. They want it neat and clean. There is no great natural law that these should just be two parties.
And no third party to claim a moral victory?
A moral victory is the territory of third parties everywhere.
Say the NDP and the Liberals do merge. Who will be rolling in their grave?
I suppose you’d have to look toward the more right-wing Liberals in history and more left-wing NDPers to see subterranean rollings.
Can you suggest any names?
No. But if you look at great Liberal leaders from the past, they tended to be willing to – I’ll not say steal – “accommodate” ideas coming from the left. NDP leaders have always grown up in the shadow of powerful Liberals and, as such, were automatic enemies. I think you might find more visceral reactions against any dealings with the demon Liberals from older, harder-line NDP figures.
You have published prime ministers. Is ideology particularly strong among leaders, or is expediency or “flexibility” paramount?
I don’t want to speak of individuals, but I think as politicians become more experienced, they become worn down by the process. Winning the next election or, in turbulent times, winning the next vote in the House becomes more and more important. Expedience tends to win over the grand moral visions they came to politics bearing.
Would a merger be in that realm?
I’m not saying that, but politicians have to operate in the real world. In politics, gaining power is like breathing. You have to breathe at all times and you should look, always, at gaining power.
Five years from now, who is the new New Liberal Democratic prime minister of Canada?
I think, by definition, we are looking at an unexpected new name.
Any specific name from your crystal ball you’d care to mention?
No. But I should be able to do that. I’m very proud that, in 2005, when Stephen Harper was a new leader of a very fringe grouping, I did publish a biography by William Johnson. We called it Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada. We saw where he was going. I’m sorry my crystal ball has gone cloudy.