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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail (Brian Gable)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail (Brian Gable)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: Lessons learned Add to ...

Finally, if the coalition had gone ahead, what would the government of Canada have been working on right now? Assuming the New Democrats had been able to preserve their influence and power within that government, Canada's national government would have been working on a number of things.

First and in the grand scheme of things perhaps most important, the coalition government would have been working closely with the Obama administration on a real, effective continental cap-and-trade system to deal with climate change. Hopefully setting the scene for a strong environmental accord in Copenhagen later this month. We would have had to be realistic about what any U.S. administration can achieve within an 18th century republican constitution that has now become, fundamentally, a dysfunctional corporate kleptocracy. As Harold Wilson would have put it, we have to feel a little sorry for our American cousins for their even more regrettable constitution and system of government. But there was an opportunity on this issue for Canada to punch above its weight, to help counterbalance the coal, oil and other industries lobbying against progress with their chequebooks in the American Congress. In the process we could have been co-authors of what is likely to be a new environmental regime of fundamental importance to our economy.

Instead, the Harper government was a passive bystander while the Americans debated the issue. It seems clear the Conservatives were angling for a weak and ineffective climate change regime that gave carte blanche to a limitless development of the Alberta tar sands - the Harper government's only apparent interest in the whole environmental file.

The coalition government would have introduced an early economic stimulus program, perhaps a larger and more quickly-deployed one than the Conservatives did. Always assuming the New Democrats were able to convince their partners in government, this program would have been a "smart stimulus" program similar to the one introduced in Australia by its new Labour government. The Australian program combined investments in traditional infrastructure (roads and bridges) with investments in social infrastructure (like schools) and in measures to reduce energy use, like a strong home insulation program.

Instead, the Harper government dusted off a package of "shovel ready" old bricks and mortar infrastructure proposals, some 10 years old or older, and shovelled out the money, slowly. In the process they got themselves into trouble due to pathetic missteps by backbench government MPs, photographed at cheque presentations for Government of Canada funds, with prominent Conservative party logos on the cheques.

The coalition government would have taken a careful look at income security in these recessionary times. An important step New Democrats would have pushed hard would have been to consider affordable ways to begin undoing the damage Paul Martin did to employment insurance. First steps towards a better child benefit plan would have been a clear NDP demand inside the government, even if it did look like a fixed cost to Liberal researchers. Most importantly, the government would have had to grapple with the issue of pensions, particularly in the private sector.

The Harper government took a couple of big and important steps toward meeting New Democrat ideas on EI; has done nothing for families; and has no credible strategy on the pension issue.

The coalition government would have overseen the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011, on time and on schedule, or would have broken up over the issue. That being so, Canada would likely have been doing what it could to mediate an honourable settlement in Afghanistan that allowed NATO as a whole to phase out its combat role. The fact that this week Barrack Obama set a July, 2011, deadline for U.S. troops to begin their own withdrawal from Afghanistan suggests we would have had important partners in this work.

Instead, the Harper government is contributing nothing to finding peace in that country. And as I write there is, disturbingly, much to learn about the fate of enemy combatants who surrendered to our country, on Mr. Harper's watch, in the course of the tragic conflict in Afghanistan.

The coalition government would have been debating what Canada could do to strengthen public health care. Perhaps the first steps towards a national catastrophic drug program would have emerged.

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