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Before Justin Trudeau won the Liberal leadership, New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair ruled out any co-operation with the Liberals. But now he says he's open to postelection co-operation.

"Canadians decide the type of Parliament that they're going to give themselves and we've proven over the years that we're always open to working with the others," he said recently. "We're a progressive party. My priority is to get rid of Stephen Harper's Conservatives." That could mean informal support of a Liberal minority government, formal support through an accord or even a full-fledged coalition in which the parties share cabinet seats.

Mr. Mulcair's new line is an attempt to defend his party's vote share. Being open to co-operation with the Liberals invites NDP voters whose first priority is a change of government to stick with the New Democrats in the election and co-operate afterward. That's particularly true in many Quebec ridings, where voting NDP might be the best guarantee of defeating the Conservative candidate. The Bloc Québécois made effective use of a similar appeal in the 2008 election, when they dominated Quebec.

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Mr. Trudeau has not reciprocated Mr. Mulcair's invitation. "I made very clear during my leadership [campaign] that I was not interested in any of those options, and the fact is I got a very strong mandate from Liberals to pursue a winning Liberal strategy," he responded. With the lead the Liberals have enjoyed under Mr. Trudeau, they want to win a majority through their own efforts, without having to rely on the NDP.

Mr. Trudeau, however, did not categorically refuse to co-operate, as Stéphane Dion did during the 2008 campaign. Mr. Dion's statement came back to haunt him after the election, when he negotiated his abortive deal with the NDP and the Bloc. Mr. Trudeau will not make such rash and sweeping denials. The Liberals have had a consistent lead in the polls, but not yet to the extent of predicting a majority in an election. If they win a plurality but not a majority of seats, they might need NDP help to dislodge Mr. Harper, who would still be prime minister after the election until he resigned or was defeated in the House of Commons.

Alliance chit-chat is an interesting game between the NDP and the Liberals, but it also has implications for the Conservatives, as they ponder how to get ahead of the Liberals. With Mr. Mulcair trying to cozy up to the Liberals, the Conservatives may try to run not just against the Liberals and the NDP separately, but against the spectre of a coalition, as they did in 2011. It would be like the Liberal campaigns against Mr. Harper's alleged "hidden agenda" in 2004 and 2006: "Mr. Harper may talk like a moderate now, but his past statements show he's really a neoconservative radical." Similarly, the Conservatives will be able to say to electors, "Unless you vote Conservative, you are going to get a Liberal minority propped up by the NDP, or even a Liberal-NDP coalition."

The Conservatives made a similar appeal in the final week of the 2011 election, when polls showed the NDP surging. Unaligned centrist voters worried about handing too much power to the NDP. Some of these voters swung to the Conservatives at the end of the 2011 campaign, giving them their majority and defeating the Liberals in urban and suburban Ontario seats they had held for decades.

Of course, in 2011, Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois made ideal bogeymen for the Conservatives. Can Thomas Mulcair and the NDP play that role in a new Conservative narrative? Maybe, especially if the Parti Québécois wins the Quebec provincial election and starts planning another referendum on separation. Mr. Mulcair's repudiation of the Clarity Act and his position that a simple majority in a Quebec referendum is enough to enable separation might be made to look quite scary.

Canada may be in for a wild ride. The next election, instead of focusing on Trudeauvian charisma and Conservative tax cuts, may be all about coalitions and national unity. How's this for a ballot question: Who can best protect Canada's future – the flinty-eyed Mr. Harper, or the amiable Mr. Trudeau depending on Mr. Mulcair to stay in power?

Tom Flanagan is a distinguished fellow in the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.

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