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

Liberals need a political game changer Add to ...

Chantal Hebert and Paul Wells among others have made the argument over the last week that unless there is a game changer along the lines of a Liberal-NDP merger, Canadian politics will stay just as static going forward as it was in 2010. Wells makes the point that over the last 20 years, it was only through the "structural" changes of the collapse of the Mulroney coalition (and the corresponding formation of the Bloc and Reform parties) and the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives that Messrs. Chrétien and Harper were able to win elections. The conclusion, therefore, is the Liberals can either merge with the NDP and win or not merge and stay more or less where we are and have been since 2006.

I disagree. I think there is a Kobayashi Maru-like third option (for those who don't know that reference, it is from one of the Star Wars movies - I think it involved Chewbacca doing some funky things to an Ewok) that is far preferable to any possible merger.

First off, there is a cause-effect problem with both the 1993 and 2006 "structural change" argument. Mulroney by 1993 was a tired, corruption swept government (regardless of any temporary polling bump that Kim Campbell received after becoming leader). That's as big a reason as any for their "coalition" disintegrating and more importantly, voters abandoning them. The notion that Adscam didn't cost the Liberals votes in 2004 and 2006 is also hard to argue. So, if the maxim for major change in Canadian politics is governments that have been in office for a decade and faced major scandal towards the end of their mandate lose power to credible oppositions then yes, I agree. That's another way of saying governments defeat themselves, which is often true. If taken to a logical extreme, it means there's nothing opposition parties can do to change their fate - either the government will be kicked out or not. That, I disagree with. Moreover, even if you did buy that, it in no way leads one to conclude "therefore the Liberals and NDP need to merge," which is what Hebert and Wells have been arguing of late.

More importantly, a reminder from back in May when merger mania swept the country: The notion that a Liberal-NDP merger leads to certain victory is almost certainly wrong. As Dan Arnold at Calgary Grit laid out at the time, when the Alliance and PCs merged before the 2004 election, they were only able to hold 78.5 per cent of their combined 2000 vote. One in five voters left the combined parties.

Given that only "37 per cent of Liberal voters list the NDP as their second choice, while 35 per cent of NDP voters list the Liberals as their second choice," a combined NDP and Liberal party would likely maintain even less of their combined vote if they merged with some of it going to the Conservative Party, some to the Greens and some just staying home. If the new party holds 73 per cent of their combined vote (and Dan explains why that is a reasonable, though likely optimistic assumption), the Conservatives in a "head-to-head" race with the LibDems (and the Bloc and Greens and the now surging Pirate Party) would win a majority with 163 seats.

In other words, a merger accomplishes the opposite of what it is intended to do. Which of course doesn't mean that the alternative pursued so far of just doing more of the same is a real alternative.

No, the Kobayashi Maru is the Liberals need to break through from where they are today both geographically and demographically. No doubt easy to say, harder to do. Yes, it is me basically saying the Liberal way to do better is to do better but bear with me (here's where Rob goes broken record because I have written this over and over again): We need a different voter coalition from the one that won elections for us in 1993 or 1968 because those coalitions both (a) don't exist anymore; and (b) don't support the Liberal Party in numbers necessary for us to win. That doesn't mean the Liberal Party as a political entity can't put together a winning voter coalition - in fact there are multiple options that could be pursued, some of which are by definition mutually exclusive but there are options available.

Where Hebert and Wells are of course right is these new voter coalitions won't just coalesce around the Liberal Party because we are owed anything, because of any nostalgia for the past or because we are nice guys. Picking an option - having a strategy to craft together a winning voter coalition - is a necessary pre-condition to us winning.

Merging with the NDP isn't a real option for the Liberal Party if for no other reason than it wouldn't work.

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