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Lysiane Gagnon

Coalition: a false calculation Add to ...

Even though both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton have officially rejected it, the idea of a coalition between the Liberal Party and the NDP is still in the air. Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow is promoting a merger, with the support of former prime minister Jean Chrétien and some influential Liberal activists who believe this to be the only way to beat the Conservatives.

In a recent interview, Mr. Romanow urged the current leaders to be bold enough to "discuss new ideas." He added that in the 1990s, when he and Mr. Chrétien were in office, they often talked about some kind of merger. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Chrétien bluntly told a CBC interviewer: "If [a coalition]is doable, let's do it." And at about the same time, Bob Rae, the Liberal Party's No. 2 and a leadership hopeful, waxed nostalgic about the good old days when he, as Ontario NDP leader, joined in a coalition with David Peterson's provincial Liberals.

But no one is more enthusiastic about a merger than Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who can hardly hide his glee at the thought the Liberals would be foolish enough to evacuate the centre - the territory where elections are won in Canada - to move toward the NDP. Indeed, one wonders why the Liberals would do so much harm to themselves.

The Dippers might have some interest in a merger, if only because it would offer them the only chance they could ever have of getting in power and implementing some of their policies. But the Liberals would kill whatever is left of their party if they stripped it of its essential character - that is, a centre-left party with a national dimension, including a strong if much weakened presence in Quebec - to ally themselves with a party that still considers itself "socialist" and has systematically refused to go through an aggiornamento like its counterparts in Western Europe, which evolved from socialists to social democrats (France's Socialist Party being the sole exception). Not to mention the loony views of some of the NDP's local associations - views that are debated at conventions but never make their way into electoral platforms and that the media usually don't bother to report on because the NDP is a perennial third-party with no chance of forming a government.

The naive idea behind a merger is that by adding the votes of the Liberal Party to the votes of the NDP, the result would be a majority non-Tory government. But this is a false calculation, since once merged with the NDP, the Liberal Party would lose a great deal of its traditional support.

If not a full-fledged merger, then why not a coalition, with the two parties keeping their own personalities while agreeing on a set of specific policies? Mr. Harper was right when he mocked the idea by saying it would be a losers' coalition. Indeed, what happened in Britain was an alliance between the Liberal-Democrats and the winning Tories, who had gathered the larger number of seats. A coalition between a minority government and a third-party makes sense, not a coalition between two opposition parties - unless one believes that it's normal in a democracy to overthrow the party that was chosen by the larger part of the electorate.

The only way a Liberal-NDP coalition could be a sensible arrangement is on the hypothesis that the next election would result in a Liberal minority government. The Liberal Party would gain a guarantee of stability, and the NDP would gain the possibility of pushing forward its agenda.

As for the idea of a pre-electoral coalition, what kind of animal would this look like? Would the Liberals vacate all the ridings west of Manitoba while the NDP would abstain from running candidates in Quebec? Two half-parties don't make a national party.

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