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(Photos: Canadian Press)
(Photos: Canadian Press)

Bob Plamondon

Don't tempt fate with your coalition talk, Mr. Harper Add to ...

Stephen Harper is warning us that, unless we elect a majority Conservative government at the next opportunity, a coalition of the other parties in the House of Commons will take over, virtually overnight. "They will deny it every day of the campaign," the Prime Minister predicts. "The day after, they will do it."

But by telling Canadians that a coalition represents a serious threat, he also gives it legitimacy. And because a coalition may be the only way he can be defeated, Mr. Harper should be careful about tempting his opponents.

Current polls show the Conservatives with a healthy seven-point lead, which they have largely held since the last election. But in one of the most significant (and least noted) public opinion polls conducted since that election, EKOS Research Associates discovered earlier this month that many Canadians would be prepared to support a coalition were it to be on the ballot.

When asked, "If you were forced to choose between a Conservative government led by Stephen Harper and a coalition government made up of Liberal and New Democrat and led by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, which would you prefer?", 40 per cent said Mr. Harper and 39 per cent chose a coalition. In other words, a dead heat - and that's without the Bloc Québécois joining in.

Would the prospect of losing their third election in a row cause Liberals to make common ground with the NDP, and possibly the Green Party? Is a Liberal-NDP coalition remotely possible?

Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent used to describe the CCF (the predecessor to the NDP) as "Liberals in a hurry." Lester Pearson implemented universal health care and the Canada Pension Plan thanks to the friendly support of NDP leader Tommy Douglas.

Pierre Trudeau belonged to the NDP before he defected to the Liberals, where he could exercise real power. When relegated to a minority prime minister in 1972, he was happy to return to his roots. In his memoirs, he wrote: "[It]allowed me to put forward more advanced 'left wing' projects. … In fact, the NDP supported me when some of the more conservative members of my party did not. I was thus able to institute policies that I had been dreaming about for a long time, and the social-democratic faction of the Opposition was forced to support them, or else deny their own social program."

Even after winning a majority in 1980, Mr. Trudeau invited his socialist friends from the NDP into his cabinet under an agreed program and a coalition arrangement, which they ultimately refused.

With three majorities, Jean Chrétien didn't need NDP votes in the Commons, but he has always acknowledged that Liberals should make deals with the left, when necessary, to keep the Tories on the opposition benches.

When Paul Martin was hanging on for dear life in the 2006 election, he stood side by side with union leader and long-time NDP supporter Buzz Hargrove, urging Canadian voters to block a Harper victory.

But the most relevant precedent was the coalition accord signed by Liberal, NDP and Bloc leaders just weeks after the 2008 election. This was not some wild-eyed palace coup cooked up by three desperate politicians; it was negotiated by political heavyweights from all sides. When asked about the accord, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent started singing the old saw, "Happy days are here again." On the Liberal side, none other than Mr. Chrétien was leading the parade; and he has continued to muse about Liberal-NDP co-operation ever since.

A Liberal-NDP marriage of convenience would not be a stretch for many stalwarts in the Liberal caucus. The star performer on the Liberal front bench, Bob Rae, is a former NDP premier of Ontario. Health critic Ujjal Dosanjh is a former NDP premier of British Columbia.

Despite Mr. Ignatieff's signature appearing on the 2008 coalition paperwork, the arrangement imploded because the newly minted Liberal Leader concluded he could more readily win a general election without the taint of the NDP. He may have come to regret his decision since, barring a dramatic change, that coalition may have been his best shot at becoming prime minister.

So, could Mr. Ignatieff concoct a coalition before the next election? The Liberals have pulled off the unexpected before. Remember Mr. Trudeau resigning as leader in 1979, defeating the Clark government in the Commons, then returning as Liberal leader all within a matter of weeks?

With a Harper win in a possible spring election looking like a foregone conclusion, it's not beyond the Liberal DNA to cozy up with the NDP to thwart that victory. And having warned Canadians that he needs a majority to block a coalition, Mr. Harper would be in no position to cry foul if he ends up on the opposition benches, even if his party wins the most seats next time out.

Bob Plamondon is the author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper.

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