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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)

Bob Plamondon

If he'd taken the coalition, Ignatieff coulda been a contender Add to ...

In a country as economically, culturally, socially and linguistically diverse as Canada, we should embrace those leaders who can build broad national coalitions, those we can trust to keep us united and strong, and who are as relevant in Newfoundland and Quebec as in Alberta and British Columbia.

Making the compromises necessary to build a national coalition is something that Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay understood when they merged the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party. They not only blocked Paul Martin from winning but ended their struggle in the political wilderness. As prime minister, Mr. Harper keeps his coalition together by rewarding the various factions, always mindful not to veer to far from mainstream sensibilities.

Whither Michael Ignatieff? Other than inheriting the legacy of Canada's natural governing party, he doesn't have much of a coalition left to lead. The Liberals have been crowded out of the centre by the Tories, and the NDP and the Greens are eating his lunch on the left.

Mr. Ignatieff's most fateful decision was made just before his coronation as leader. He would be prime minister today except for one major lapse in political strategy.

Think back to just after the 2008 election and Mr. Harper's economic update, which contained a toxic provision to eliminate taxpayer subsidies for political parties. Had that idea been included in the Tory platform, it wouldn't have precipitated a parliamentary crisis. As a back-door manoeuvre, however, Mr. Harper gave his opponents unity and purpose, and they mounted a credible plan to put the Tories on the opposition benches. The Parliamentary Press Gallery concluded that Mr. Harper was done like dinner. But Mr. Ignatieff threw cold water on the plan and, with it, perhaps his only chance to move into 24 Sussex Dr.

Consider the precedents. When Mackenzie King was 15 seats behind the Tories after the 1925 election, he formed an alliance with the Progressives to hold power. In the election that followed, King struck a deal with the Progressives not to run candidates against each other, and he was returned to office. Pierre Trudeau built a working coalition with the NDP when his government was reduced to a minority in 1972; later, he even offered NDP leader Ed Broadbent a seat in his cabinet. After Mr. Trudeau's first resignation in 1979, the Liberals, with the help of the NDP and Social Credit, defeated Joe Clark's Tories on a budget measure. Even when leaderless, those wily Liberals almost never passed up an opportunity to claim power when given the chance.

Much the same way that Liberal David Peterson seized power from the Tories in Ontario with the help of the NDP's Bob Rae in 1985, Mr. Ignatieff could have taken over from Mr. Harper in December of 2008 without the inconvenience of an election.

Why Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe decided to expose their strategy rather than simply spring it on the Tories on the floor of the House is a mystery. And why the Bloc Québécois was anywhere near a coalition photo op is another head-scratcher.

We might have expected a three-stooge performance under Mr. Dion's leadership, but Mr. Ignatieff was supposed to be the genius in the wings. With overwhelming support in the Liberal caucus, he could have orchestrated an intelligent and bloodless coup. While there would have been a hue and cry, he would have bought himself two or more years to consolidate his coalition. And with Mr. Harper fuming on the opposition benches, Mr. Ignatieff could have cemented a bond with the NDP.

A consolidation of parties, and the broadening of the coalitions they represent, would be good for the country. We have not seen a strong government opposed by a strong opposition since the 1988 election.

Majority governments can now be earned with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Official Opposition status went to the sovereigntist Bloc in 1993 with only 13.5 per cent of the popular vote, and Preston Manning's Reform Party took over the opposition mantle in 1997 with 19 per cent. After the 1997 and 2000 elections, the Liberal majority faced four anemic parties in the House.

And if there were two dominant parties in the House, the Bloc would be further marginalized, leading to its ultimate extinction.

While Mr. Ignatieff contemplates his next move, he should be reminded that not only did he miss an opportunity to become prime minister, he squandered a rare chance to strengthen our democracy.

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

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