Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, looking fit under a mask of TV make-up, gave an interview this week in which he predicted that a merger of the Liberals and the NDP, “will be done one day.”
A master politician, Chretien is probably right. There is a solid case to be made for an NDP-Liberal merger, which would create a centre left party that would give Canadians a single, clear alternative to the centre right of Stephen Harper”s Conservative Party.
The question is, what time frame does “one day” mean?
Amid the heavy discussions about the possibility of a merger — intensified by the death of Jack Layton and the beginnings of a race to name his successor — the issue of what might be in it for the NDP is being overlooked.
Parties only unite when they see it in their mutual interest to do so. That was the case early in the 20th century when Mackenzie King’s Liberals swept up the remnants of the Progressive Party. The leaderless Progressives had no where else to go.
Turn the clock ahead to the 2000s, and we have the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative party. As Mr. Chretien mentioned, that came about despite PC leader Peter McKay’s promise that he would never entertain such a horror.
Despite their differences, it wasn’t as much a merger of two parties as it was the reassembly in one tent of an old party — the party of Brian Mulroney. But it didn’t come about easily, and it took time. Both parties went through three leaders and three elections before Stephen Harper struck his deal with McKay to “unite the right.”
The NDP and Liberals share many values: a commitment to a strong public sector, belief in the social safety net, support for multiculturalism, and suspicion of adventurous foreign entanglements. Both parties also have blocs bitterly opposed to their opposite numbers: right-wing Bay Street Liberals that a merger would send into the arms of the Conservatives, and the NDP’s left wing activists, quiet under Layton, who would be tempted to start their own party.
Overriding all of these concerns, however, is the fact that having become the Official Opposition, the NDP now has a historic opportunity to nudge the Liberals out of the political centre, the great mainstream where most Canadian voters spend most of their time.
With this prospect, may NDPers are asking: Why bother with a merger? What’s in it for us?
The Liberal governments of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, in doing their duty as they saw it, lost both Quebec and the West. Quebec went when the PQ was able to convince voters that Trudeau’s new Constitution and Charter of Rights was the product of a conspiracy against la Belle Province. The Clarity Act cinched the myth. The West started to go when Trudeau asked Western farmers, “Why should I sell your wheat?” The rout was completed with the National Energy Policy, a 1970s program that stripped the three Far Western provinces of oil revenue and paralyzed the exploration industry, beggaring the oil patch of Alberta.
The NDP is at a historic junction, made all the more challenging due to the fact of its sudden and unexpected successes in Quebec. Embracing the Liberal party at this stage would hardly reinforce its tentative hold on its 59 Quebec seats.In the West, embracing the Liberal party would put new difficulties in the way of the NDP rebuilding its federal strength on the prairies.
There may be an NDP-Liberal merger some day, but I would not expect it to come about before at least one, or perhaps two federal elections have passed into history. Along about 2020, when Canadians have grown tired of Jason Kenney as their Conservative Prime Minister, Mr. Chretien’s prediction could well come true: “One day.”
Talk of a Liberal-NDP coalition/merger has been squelched — for now — by Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton. Both say it’s off the table. They’re wise to have said so, but trust me, the issue’s not going to go away.
The Old Warrior, Jean Chretien, gave coalition talk a new lease on life with comments he made after the unveiling of his portrait on Parliament Hill. “If it’s do-able, let’s do it,” he said. And he revealed that he’d had coalition talks with NDP influentials over the years.
It didn’t tale long for Chretien’s old campaign strategist, Warren Kinsella, to take up the call. He asserted that “serious people” from both camps are discussing the where, how and why of a Liberal-NDP link-up. He even had a name for the new animal - the Liberal Democrats.
Kinsella’s been around long enough to know how difficult it would be to forge a new party out of the Liberals and the NDP. His book, The War Room (Dundurn Press, 2007) spilt some of the secrets he’s harbored from his days as special assistant to Chretien when the Liberals were riding high at the expense of a divided right.
Now the shoe’s on the other foot. The right is united in Stephen Harper’s Conservative dynasty. The difference is that Harper’s never been able to get a solid hold on more than a third of the electorate.. So why do the Liberals have to ponder the possible delights of a merger with the NDP?
It’s because of Ignatieff, stupid. Once hailed as a new messiah, he’s never been able to nudge the Liberals into more than an also-ran position against Harper’s furies. The splurge of speculation about coalition/merger seems to have been set off anti-Ignatieff elements in his own party. Shades of what Chretien’s backroom boys tried to do against John Turner in the 1988 election. This time they’ve a different target.
Ignatieff is further embarrassed by an Angus Reid poll asserting that a Liberal-NDP coalition led by him would go down to defeat, while if Jack Layton was the leader it would defeat the Conservatives.
Chantal Hebert, writing in the Toronto Star, correctly points out that Ignatieff is the guy at risk. She thinks his reluctance to support a merger now gives the NDP a great incentive to hold back, expecting it could extract a better deal after, not before, the next election.
Hebert has examined the entrails of the 2006 election and come up with the conclusion that had the two parties been in cohorts before the vote, they would have won 42 more seats than they did, producing a Liberal-NDP majority. But that assumes voters would have cast their ballots the same way they did when the two were at each other’s throats. Not a safe assumption.
Another poll, by CP-Harris, confirms a splintered electorate. The biggest faction, 28%, favors a pre-election non-compete pact between the two parties.
Both approaches — strategic voting in an election, or taking your chances at forming a governing coalition after the election, carry their own risks. The advantage to a pre-writ saw-off, obviously, is that it could prevent the election of some Conservative MPs who might win as a result of vote-splitting on the left.
Ignatieff is right, however, to resist a coalition or merger at this stage. The time’s not right for it, especially when the Harper government is falling victim to yet more blunders. Eventually, stunts such as the ludicrous $1 billion security bill for the G8-G20 will get to voters. If he can hang on long enough, Ignatieff may not need a coalition to move into 24 Sussex Street.