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June 3, 2010

United left could take down Harper

Geoffrey Stevens

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Those two old warriors, Jean Chrétien and Ed Broadbent, have been talking.

They share a history of success. Chrétien led the Liberals to three consecutive majorities. Broadbent took the federal New Democrats to their high-water mark — 43 seats in the 1988 election — and went on to perform distinguished public service post-politics.

The two men have plenty to reminisce about, but their thoughts these days are more on the future than the past. They, along with other senior figures in their parties, are talking informally about the need to unify the political left.

This is not a new discussion, but it’s time to turn talk into action. There is no earthly need for four parties in Parliament (five, if you count the seatless Greens). The right got its act together when the Canadian Alliance (formerly Reform) absorbed the old Progressive Conservatives to become the Conservative party. In short order it formed the government. The left remains splintered and increasingly ineffectual.

Today, the Conservatives are locked in with roughly one-third of the popular vote. That’s not likely to increase as long as Harper is leader, but there is also no sign that it is about to shrink any time soon.

The Bloc Québécois’s support in Quebec translates into about 10 per cent of the national popular vote and 50 seats, give or take, in Parliament. That doesn’t seem about to change, either. Throw in six or seven per cent for the Greens, and the math is pretty clear: there aren’t enough votes or seats to support both the Liberals and New Democrats on the left flank of the Conservatives.

One party — either Liberal or NDP — could present a viable alternative to the Tory government. To have two of them, plus the Greens, scrabbling after an insufficiency of support, is prescription for futility. Minority government will continue to be the order of the day, and, unless the earth moves, it will be Conservative.

There is nothing inherently wrong with minority governments. Some of our most productive governments have been minorities, the Lester Pearson Liberal administrations of the 1960s being outstanding examples. But minority government only works when those involved, on both sides of the aisle, want to make it work.

That sadly is not the case in Ottawa. The Prime Minister treats Parliament with disdain and the opposition with contempt. Intimidation is his preferred negotiating technique. He gets no trust and no co-operation from MPs of other parties.

The leader of the Liberal opposition, Michael Ignatieff, has morphed from public intellectual to political patsy. Job insecurity has made him timid. He is afraid to stand up and be counted even when the government does outrageous things or introduces bad legislation, the current “dumpster” of budget measures being a prime example.

If John Diefenbaker were alive (and a Liberal), he would bring the Harper crew to its knees with invective, sarcasm and savage humour. He’d have the likes of John Baird begging for mercy. But Dief was a pure opposition leader (much better at that than being prime minister). Ignatieff doesn’t have the killer instinct. He’s probably too polite, too thoughtful for the job.

History has always stood between the Liberals and New Democrats. At times they have been mortal enemies. As the NDP sees it, the Liberals are scavengers who steal their core policies (such as medicare) and claim electoral credit for the theft. As the Grits see it, the NDP seduces liberal-minded voters with promises it knows it will never be in a position to keep.

The logic of a Liberal-NDP alignment, arrangement or even merger is compelling. (Just don’t call it a “coalition” — that’s a dirty word thanks to the events of December 2008.)

The Greens, who have absolutely no clout in Ottawa, might as well throw in their lot with the other parties. They have nothing to lose, and they would wield some influence in a unified left.

Should Harper be nervous? Not yet, but maybe soon.

KW Record, May 31, 2010.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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