Liberals utter the dreaded ‘C’ word - Macleans.ca

Liberals utter the dreaded ‘C’ word

A coalition is possible, Ignatieff admits. But a merger? It doesn’t add up.

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Chris Wattie/Reuters

Alfred Apps is fed up with all the talk lately about his Liberals forming a coalition with the NDP. “This whole discussion is inane,” the Toronto lawyer and Liberal Party of Canada president groans when asked about it by Maclean’s. “This is the stupidest political discussion that the media has promoted that I have ever seen.”

Apps doesn’t think the discussion is inane because a coalition is an outlandish idea. On the contrary, he argues that the stupidity of this line of inquiry rests in the fact that a coalition should be such an obvious and uncontentious possible outcome of the next election that the prospect isn’t worth fussing about—until after the votes are counted. “There is no coalition discussion,” he says. “You have a discussion about a coalition after an election or when a government falls.”

The topic is hot now largely because of the recent formation of a coalition government in Britain, which naturally reminded Canadians of the failed bid by the Liberals and NDP, supported by the Bloc Québécois, to forge a coalition to oust the Conservative minority in fall 2008. Since then, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has periodically hurled the accusation that Liberals are plotting to govern in concert with “socialists and separatists.”

After seeming last fall to rule out future coalitions, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff softened his language early this month by calling the option “legitimate.” He hardly sounds enthusiastic, though. “We aren’t here to propose a coalition to anyone,” Ignatieff said in a speech in Quebec City. “We are here to propose a Liberal alternative.”

Apps agrees that the party must not talk coalition during a campaign. Still, he sketched a coalition scenario, starting from the reasonable premise that his party doesn’t manage to win a majority in the 308-seat House: “We might be at 130 seats, and we might want to have a stable government like the Tories did in Britain, and we might turn to the NDP and say, ‘Can you agree on this progressive agenda and support the government?’ And maybe it might even mean [NDP] cabinet seats. But that’s a post-election determination once you know what the numbers are.”

Even more bothersome to top Liberals than the coalition chatter is public musing about a full merger with the NDP. CBC reported earlier this week that “senior insiders” in the two parties have held secret merger talks. Ignatieff’s officials denied it. “I have no knowledge of any serious or genuine discussions,” said Apps. “Nor have I ever had discussions with the leader or his staff on this subject.” And he offered at least three reasons not to go there.

The first is the lack of a sure electoral advantage to be won. A merger would only make sense if the combined party would steal a lot of otherwise unwinnable seats from the Conservatives. But Apps says the NDP and Liberals more often vie for the same ridings, like they do in northern Ontario. By joining forces, then, they might combine their current seats without grabbing many more from the Tories. “The problem,” he says, “is the numbers don’t work out.”

The second impediment he cites is the sheer, daunting complexity of merging—meetings in every riding, national conventions of both parties, combining finances. Die-hard New Democrats and Liberals might quit during such a process. But the third and biggest reason not to merge, he says, is the Liberals’ underlying strength. Even though his party lags the Tories in the polls, Apps argues Liberal support remains within reach of its historic range in most provinces, with one glaring exception. “The big question is Quebec,” he says.

“That’s the game-changer.” There are just 14 Liberal MPs from Quebec now, down from 36 as recently as Chrétien’s final majority after the 2000 election. “A lot of people,” Apps adds, “think the Bloc is like the Berlin Wall was—increasingly unable to sustain itself under its original impetus.”

The collapse of the Bloc would indeed change the game. Current poll standings, however, make a Liberal minority reliant on NDP support far more likely. And now that a coalition is acknowledged as one way to secure that support, the Tories will charge in the next campaign that anything Ignatieff pitches depends on what he can sell to his eventual partners in power. Of course, another Conservative minority would be no more capable than the current one of implementing its platform in undiluted form. Yet Harper hasn’t in the past faced persistent questioning about what compromises he’s willing to make to stay in power. Since they share common ground, the ways Liberals and New Democrats might co-operate is a more obvious line of inquiry.

So Ignatieff will have to work to keep coalition speculation from overshadowing his message. Now that the possibility is being widely aired, it could be enough to change how some left-tilting voters size up their options in the next federal campaign. Apps suggests they should vote less for the party they prefer than the House they want. “The question that Canadians have to ask in the next election,” he says, “whichever riding they live in, is, ‘What is the best way to get a progressive majority in Parliament?’ ”