Canada 150: Towards a new Liberal-NDP coalition?

Paul Wells on the disappearance of fundamental policy gaps between the two parties

I regret that my account of a campaign-closing 2008 interview with Stéphane Dion merely quotes the then-Liberal leader to the effect that the NDP platform was “not realistic” because of its “old-style socialist” overtones, without quoting the specific element of the platform that Dion found so unappealing. So you’ll have to take my word for it: What Dion specifically didn’t like was Jack Layton’s decision to pay for his promises by cancelling future cuts to corporate income taxes that had not yet taken place. Dion, you’ll recall, preferred to pay for his promises with a tax on carbon that was only partially compensated with income-tax cuts.

At the time, those were the two big, important, structural differences in policy — the only two, if I recall correctly, although readers are welcome to remind everyone of other differences in the reopened comment board below — between the two largest national left-of-Harper parties. Layton’s big populist play (and sop to the auto unions) was to shy away from a clear, simple tax on carbon by employing a variant on the cap-and-trade shell game. Dion’s attempt to hang onto some corporate street cred, despite his Green Shift, consisted of insisting that corporate tax cuts proceed as Harper had announced.

After this weekend, those big structural policy differences between the Liberals and NDP no longer exist.

Michael Ignatieff abandoned the Green Shift, and indeed any talk of a direct carbon tax, as soon as he became the Liberals’ presumptive leader 14 months ago. And this weekend at the Canada 150 conference in Montreal, he announced he would hold off on implementing the Conservatives’ announced corporate tax cuts “until we can afford them.” Today some Liberals are telling me that’s the big difference between the NDP and the Liberals now: that the New Democrats want to ban corporate tax cuts, whereas the Liberals just want to wait a while. If it’s a difference at all, it’s a lot slimmer than the gap that divided the two parties before.

None of this means the NDP and the Liberals should now be expected to melt together in one big melting pot of non-partisan love. There are still substantial cultural differences between the two: the spit-polished, nattily attired gang of rootless cosmopolitans who descended upon the Montreal Hyatt this weekend were not New Democrats. They will run as discrete parties at the next election, and the details of their platforms will surely be different in a hundred ways.

But the disappearance of fundamental policy gaps between the two parties (I would say irreconcilable, but of course they managed to reconcile them for a couple of weeks in 2008 even with the environment and taxation differences) is one more reason why Michael Ignatieff needs to stop insisting, every time he is asked, that he would never cooperate with the NDP in — let’s say it — a coalition of some sort after the next election.

Ignatieff likes to step backward when you say “Boo” to his face, and that’s the result Stephen Harper achieved last autumn when he made it clear he will run against a Liberal-Bloc-NDP coalition whether the Liberal, Bloc and NDP say they want to have a coalition or not. Of course he will. One result of the Madness in 2008 was to handily polarize the electorate, sharply motivating Conservative supporters to want Harper to remain prime minister. He had no trouble recreating the same dynamic in 2009 when Ignatieff tried to force a fall election.

There are two possible responses to coalition talk: “Never!” and “Maybe.” “Never!” was the one Ignatieff tried last autumn. It has the advantage of drawing a sharp distinction between himself and Dion’s ruinous 2008 adventure. The disadvantage is that it’s irresponsible. If, say, 120 Conservatives, 118 Liberals and 40 New Democrats were elected (leaving 30 Bloquistes; I just pulled these numbers out of the air, any other outcome is possible), it would simply be asinine for everyone to sit around and let Stephen Harper run everything for another two or four years when a stable Liberal-NDP arrangement (with or without Bloc support) could be envisioned.

It is fair for Ignatieff to say the 2008 adventure was a really bad idea. Dion had driven his party to its worst defeat ever in popular-vote terms. He needed, not only the entire NDP caucus, but nearly the entire Bloc, to hold the confidence of the House. He had already announced plans to resign his party’s leadership. It is fair for a new leader to say he would not attempt such a rickety contraption. But he has an obligation to provide a government that corresponds to the broad will of the entire electorate, if he happens to find himself in a better position to do so than the Conservative leader after the next election. After his speech on Sunday, the odds of such an outcome just went way up.

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