Harper's been pondering coalitions for longer than I thought

Flashback to late in the 2004 election campaign

How far back can we trace Stephen Harper’s intense interest in the possibility of coalition government?

Most likely you would answer that Harper’s been preoccupied with the idea since the fall 2008 bid by the Liberals and the NDP to form a coalition, backed by the Bloc Québécois, to supplant his minority.

Or perhaps you would speculate that he must have been pondering the coalition permutations and combinations back in late 2004. That’s when he signed that much-debated letter to the governor-general with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, suggesting that one or more of their three parties might somehow govern—without an intervening election—if the Liberal minority of the day fell.

Even though Harper, Layton and Duceppe evidently had in mind some looser form of Parliamentary cooperation (Harper denies even that much), their discussions must have at least touched on the notion of a full coalition—if only for long enough to reject it.

But I’ve come across an old campaign-trail quote that suggests both those answers for the advent of Harper’s concern about coalitions are wrong. Half a year before he drafted that letter with Layton and Duceppe, and four and half years before the 2008 parliamentary crisis, Harper publicly raised the specter of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition.

It was late in 2004 federal election, Harper’s first as a federal leader. He had run well, putting Paul Martin’s Liberals on the ropes. Harper apparently heard in Martin’s late-campaign appeals to NDP voters a sort of allusion to the prospect of a future alliance.

“[Martin is] now flaying around looking for NDP votes and quietly trying to put together a deal that would even then have to be propped up by the Bloc,” Harper reportedly said in a campaign speech in Surrey, B.C., on June 26, 2004. “Isn’t that wonderful? A Liberal-NDP coalition backed by the Bloc—corruption, taxation and separation all in one administration.”

To my ear, that sounds strikingly close to the rhetoric he’s used so frequently since his 2008 brush with parliamentary disaster. So, as with many aspects of Harper’s electoral strategy and policy bent, it turns out his way of looking at this, and talking about it, evolved more gradually out of his political experience than we might have suspected.

(The quote, by the way, comes from a story by Maria McClintock, published in the Calgary Sun, on June 27, 2004.)

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.