How could the NDP and Liberals turn a coalition down? -

How could the NDP and Liberals turn a coalition down?

Paul Wells speculates on all the post-election coalition possibilities

Tom Mulcair (Photo by Andrew Tolson)
Tom Mulcair (Photo by Andrew Tolson)

I’m grateful to the National Post‘s Chris Selley for spotting this apparent contradiction. Thomas Mulcair yesterday, after a question on post-election Liberal-NDP coalition scenarios:

“We’ve always said we’re ready to work with other parties. We’re a progressive party. We want to get results,” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters when asked if he would be willing to form a coalition with Mr. Trudeau after the election….

“We even were willing to make Stephane Dion prime minister of Canada,” he said, referring to the then-Liberal leader. “It’s the type of water we were willing to put in our wine.”

Thomas Mulcair in 2012 on coalitions:

One thing Mulcair is clear on is that he’ll go after Liberal supporters, but won’t work with the rival party.

“N.O.,” he told HuffPost. The NDP tried to form a coalition with the Liberals in 2008 and then the Grits “lifted their noses up on it,” Mulcair said.

The coalition experience taught Mulcair everything he needs to know about the Liberals. They’re untrustworthy and he said he’ll never work with them again, whether in a formal or informal coalition.

“The no is categorical, absolute, irrefutable and non-negotiable. It’s no. End of story. Full stop,” he said.

Actually, while it was Selley on Twitter who first pointed out Mulcair’s apparent contradiction, I note that Althia Raj had also turned it into a HuffPost story.

From Justin Trudeau, only steely clarity: no coalition, no-how, nope.

I don’t buy it.

I know, I know, Stephen Harper ran his 2011 campaign on the assertion that in the absence of a Conservative majority, Canada would be stuck with an NDP-Liberal coalition “led” — as it seemed at the time it must be — “by Michael Ignatieff.” Supporters of the NDP and Liberals have concluded that any talk of opposition-party cooperation after an election must therefore be a Harper trap, and therefore a lie. But why would it be a lie?

Let’s do some simple arithmetic.

Many possible outcomes from the next election render the question moot. If the Conservatives win another majority, no problem. The Conservative leader will remain as Prime Minister, and I guess I’ll have another book to write. If the Liberals or NDP win a majority of seats, no problem.

And indeed, if the Conservatives win fewer seats than another party which itself falls short of a majority, no real problem. This is the 2006 scenario: a governing majority party falls behind another party and voluntarily abandons its claim on power because it’s been beat fair and square. Paul Martin remained PM after the 2006 election and could have tried to concoct some sort of arrangement with the NDP or Bloc Québécois to outnumber the Conservatives. Gordon Brown made such an attempt later, with the Lib Dems after the last UK election, to no avail. But Martin’s heart wasn’t in it and he announced his resignation on election night. It would be very surprising if Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won, say, 120 seats to the NDP’s 140 in the next election, and the Harper government did anything but quit. The prime minister has referred to scenarios like the one Brown tried to cobble together a “coalition of losers.”

But there is another case, and its likelihood seems pretty high. That’s one where the Conservatives lose their majority, an opposition party comes close in seats, and with the other opposition party it greatly outnumbers the Conservatives. Something like this: 145 Conservatives, 100 NDP and 90 Liberals (plus 3 left over so nobody feels left out of my imaginary Parliament).

By the 2006 precedent, the party with the largest number of seats forms the government. That’s Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. As a bonus, the incumbent prime minister gets to test the House by putting the first actions of his new government to a confidence vote, if he likes or dares. To the Conservative supporters among you, surely Harper’s legitimacy to continue as PM would be obvious.

But how about to the Liberals and New Democrats? If the next election shakes out the way I just sketched, then an NDP government with Liberal support could end almost a decade of Harper. But they’d have to move immediately: as we saw in December 2008, just a few post-election confidence votes for the returning government would give it enough legitimacy that the Governor General would follow the Conservative PM’s counsel in any subsequent conflict.

Trudeau and Mulcair say now they would never cooperate. [UPDATE: I am reminded that should say, “Trudeau now says he would never cooperate, and Mulcair recently did but may now be saying something different, it’s kind of hard to tell.”] How does that go down, New Democrats and Liberals? Would you accept a few more years of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, while New Democrats and Liberals had the makings of a solid parliamentary majority between them?

And if your parties’ leaders inexplicably failed to take power when they had a shot, how long could they remain as leaders?

One more thing. Brian Topp has written that before the 2004 election, Jack Layton “directed that a low-profile working committee be formed to think about options” following an election. The committee “met steadily through early 2004, eventually producing a carefully considered package with a strategy note and a number of appendices” that considered “all possible permutations.”

During the 2006 campaign, Topp brought this “scenarios committee” back together. Topp’s group included Ed Broadbent and Anne McGrath. Top-level stuff. And in the 2008 campaign, the committee convened again, with McGrath again a member.

The 2008 election produced a lousy coalition scenario, one that would require almost every Bloc MP to support a Liberal-NDP coalition with Stéphane Dion, wildly unpopular by this point among his own devastated caucus, as prime minister. But Jack Layton tried to set that plan in motion on election night. And five weeks later, at the next opportunity, he tried again and nearly succeeded.

Is it plausible that the “scenarios committee” that met during the 2004, 2006 and 2008 campaigns is not meeting now? If Mulcair gets a better chance than Layton had, could he turn it down and survive as NDP leader? Could Justin Trudeau?