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Now Is Not the Time for a NDP-Liberal Merger

Posted: 09/06/11 09:59 AM ET

A serious mistake of Michael Ignatieff's tenure as Liberal leader was abandoning the coalition with the NDP which, with Bloc support on confidence motions, would have replaced Harper's minority rightwing government with a centre-left government more consistent with the will of the majority of the Canadian electorate.

At the time of the 2008 coalition crisis, the Harper government was doing little to alleviate the effects of the recession. Despite demands for a stimulus package, he instead moved to cut public financing to political parties, something that would have hurt the opposition (note: the Harper government plans to move ahead on this now that they have a majority). A coalition government, by acting swiftly on the recession and making jobs its top priority, could have favourably contrasted itself with the Conservatives.

It is not a stretch to imagine that, in this scenario, Canadians would have become comfortable with Michael Ignatieff as prime minister, and become used to the concept of coalition governments which, while not common in Canada, are widespread in Western Europe.

At the end, however, it was a squandered opportunity by Ignatieff as he turned his back on the coalition soon after becoming Liberal leader; though Ignatieff may have realized his mistake. In a post on Facebook, Ignatieff highlighted what he saw as shared values between his party and Jack Layton's. Emphasizing these shared values, Ignatieff wrote that it was possible to "imagine what the future of our country might look like if we put those values first."

Many political observers saw this as favouring closer cooperation with the NDP, and quite possibly an arrangement closer than just coalition, a full merger. Talk of merger heated up when Quebec Liberal MP Denis Coderre openly expressed support for the idea, and when NDP MP Pat Martin talked about running for the NDP leadership as a merger/cooperation candidate. While interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said talk of merger was not on the agenda, it is worth noting that he himself mused about it not long after election results which saw the Liberals relegated to third party status.

There is a compelling rationale for a merger. The Liberal and New Democratic parties are both progressive parties which divide up votes (and fundraising) allowing Conservatives to come up the middle and win. In the last election, Harper formed a majority government with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Proponents of merger cite the success of the united Conservative Party which overcame a divided right that benefited Liberals in the 1990s, and made the right a serious contender for power leading to their 2006 victory and 2011 majority government.

On policy, there is much common ground between the Liberals and NDP. Since the 1960s, the Liberal Party has embraced the progressive values of medicare, social welfare, human rights, and multiculturalism. Meanwhile, since the 1990s, the NDP has moved to the centre, influenced by the Third Way ideas of Tony Blair's New Labour. The pressures to move to the centre have been intensified with the NDP becoming official opposition and contender for government, making expanding beyond its traditional base a higher priority.

For Liberals unhappy with third party status, a merger could mean a quicker return to power. The NDP, meanwhile, faces the problem of expanding their base in suburban areas such as Toronto's "905" region where Liberals are still the main alternative to the Conservatives, and with immigrants among whom Liberals retain strength. For the NDP, a merger with the Liberals would presumably bring these constituencies into the tent of a united centre-left party.

However, one Liberal blogger, Mound of Sound, has rightly said that merger advocates in both parties are jumping the gun.

For the NDP, they can still aim to hold their gains in Quebec while expanding their support in the rest of Canada, and win government on their own terms. The NDP in Nova Scotia won government after maintaining and expanding upon gains from their 1998 electoral breakthrough. For Liberals, they may see the permanency of the NDP's Quebec gains as far from certain, given the volatility of the Quebec electorate and inexperience of many newly elected NDP MPs from the province.

The NDP faces a difficult task of satisfying nationalist voters in Quebec while trying not to alienate the rest of Canada. As well, many Liberals pride themselves on being part of a strongly federalist party, with leaders such as Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien, and Stephane Dion, willing to stake their careers on national unity, in contrast to NDP waffling on the Clarity Act and openness to further decentralization to Quebec.

In addition, a merger would reduce our political choices, taking Canada from a multi-party system to a U.S.-style system of two monolithic parties -- something even more limiting in the Canadian context given the tradition of tight party discipline.

The benefits of a multi-party system can be seen, for example, in Ontario. In that province, while the Liberal government has provided progressive policies in areas such as environmental conservation, many northern Ontarians have felt neglected by the McGuinty government and by previous Tory governments. The NDP has been able to step into this void and provide a strong voice for northern Ontario, a particular legacy of Howard Hampton's tenure as Ontario NDP leader.

Coalition and cooperation (including, if acceptable to party members, non-compete agreements like Dion's Liberals had with Elizabeth May in 2008) are desirable options in dealing with a united right. Merger, though, is far more drastic. It would reduce our political choices and may not be beneficial to either the NDP or the Liberals. It should be approached with a large degree of scepticism.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal.

Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at arif.telegraphjournal@gmail.com.

 

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