There's a gimmick you sometimes see in old cartoons, or cheesy sitcoms from the 70s. An uptight character is asked to participate in some outlandish scheme -- dress in drag and dance the hula or something.
"Absolutely not!" he splutters. "One hundred per cent, positively, completely out of the question."
Cue a quick screen wipe as we fast-forward a couple hours. Guess what? He's doing it.
Such was the case with Thomas Mulcair the other day.
Scene one: March, 2012. The NDP leader is asked if he's interested in someday forming a coalition government with the Liberals. "N-O." he replies. "The no is categorical, absolute, irrefutable and non-negotiable."
Cue screen wipe as we fast-forward to February 26, 2014, when he's asked the same question.
His answer? "We've always said that we were willing to work with other parties."
Thomas Mulcair is not a moron. He can read the papers. The NDP has never recovered from Jack Layton's death nor the rise of Justin Trudeau. When Mulcair offered his "irrefutable" denunciation, he was not yet leader and his party was still polling in second place; the most recent numbers have them in their traditional distant third -- a spot they've occupied for close to a year now. At this rate, the only way the NDP can possibly dream of forming a government is by being the junior partner in some Liberal-led coalition, because it sure ain't going to be by winning an election.
This wouldn't be a new strategy for the party, of course. As New Democrat apparatchik Brian Topp's unsettling little memoir on the 2008 coalition crisis revealed, the NDP has begged the Liberals to form a coalition government with them in the aftermath of every election since 2004. In other words, if you voted NDP between 2004 and 2008 on the assumption that doing so would help elect Jack Layton prime minister -- surprise! -- you were actually voting for Paul Martin or Stephane Dion.
In one of his book's more bizarre passages, Topp suggests the NDP was even prepared to entertain the idea of digging up Jean Chretien and re-installing him as coalition prime minister -- anything to keep the hated Conservatives out.
This NDP willingness to trample over the most sacred principle of Canada's political system -- namely that there should exist some predictable correlation between who you vote for and who winds up running the country -- is the fundamental problem with coalition governments, and why Mulcair is playing a very dangerous game indeed in reviving an idea that has already inflicted such lasting damage to Canadian democracy.
Canadians, it's been observed, cast but one ballot during their federal elections -- for their local member of parliament. But in our system, individual MPs have little power over anything of importance -- practical control of government is almost entirely consolidated in the hands of the prime minister and the executive, legislative, and bureaucratic infrastructure he unilaterally controls.
It's crucial that a man wielding such power (by some accounts, the most powerful head of government in the western world) be publicly accountable, and it's for this reason that Canadian federal elections have always functioned as little more than a de facto referendum on who we want to be PM. We vote for MPs, sure, but understand that this is primarily a means to an end; voting for a Conservative MP helps elect the Conservative leader as prime minister, and so forth.
The NDP has run its last three elections (possibly four, if we assume Layton would have once again gone begging to the Liberals in 2011, had the Tories not won a majority) dishonestly, muddying this understanding. They have quite explicitly promised a vote for an NDP MP is a vote for their leader as PM, but have then conspired after the fact to install Liberal bosses instead.
If they're doing this because they believe there's no fundamental difference between the Liberals and the NDP, and that either is preferable to the Conservatives, then fine. Merge. Form a coalition, but make it a permanent one. Join forces with the Libs and create a new party that seeks the votes of the entire left-wing of the Canadian political spectrum, from social democrats to whatever Michael Ignatieff was, and campaign nationally on why progressive solutions are better than Conservative ones.
If you find fault with an electoral system in which it's possible to win a majority government with only 40 per cent of the popular vote -- and we know New Democrats do -- then a single left-of-centre party is really the easiest fix. Goodbye vote-splitting.
What Canadian democracy cannot survive, however, is constant coyness of the sort Mr. Mulcair is now offering; purported claims that he's a serious candidate for prime minister on the one hand, which are then completely undermined by promises to "work with other parties" and reminders that the NDP was "willing to make Stephane Dion the Prime Minister of Canada" on the other.
Opportunism of this sort simply reenforces voter apathy, and justifies the entirely credible suspicion that Canada's political elites don't really care much for the preferences of the public they purport to govern. In the NDP leader's world, even a question as fundamental as who should rule the nation is one to be made behind closed doors after an election -- not by voters during it.
In fairness, it's probably not worth getting too troubled over Mulcair's comments. You can't have a coalition of one, and Justin Trudeau's pretty explicitly ruled out playing along ("I will not be entertaining any formal organizations with other parties," he affirmed Tuesday). All available evidence suggests, as Justin's predecessor so memorably quipped, the next federal election will fundamentally be a choice between a blue door and a red door, one leading to a fourth term for the Tories, the other a Liberal restoration.
There's a small orange door off to the side, too, of course. But no one knows where it goes.
As usual, voters will probably avoid it.
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