Monday, February 16, 2009

The Coalition That Wouldn't Go West

Western Canada a key factor in Ignatieff's decision to kill coalition

As Michael Ignatieff continues to kiss up to western Canadians during a foray away from Ottawa, he offered a wry wink to western Canadians who opposed the proposed Liberal/NDP coalition government.

Ignatieff, it seemed, decided to turf the coalition as part of his strategy to rebuild the Liberal party in Western Canada.

"You are, after all, looking at someone who turned down the chance to become prime minister of Canada, and I did so, in part, because I felt that it would divide the country," Ignatieff told reporters. "I want to be someone who unites the country, and that includes the West."

The wholesale rejection of the coalition by western Canadians underscores the historical turn of fortune for both the Liberals and the NDP in the west.

The NDP, with its roots as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, was actually born in the west. In 1968, under the exemplary leadership of Tommy Douglas, the NDP won nearly half of the Parliament seats allotted to Saskatchewan. In 1972, under David Lewis, they won five seats there, and would continue to win seats in Saskatchewan until being wiped out in 2004. They haven't held seats in Saskatchewan since.

Linda Duncan's 2008 win in Edmonton-Strathcona was the first seat won by the NDP in Alberta since 1988, when they also won a single seat there.

Likewise, the Liberal party dominated Saskatchewan as recently as 1949, before they were significantly undercut by the CCF and then finally wiped out entirely by John Diefenbaker.

If Michael Ignatieff dreams of reachieving the Liberal glory days in western Canada he clearly has his work cut out for him. Having a western strategist as "talented" as James Gardiner -- who once ran the province of Saskatchewan with an iron fist -- would clearly help.

Unfortunately for Ignatieff, the best his party can currently muster in Saskatchewan are Ralph Goodale and David Orchard, the latter of whom will likely carry the label of political loose cannon for the remainder of his days.

Ignatieff certainly seems to understand that, given the current political situation in Canada, the road to a Liberal majority leads through Western Canada. Failing that, as he looks ahead in Parliament, Ignatieff may be set to propose a coalition of a different variety: not a governing coalition, but rather a legislative coalition.

"I'm in this business to win a majority Liberal government," Ignatieff explained. "But I have to also responsibly say, if we fall short of that, then it might be conceivable to be in discussions with, say, the NDP. Not on a coalition basis, but, ‘Let's get some legislation through. How do you feel about that?' That's the normal business of Parliament, and so I wouldn't exclude that. But I think we've had an interesting debate about coalition in Canada, and we've decided that we're not comfortable with it."

Canadians all over Canada have voiced their agreement on numerous occasions. Now all that remains to be seen is whether or not Ignatieff's overtures toward the west are truly sincere.


  1. Naturally, Westerners have every right to be skeptical, given our long memories of the Trudeau and Chretien years. As much as I posted about my own frustrations regarding our tumultuous relationship with the Liberals in a previous entry, you still can't blame most Westerners, particularly Albertans, if their reaction is something along the lines of "pardon us if we're a little cynical."

    I'm as opposed to the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition as you are, of course, although it's interesting to see Ignatieff allude to a legislative 'coalition' with another party, a tactic adopted by both Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson back when our parents were our age. Both their minority governments were very productive and produced some of the best legislation we could hope for.

    David Lewis's support of the Trudeau government in exchange for policy concessions is well-known, of course, but I'm curious as to how Pearson managed to juggle everything from rising Quebec nationalism to the adoption of the new flag (fiercely opposed by many of Pearson's fellow war veterans) to the fierce and bellowing opposition of John Diefenbaker on the opposition benches. One book I've been reading alluded to how one opposition party or another supported Pearson's policies until he retired.

    I think Pearson deserves far more credit than he actually gets, both from political observers and the public at large. Historian Will Ferguson wrote about his attempting to explain things rationally, his beliefs being an eclectic mix of different points of view, and his always willing to accept a good idea wherever it came from.

    Sure, he bumbled, fumbled and stumbled through five years of minority government, but when the dust settled Pearson had left behind a record bested only by that of John A. Macdonald, and which didn't have any of the blotches that someone like Trudeau did.

  2. Part of Pearson's strategy toward adopting the new flag was actually denying that Canadians had fought under the Union Jack or the Red Ensign in WWI.

    The Hansaard entries from those debates were positively incredulous.


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