Friday, April 17, 2009

Dr Ignatieff's Coalition

Liberal leader may need to play Dr Frankenstein with coalition

In an op/ed appearing in today's Globe and Mail, Tom Flanagan writes about musings that the Liberal party may attempt to force a fall election.

Flanagan notes that, after his refutal of the Liberal/NDP coalition, defeating the government may require Ignatieff to reassemble and reanimate that very coalition.

"Mr Ignatieff can't force an election by himself," Flanagan rightly notes. "He needs the votes of the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois to defeat the Conservatives on a vote of no-confidence. In other words, he has to reactivate the coalition with the socialists and separatists against which Canadians reacted so strongly last fall."

But because Ignatieff's decision to abandon the proposed coalition so deeply offended Jack Layton and the NDP -- Layton accused Ignatieff of abandoning opposition in favour of simply backing the government -- the NDP and Bloc Quebecois' will to defeat the government has to exceed the diminished good will between themselves and the Liberals.

There are no guarantees.

For one thing, as Flanagan notes, the NDP may not be well-situated financially to wage an election campaign, having nearly matched the Conservative party's expenditures on the past campaign.

And while recent polls show that both the Liberals and NDP are gaining support, those polls can often be deceptive. Swings in support between the Conservatives and Liberals are likely to have the biggest impact in Liberal-NDP swing ridings, where narrow margins of voters opting for the Conservatives over the Liberals have delivered increasing numbers of seats to the NDP.

The noted lack of substantive difference between Harper and Ignatieff on many issues may make an election gamble less tempting for the NDP -- and there's no question Layton would be risking a lot.

"In the six elections starting in 1993, the result has always been the same: When the Liberals go up, the NDP goes down, and vice versa," Flanagan notes. "Jack Layton has worked hard in three campaigns to build up his party's caucus from 13 members when he became leader to 37 after the 2008 election. Will he risk those gains trying to put in power a Liberal leader who mirrors the Conservative leader on so many major issues?"

The Liberals and NDP could, however, skip an election entirely by once again presenting Governor General Michaelle Jean with the option of appointing their coalition in the government's place. This would certainly take the risk off of Layton's shoulders, as they could terminate the coalition at any point if they were unsatisfied with their partner -- as could the Bloc Quebecois.

But then Ignatieff risks doing precisely what the coalition did the last time it was dangled -- energize Conservative party support back into majority territory.

This is all depending on whether or not the Liberals and NDP can find themselves a willing partner in the Bloc Quebecois. But under the previous coalition proposal, the Liberals and NDP treated the Bloc as if would be the coaltion's equivalent of a feral family member, stowed away in the attic and subsisted off of raw fish heads.

While they certainly seemed to enjoy the attention they received the last time the coalition reared its head -- the question of mortgaging Canada's government to a separatist party naturally forced Quebec separatism back into the limelight -- one can legitimately wonder whether they'd be as eager to expose themselves to this treatment again.

Moreover, as Flanagan notes, increased Liberal support poses key dilemmas for the Bloc as well.

"The Bloc may also balk at an early election," he writes. "Money is not the problem; since the Bloquistes operate only in Quebec, their campaign costs are so low that they can live off the federal subsidy without worrying about fundraising. But if the Liberal vote goes up in Quebec, the Bloc could lose seats in the Montreal area. It might compensate by picking up Conservative seats around Quebec City; but that's not a sure thing, because most of those seats are held by well-entrenched incumbents who might win re-election on their individual reputations."

Flanagan goes on to insist that Ignatieff's refutal of the coalition upon becoming Liberal leader is not written in stone.

"There is the little matter of Mr Ignatieff's signature on the coalition agreement, around which a whole suite of Conservative ads could be designed," Flanagan writes.

But here he is in error. After all, it is not Ignatieff's signature on the coalition agreement, but rather Stephane Dion's. And while Ignatieff did conditionally back the coalition -- even agreeing, along with Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc, to suspend the leadership campaign -- he never signed that particular agreement, nor did he volunteer himself to lead any such coalition.

Flanagan is right to note that Ignatieff could have terminated the coalition by opposing it. But in order to do so he would have had to oppose his party at the time when it was most vulnerable. That would have been political suicide not only for his leadership ambitions, but for his party as well.


  1. Patrick,

    Agree with your take on this matter. Moreover, I think what we are witnessing from Flanagan is a pitiable attempt to mobilize the Tory base at a time when Harpo's approval ratings are melting away faster than Antarctica's ice shelf.

    The cache of the anti-coalition rallying cry has passed. Today the public is more concerned by what it sees from our current government - namely, uneven stewardship over both the economy and our social framework. Until Harpo and Friggin' Flaherty can convince we voters they are sincere about safeguarding the social services required to support those in need during this crisis, the Tory's will continue to experience a decline in the polls.

  2. I disagree.

    Flanagan is pointing out that, in order to defeat the government, Ignatieff will have to mobilize the same people he spurned when he backed out of the coalition. He'll have to un-burn those bridges before he can proceed.

    I expect that Canadians will object to a coalition government as vociferously as they did before. Coalition governments simply aren't part of our political culture.


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