What must Bob Rae be thinking today as he contemplates the ironies of his own personal history – and the possibility of yet another opportunity to topple a minority Conservative government?
On Dec. 14, 1979, Rae was the young New Democrat MP who rose in Parliament to move the motion that toppled the short-lived majority government of Joe Clark.
Now white-haired, a convert to Liberalism, a former rival for the leadership won by Stéphane Dion, Rae could yet play a key part in the aftermath of tomorrow's election, one all the polls say will deliver Canadians their third minority government in a row.
Still, the media is speculating about possible coalitions or more informal opposition alliances to drag Harper down.
Harper will be weakened by internal party criticism of his decision to seek a majority by calling an early election. He may be too busy fighting internecine wars to produce a throne speech that convinces Canadians he has the answers.
If the economy continues to slide, an opposition coalition based on some guarantee of stability could possibly look very attractive to worried Canadians. The Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc have burning issues to address together: climate change, the war in Afghanistan, restoring arts funding, and strengthening of social supports in times of trouble.
In Ontario, the activist government dictated by the agreed-upon agenda in the accord proved broadly popular. Negotiated between the two parties out of common planks in their election platforms – a ban on doctors' extra-billing, equal pay for work of equal value, 10,000 social housing starts, a spills bill for polluters – the accord was impervious to the powerful doctor and business lobbies. It had been signed: Peterson could not waver.
It is difficult to see how, based on platforms and ideologies, Harper could attract a stable governing partner. It is easier to imagine the Liberals, NDP and Bloc agreeing on a common action plan.
Following a defeat of Harper's government in the Commons, the opposition parties could offer written proofs to Governor General Michaëlle Jean that they have a stable agreement to support Dion as prime minister for a certain period (it was two years in Ontario) in return for swift government action on their common agenda.
Could such history repeat itself? First of all, there is no guarantee that Jean will agree to name Dion prime minister. Indeed, there was initially some doubt in 1985 that then lieutenant-governor John Aird would accede to the pitch from Peterson and Rae.
Secondly, while Peterson, like Dion, had been viewed as a long-haired geek, his handlers groomed and transformed him for the 1985 election. Peterson looked like a leader: Dion has a way to go. Peterson was careful to be respectful and modest after the election, never gloating. His attitude helped his rival Rae to persuade the angry militants in his party to put aside long rivalries. Besides, Rae and Peterson had a certain friendly affinity.
Layton and Dion have expressed a mutual respect and liking. But in the final days of the campaign, Dion has urged NDP voters to switch to the Liberals to stop Harper. This appeal to strategic voting maddens the New Democrats, and creates bad blood. Certainly Rae, the defector, will not be a welcome emissary. So it would be tricky – particularly with three prickly partners instead of the two in the Ontario experiment.
But it is a tried-and-true way to offer election-weary Canadians a period of stability, and a common agenda put together out of the platforms for which most of the electorate voted.
Rosemary Speirs is a former Queen's Park and Ottawa columnist for the Star and author of Out of the Blue, the definitive book on the 1985 Ontario election and ensuing events.