Politics of Destruction: Coalition LSD

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In Ottawa we are witnessing a very troubling pattern by the opposition parties of Liberals, Separatists, Democrats. It has moved beyond being critical of policy. The parties are undermining confidence in the institutions of government by alleging secrecy, disinformation and illegal activity on a regular basis.
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.
On June 18, 1985, now leader of the Ontario New Democrats, he paired with Liberal David Peterson in the vote of confidence that brought down Progressive Conservative leader Frank Miller and ended 42 years of Tory rule in the province.

That first Rae motion in 1979 resulted in an election and Pierre Trudeau returned for a third term. Rae and other New Democrats remembered bitterly his second term when then NDP leader David Lewis supported Trudeau's minority government of 1972-74 in exchange for progressive measures for which the third party got no credit, and Trudeau did.

By the time of the 1985 Tory toppling, Rae was determined to be more than a footnote in history: He agreed to support Peterson as premier only after the Liberals signed a two-year pact not to call an election, while passing an agreed-upon list of mutually acceptable reforms. The famous "accord" made Peterson premier but it also garnered a popularity for Rae's New Democrats that put him in the premier's office in 1990.

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.

Will Rae then counsel Dion to consider the advantages of an Ontario-style accord with Jack Layton's New Democrats and Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois? It would give Dion a stable and productive period in which to show voters his substance.

But, first a dose of realism: In 1985, the Ontario Liberals won slightly more of the popular vote than Miller's Conservatives, which gave them a moral right to seek a way to govern.

This federal election is different: Unless there was an unforeseen Liberal or NDP surge on the weekend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is likely to emerge with more MPs, and a higher popular vote. His minority position will be precarious, but by all precedent he will have the right to attempt to govern – again by deploying the threat of an immediate election to bring the opposition hounds to bay.
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.

Interestingly, Duceppe recently swallowed his spleen about Dion, the architect of the Clarity Act, and observed he might be willing to enter into an agreement with the Liberals on some issues, such as the environment – in Quebec's interests, of course. Duceppe has no doubt already ruled out a coalition (sharing cabinet seats) with a federalist party, but he might see merit in an Ontario-style accord.

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.