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Best Move for Liberals: Govern by Coalition

How Grits can save Canada and themselves.

Murray Dobbin 19 Nov

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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Step one: Dion steps down.

Talk of a parliamentary accord between the Liberals, Bloc and NDP continues across the country, and inside and between the Bloc and NDP parties.

It would take the form of a Liberal minority government, following a non-confidence vote, with a proposal to the Governor General that the three parties would agree to govern for at least two years.

It would be based on a limited policy agenda -- for example, child care, climate change, the Kelowna accord, early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan -- defined by the considerable overlap in the three parties' election platforms.

The Liberals' Bay Street agenda would be put on hold as the price it paid to survive and rebuild.

If Grits go right, they get it wrong

The Liberals are the ones who are holding up such an accord. They simply don't think it would be in their interests to do so. Many in the party see their future in moving to the right, not the left. And why not let Harper deal with the economic mess, getting badly bruised in the process? The Liberals would then move in, fully refurbished, and govern once again.

Except that Stephen Harper's ultimate objective is not just a majority government. It is to destroy the Liberal Party as a contender for power. The Liberals aren't dead yet but if they're not careful, they could be after the next election. While Stephen Harper does not relish using government to save the country's economy, it is in this one area that he will, if he's smart, actually behave like a minority government and seek co-operation with the opposition. Why? Because he would get the credit if somehow Canada could be saved from the worst ravages of the global recession, but he also would be able to share the blame with the opposition parties if it cannot.

Then would come the death march for the Liberals. Once Parliament has put in place measures to protect the economy, Harper will return to the agenda he prefers: social conservatism, a gradual reduction in federal spending powers, and the devolution of power to the provinces. He intends to launch round two of humiliating the Liberals into oblivion. Earlier this month, Harper spokesman Kory Teneycke stated that the Conservatives intend to declare any bill they choose to be a confidence matter. For example, the tough new measures on youth crime: "We are prepared to make them confidence matters if necessary."

Harper's crushing intent

If the Liberals think that it is not in their interests to talk accord with the Bloc and the NDP, they aren't thinking things through. First, they must assume that the Bloc and NDP will vote against the government virtually every time. So without an accord, the Liberals face two versions of political suicide. First, they could choose to endure yet another year or more of humiliating "confidence" votes forced by Stephen Harper, propping up an unpopular government and infuriating both party members and Liberal voters. Come the next election, they would be lucky to get 50 seats.

Or, they could decide within the first year that they can't endure any more confidence votes, and defeat the Conservatives without an accord with the other parties. This, too, would be suicidal. First, their party finances and internal divisions will still be far from fixed in spite of having a new leader. The Conservatives will once again have raised a tonne of money and will repeat their successful strategy of spending millions on advertising before the election even happens. Lastly, the Liberals, as the official Opposition, would be blamed almost exclusively for forcing yet another pointless, expensive election on Canadians who would be certain to punish them.

If the Liberals really want to rebuild -- a two to three year process -- what better way to do so than by leading a moderate coalition government?

Time is short

There are some important provisos to this scenario. The Harper government would probably have to be brought down within a year (next spring's budget would be the most practical timing) so the three opposition parties could go, written accord in hand, to the Governor General and offer to form a government.

The Governor General would be bound by tradition and Canadians' revulsion at the thought of another election one year on, to accept the offer.

Much beyond a year and she would be under pressure to dissolve Parliament.

Secondly, it would be much better if Dion stepped down immediately and allowed an interim leader to negotiate an accord. Dion hasn't the moral authority to lead a government as he was so personally rejected by Canadians in the election. If Harper were defeated early enough -- through a motion of non-confidence in the speech from the throne -- the Liberals would get the added benefit of a boost to their now too predictable leadership race: the contenders would be running to be Prime Minister, not the leader of a bankrupt party.

If the Liberal Party can stop navel-gazing for a moment they might realize that they could help save the country and save themselves at the same time.

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