Column: Liberal-NDP alliance improbable but not impossible

When Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he would allow a minority Conservative government to rule for yet another mandate rather than contemplate a coalition with the New Democrats to effect regime change after the next election, does he actually mean it?

And if the Liberal leader is to be taken at his word, does his latest categorical statement on the issue mean that the case for an NDP-Liberal effort to replace such a government with one of their joint making is now closed?

Notwithstanding Trudeau’s assurances, the short answer is not necessarily.

There are some scenarios under which his assurances can be taken to the bank but also others that would command that a responsible party leader reconsider his position.

Should the Conservatives miss out on a majority by only a few seats next fall the opposition parties will not spend time dreaming up co-operative scenarios.

The sum of their caucuses – under any arrangement – would leave them with too small a margin of comfort to engage in the uneasy exercise of sharing power.

That would be even truer if the mathematics of the election meant that any joint governance arrangement would also involve coming to terms with the Bloc QuÈbÈcois.

There will not be a repeat of the 2008 episode that saw the NDP and the Liberals put forward a coalition government that would have been dependent on the sovereigntist party for its survival.

But what if, instead, the Conservatives finished only two or three seats ahead of the runner-up?

Would Canada then not be better served by a minority government whose stability was ensured by some form of formal understanding with one of its opposition rivals?

It was in similar circumstances that David Peterson’s Liberals struck an alliance with the NDP to replace the Tories in power at Queen’s Park in the mid-1980s.

If the result had not been as close – a mere four seats separated the first-place Conservatives from the Liberals on election night – chances are the Tory status quo would have prevailed.

Theoretically nothing would prevent Harper if he were reduced to a paper-thin mandate from coming to a comprehensive working arrangement with the Liberals or the NDP.

But this prime minister does not have the disposition of a consensual leader.

Besides, neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats could undertake to sustain a fragile Conservative government for any agreed-upon length of time rather than search for common ground between them without triggering a serious backlash from non-Conservative voters.

It is the backlash argument that leads many observers to believe that, notwithstanding his current assurances, Trudeau would not in the end resist the pressures to find a way to replace a weakened Conservative government with one of his own.

But those pressures would more likely come from the voting public than from diehard Liberals.

For many of them, falling to third place four years ago was a near-death experience. The NDP surge shook the pillars of the party’s temple in a way that even a third consecutive Conservative victory did not.

They would obviously like to win next fall but they would be happy enough to hold the Conservatives to a minority as long as the NDP ended up back in third place.

The only certainty in this discussion is that on the hypothetical morning after a minority Conservative election victory time will be of the essence for the other parties as they contemplate the way forward.

If they were to make a move along the lines of a coalition or some looser arrangement to oust Harper they would have to cross the Rubicon at the time of the speech from the throne.

A note in closing: In the lead-up to the last election much time was also spent on post-election coalition scenarios. No one then ever envisioned the NDP in second place.

Likewise, the current speculation is almost always premised on a second-place Liberal party to the exclusion of a) the NDP keeping the lead opposition position in a minority parliament and b) the Conservatives falling to third place.

Conventional wisdom currently has it that the odds for such outcomes range from improbable to unthinkable.

Looking at the ongoing Alberta campaign one is tempted to prescribe banning both words from the political lexicon.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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