Political parties can co-operate — not merge — without risking their separate identities.
by Ish Theilheimer
This coming weekend, Ontario Liberals will pick a leader to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty. He quit last fall, unexpectedly, after failing to win a byelection that would have given him a majority and after failing to find a way to work with either of the opposition parties.
McGuinty's inflexibility became glaringly obvious around teachers' contracts. He tried to dictate contract terms, even after the teachers signalled acceptance of a wage freeze, thereby creating the crisis that ultimately ended his term as Premier.
The controversies remain unresolved as Grits get ready to pick their new leader – who mostly likely will be either right-leaning Sandra Pupatello, or left-leaning Kathleen Wynne. Whichever of the two gets her party's nod will still face a $15 billion provincial deficit, largely due to the party's decision to give tax breaks to corporations and the rich, at the expense of public services and the people who deliver them. And she will have to pass a budget within weeks — or risk going to the polls.
This is a time of important opportunity and risk. The Conservatives, under born-again right-winger Tim Hudak, will not support any Liberal budget. They have no reason to do so. They think they can win an election, and Hudak thinks he can lead his troops to victory by lurching rightward, by union bashing, and by calling for even deeper public service cuts than the Liberals. Hudak's ideas may be extreme, but so were Mike Harris', and he won two majorities in the 1990s.
Most recent polls say Hudak would win at least a minority government if an election were held now. He has every reason to bring down a Liberal government.
The new Liberal leader can avoid an election (and keep her seat) by passing a budget. To do so, she'll need to toss the NDP some bones with meat on them. NDP leader Andrea Horwath has said she does not seek a coalition government, but her party is in a position to make important demands and help set the government's agenda.
The federal Liberals are also picking a new leader, in April. Along with the horse race comes the other big area of speculation: should the Liberals cooperate with other opposition parties to dump Stephen Harper?
Like Groundhog Day, the subject keeps recurring. On the weekend, all the Liberal leadership contenders said they wouldn't cooperate with the NDP. Tom Mulcair won the NDP leadership saying he wouldn't cooperate with the Liberals. But there the elephant sits in the room: The most likely outcome of the 2015 election is another Conservative victory – even though it is possible to imagine Tom Mulcair leading his party to forming government or a reenergized Liberal party doing the same if the Trudeau thing actually works.
After all, the NDP would have to get a lot of votes in the 'burbs and the West — places of historic weakness — to win. And the Liberals would have to win votes from more than the NDP. Both scenarios are long shots.
In 2011, one of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's fatal mistakes was ruling out cooperation with other opposition parties. Actually, the year before, he turned down a chance to be Prime Minister of a coalition government, a move that proved colossally wrong and politically fatal. Also in 2011, the late NDP leader Jack Layton publicly embraced coalition politics. It was part of his appeal in the election that year.
Political parties exist for good reasons. Having them enables voters to make clear choices and vote for policies they can expect to be applied fairly consistently. Parties serve particular constituencies. Sometimes they can merge, but most of the time it's more feasible for them to find common ground and cooperate or act in coalition where they can.
Tom Mulcair is building what he calls a "structured opposition," or a government in waiting, with strong critics and a serious focus on policy and management. This focus will serve him and Canada well in the event he wins government.
To win government, however, Mulcair may require the kind of openness to coalition politics demonstrated by his predecessor. The basis of coalition politics must always be a clear policy agenda consisting of a short list of achievable objectives that further and protect the values the party represents.
This is the kind of thinking Ontario Liberals and NDP leaders need today, given the prospect of a Hudak government.
Faced with the prospect of a Harper dynasty, the two parties' federal counterparts will need to do the same soon. Voters have reason to be frustrated with politics when parties with many common beliefs can't cooperate – and end up enabling victory for the parties they mutually oppose.© Copyright 2013, All rights Reserved. StraightGoods.ca