Iggy's coalition problem

Red door, blue door? This was the best answer the Liberal leader could come up with?

The day-after-the-budget press conference was going rather well for Michael Ignatieff, until the predictable, inevitable question arose: If the Tories failed to win a majority in the coming election, would he form a coalition with the other parties to unseat them and form a government? In other words, is the Tory accusation, repeated at every opportunity, true?

“There’s a blue door and a red door in this election,” he said. Voters can take the blue door (the Conservatives) or the red door (the Liberals), ie they can elect a Conservative government or a Liberal government.

With respect sir, the questioner shouted back, you haven’t answered my question.

Ignatieff began again. “There’s a blue door and a red door…”

The pack took up the howl. “Answer the question!” “You haven’t answered the question!” At which Ignatieff — well, the only word is fled.

It was an astonishing debacle. He must have known the question was coming. For goodness sake, it’s the centrepiece of the Tory campaign. Has been for months. And this was the best answer he could come up with? Red door, blue door? Did he really think that obvious non-answer would be enough? Even the Toronto Star reporter was unimpressed.

The coalition issue is real. It is not some fiction created by the Tory war room. It is a cancer eating at the Liberal campaign, and it is only going to grow over time. That’s why Ignatieff doesn’t want to answer the question. But he has to. Because his refusal to answer will not be taken as ambiguity, but as, effectively, a yes: he won’t rule it out, because he wants to retain it as an option.

That’s praiseworthy, in a way: it beats Stéphane Dion, who did rule out forming a coalition with the NDP before the 2008 election, only to embrace it at the first opportunity. In that sense, Ignatieff is being at least half-way honourable. But it’s not as good as ruling it out, flatly and forever. Or, for that matter, ruling it in. The one thing he can’t do is just leave the question hanging. Because then he just looks devious.

Well, why shouldn’t he just say: Yes, if the situation arises, I may well join with the other parties to form a coalition government. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? Many Liberals have openly advocated such an arrangement. Many commentators think it inevitable, even laudable. After all, it’s working pretty well in Britain, isn’t it?

All of which is true, up to a point. But only up to a point: worse, it’s beside the point. There’s nothing wrong with coalitions in principle. But not every coalition is the same. What made the coalition of 2008 so dubious were the particulars of the situation: the weakness of the Liberals, the absence of a credible leader, the potential for blackmail given the Liberals’ palpable fear of another election, and most of all, the involvement of the Bloc.

Perhaps those conditions would be absent in some future coalition. Who can say? But Ignatieff has another problem: the prospect of a coalition, even one that excludes the Bloc, is toxic to his chances. The point is not that coalitions are some awful, monstrous thing. It’s simply a question of strategic positioning. A coalition with the NDP sends two messages to two groups of voters Ignatieff needs. To centre-right voters, wavering between the Conservatives and the Liberals, it says: the alternative to a Tory majority is not a safe, centre-right Liberal government, but a cabinet with Jack Layton and Libby Davies in it. And to voters on the Liberals’ left, wavering between the Liberals and the NDP, it says: you can safely ignore the traditional Liberal fear campaign, namely that a vote for the Grits is the only way to keep the Tories out. A Liberal-NDP coalition can do the same.

That’s why the Tories have been hammering the point home, and that’s why the NDP are only too happy to discuss the issue. Not only does it eat away at Liberal support on both the left and the right, but the mere discussion makes the NDP look more credible, like a party of government rather than a perpetual protest party. That’s why Ignatieff doesn’t want to talk about it. But by failing to rule out a coalition he does just as much damage to his cause as if he ruled it in, without even winning points for honesty.

So he needs a better answer, fast. And the best answer is: no coalition, no way, nohow, not ever. There’s no need, for starters. Minority government is quite common in Canadian experience; coalitions, extremely rare. He could govern, as Stephen Harper has, as a stand-alone minority, gathering support where he might find it, one bill at a time. Or he could strike an electoral pact, as the Ontario Liberals and NDP did in the 1980s: a “supply and confidence” agreement wherein the smaller party agrees not to bring down the government in exchange for certain concessions on policy.

Ignatieff might spell out certain conditions, therefore, on his participation in a minority government:

One, that the party with the most seats after the election, whether Conservative or Liberal, should be given first crack at forming a government — which is the existing convention.

Two, that should he be called upon to form a government, he would under no circumstances invite New Democrats into his cabinet.

And three, that he would enter into no formal arrangement of any kind with the Bloc — though of course he would not reject their support for any particular piece of legislation.

He might also promise only to form a government if he could do so without the support of the Bloc, that is if the Liberals and New Democrats had a majority between them. The problem is that, arithmetically, this would require the NDP have more seats than the Bloc, which is unlikely. (If Libs + NDP > Cons + Bloc, and if Libs < Cons, then NDP > Bloc: QED). He might therefore promise instead to form a government only if the Liberals had at least 90 per cent as many seats as the Tories.

Anyway, that’s one answer. Or, as I say, there’s also: yes I’d form a coalition: here’s why. The one answer he can’t give is “red door, blue door.”

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