Sunday, August 07, 2011

What might have been

Wilf Day offers up one what-might-have-been scenario based on proportional representation. But as one astute observer pointed out at the NDP's Vancouver convention, there's another alternate set of possibilities which wouldn't have required a different electoral system - only some better choices by the then-leader of one of the parties which has seen its fortunes decline most.

When Michael Ignatieff decided he preferred keeping Stephen Harper in power to working with a progressive coalition in 2009, his operating assumption seems to have been that the Libs simply needed to bide their time in order to become the next government down the road. But what he seems to have missed was that the coalition itself offered an opportunity to entrench a set of party rankings that worked in the Libs' favour.

Indeed, there isn't a single plausible outcome of Ignatieff seeking to take power under a coalition that wouldn't have been a far better result for the Libs than where they ended up instead.

At best for the Libs, Ignatieff would have had a chance to govern for a year and a half with an NDP coalition partner and Bloc support - not only effectively neutralizing any criticism from any other party to the left of the Cons, but ensuring that the comparative popularity of Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe served to reinforce the argument that the Libs belonged in power after a subsequent election. And if the coalition had held together, the likely result would have been either a change in leadership for the Cons, or at least a serious loosening of Stephen Harper's hold on his party - weakening the Libs' strongest opponent at the time while strengthening their own hand.

What's more, even the less desirable outcomes from Ignatieff's standpoint would figure to have positioned the Libs in a secure second place for the foreseeable future. If the coalition had taken power but its underlying support structure had fallen apart, the Libs would have been able to blame whichever party withdrew its support for breaking a deal to keep the Cons out of office - which would have given them a particular opportunity to rebuild in Quebec where the coalition was most popular. And if a coalition had been stopped in its tracks by defections to the Cons or by a snap election that resulted in a Con majority, the Libs would figure to have had no trouble at least locking in their second-party standing for the duration of the majority mandate.

Instead, by deciding that he couldn't stand to rule with another party at the cabinet table, Ignatieff sharpened distinctions which played to the NDP's advantage - while ensuring that the Libs would be seen as enemies both by the Cons for agreeing to the coalition in the first place, and by the other parties and their supporters who wanted to see Harper toppled. And in retrospect, that offered the NDP exactly the opening it needed to establish itself as the true opposition to the Cons in seat count as well as in principle.

Of course, the NDP deserves in taking advantage of the opening. But it's hard not to see the Libs' fall as the product of Ignatieff's original sin. And while there's some reason to hope the long-term result will be a political system that better reflects the values of progressive Canadians, it's still worth a reminder which party blew its opportunity to change the Harper-ruled status quo.


  1. You're missing an important factor. Nobody, not even the most optimistic NDP members, predicted the outcome that we got. Hindsight is 20/20, but if you had tried to tell me before the election that the Libs would fall to 3rd party, lose their leader's seat, and end up with the number that they did, I would have thought you were hanging out a bit too much with the marijuana party. Can't judge a person's actions based on the result we know, only the result that they might have reasonably predicted at the time.

  2. jurist4:08 p.m.

    I'll grant that the election as it turned out took a lot of people by surprise. But it's not news that the Libs and NDP jostled for position throughout Harper's reign, with the Libs mostly relying on their governing-party reputation to counter Layton's personal popularity and the NDP's stronger policy stances. And the opportunity to put the focus back on that strength (while co-opting some of the NDP's pluses for their own purposes) in order to escape the Libs' worst-case scenario would seem like an important part of any thorough evaluation of the Libs' options.

  3. jurist4:21 p.m.

    Or to put it another way: if a party which seems to have firmly believed that it could overcome a 12-point gap on the party ahead of it really saw no reason to take into account even the slightest possibility that another party might make up 8, that can't speak well of its connection to reality.