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DOBBIN: Let the (coalition) games begin!

After falling in the polls for weeks out  the leader of the Liberal Party seems finally to have received a reality check about his and his party’s future. He is actually talking about the possibility of a coalition. Mind you, it took a rumour of a merger of the parties to get things really there.started. Wendy Mesley – who announced with dead certainty that serious negotiations were underway - will now have a legacy of putting forward the most absurd political story ever featured on CBC National news.

Whoever suckered her into this one should get some kind of medal. I don’t usually give much credit to conspiracy theories but this smells like one.

It doesn’t matter who did what. Something had to push Ignatieff off his delusional perch and whatever combination of factors did the trick we have now entered the next phase of saving the country from Stephen Harper.  Ignatieff has only moved one step towards a coalition but it is the biggest step: acknowledging that such an arrangement is legitimate and (possibly) necessary.

While he claims that he won’t consider it till the dust settles after the next election, the fact that he has allowed even that, effectively places the coalition into the election mix. Even if he doesn’t take the next step – making a coalition part of his platform – Canadians now expect such an arrangement. This will clearly make a difference in terms of how people vote. It could actually help the NDP more as voters inclined to support them but worried about “wasting” their vote may feel liberated to vote for whom they wish. This could especially help the party in Quebec where a recent poll suggested the NDP would garner 44 per cent of the vote in that province if Jack Layton led the coalition.

Getting the coalition idea out on the table still leaves the use of strategic voting in play as a coalition still depends on keeping the Conservatives in minority territory.  Strategic voting did have an impact last time but not enough. It requires a degree of sophistication on the part of voters that is hard to come by (NDP supporters voted Liberal to stop Harper in ridings where the Conservatives didn’t stand a chance.)

One way around that is what some see as the stage three of a coalition strategy – the Libs and the NDP standing down in a non-compete pact in a limited number of ridings to ensure that more of each parties candidates are assured of winning. These are ridings where the Conservative won by small margins and the combined Liberal and NDP votes (and maybe Green as well) would defeat the Conservative incumbent.  It depends on the assumption that there are now fewer Liberals whose second choice is Conservative than there would have been under the old PC party. A recent Harris Decima poll saw 28 per cent support such an agreement.

In any case, such a formal agreement would be a very big leap at this point in the story: NDPers and Liberals may well dislike each other more than they love their country.  Grass roots members of both parties – the people who put in hundreds of hours for local candidates – react badly to such suggestions. One possible solution to that barrier would be to have adjacent ridings to stand-downs and party activists work the riding next door.

One of the reasons that the Liberals may have been avoiding the coalition option is proportional representation. Despite having been rejected in several provinces in recent years, it is definitely on the agenda at the federal level. A February poll by the Council of Canadians put support at 61 per cent (71 per cent amongst young people). The Liberals still cling to their fantasy about regaining their natural governing party status to which p.r. is anathema. They want any coalition deal to be as loose as possible.

A formal coalition deal, with cabinet ministers from both parties, would look very much like the results of proportional representation. But that is what the NDP says its supports -as it should.  While it is on the party's policy book it has rarely been front and centre. If the NDP is serious, it needs to make p.r. a key element of any eventual negotiations with the Liberals. Even though Ignatieff has just come on board with the coalition idea, it is still the NDP which holds the upper hand.  The Liberals need the coalition more than Layton does – as the leadership figures prove. The very least the NDP should accept on this front is the promise of a national referendum with a simple question: “Do you support the current first-past-the-post system?” If the answer is "no", the coalition parties negotiate to come up with the best system to be used in the subsequent election.

The permutations of coalition politics and the future of p.r. are myriad. Let the games begin.

Murray Dobbin is an author, broadcaster and journalist. He is the author of five books and his work appears regularly in the Tyee.