Harper and the boys spent a lot of money trying to convince Canadians that the very notion of a coalition is undemocratic, and that one in our current political environment would be doubly undemocratic because Liberals would have to join with "socialists and separatists." It was McArthyesque, but it resonated, despite the well-documented attempt at a coalition initiated by Harper himself in 2004.
The problem was how to ever get out of this hole. Many Canadians had bought the line that a coalition would be a coup d'etat - hell, The Economist even used the word coup to describe it (although that word didn't reappear in their analysis of their own country's current coalition).
Enter Jean Chretien, circa last week, musing about the possibility of a merger between the Liberals and the NDP. All of a sudden mergers and coalitions have resurged as a topic of discussion - and this time Harper isn't setting the agenda. This discussion has the potential to clear away some of the paranoia about center-left cooperation.
Harper is doing his best not to let it. This week the PMO/PCO has tried attacking the president of the Liberal party, creating a bunch of nutty fake quotes and so on. It's typical Conservative smear tactics, but it has a hint of desperation to it. And at the same time, Conservatives are slipping in the polls (not that that means much).
Perhaps I'm giving Chretien too much credit, but he may have been crazy like a fox in starting up merger talk. It may do all kinds of good for all nonCon parties.
Personally, I'm not pro-merger. I think it would be good for the Liberals (my party), not just because it would let us win a lot of ridings where the Liberals and NDP split the vote, but also because I'd like to see the Liberal party move left, and I have a lot of respect for New Democrats - especially a lot of current senior NDP MPs like Pat Martin, Olivia Chow, Thomas Mulclair and others. I'm against a merger because I don't want to see the NDP vanish.
However, maybe there are solutions to merging and not killing the NDP. Maybe the NDP could exist as a mini-caucus within the Liberal party. Or maybe a cooperation accord could be signed that was part coalition, part merger. I have no idea what sorts of arrangements are acceptable in the Westminster parliamentary system, which of course I would want to adhere to. Also - if the NDP decided it wanted to merge, then as a Liberal I would have to defer to them.
All in all I think it's an interesting and good discussion. For months the headlines have been that the Conservatives are ahead in the polls, when the same statistics could have been reported as that the government is hovering at preposterously low 30% support. The Conservatives get away with it because the rest of us are split, and the rest of us have more uniting us than dividing us. I'd prefer a coalition, but any talk that gets us closer to cooperating is fine by me.
Conservatives are in desperate attack mode because center-left cooperation is a major threat to them. It's quite possible that the Liberals can beat them on their own in the next election, but the more we present a united opposition, the more the Conservatives have to fear.
Update: Media pundits keep saying that coalition talk is something that has been done to Ignatieff. I disagree. Chretien and Romanow may be loose cannons, but Bob Rae didn't write a piece about his experience in a coalition without the approval - and probably the direction - of Michael Ignatieff.