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Alberta shows why there will be no NDP-Liberal entente, despite Nathan Cullen's mistimed musing

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Nathan Cullen

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Whatever Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen was thinking when he flapped his lips to the delight of the conservative mainstream media about how the NDP would consider a coalition with the Liberals to get rid of Stephen Harper, the chances of it happening are very close to zero.

As suggested in this space before, if the Liberals were going to form a coalition with anyone, it would be an axis of neoliberalism with Prime Minister Harper's Conservatives.

But in the present circumstances, an NDP-Liberal accord makes no sense from either of those parties' perspectives.

Not only do the Liberals have much more in common with the Harperites on the economic front, and for that matter on human rights and Bill C-51, but as recent developments in Alberta have clearly illustrated the NDP now presents an existential threat to the former Natural Governing Party of Canada. The Conservatives do not.

If the Liberals are going to try to keep their powder dry and their program alive, it's much more likely to be by co-operating to some degree with the Conservatives than the NDP. And that could only happen if the Conservatives were desperate.

So never mind that NDP party strategists horrified by Cullen's bizarrely timed outburst insist that whatever the B.C. MP and former leadership candidate was trying to say, he wasn't floating a trial balloon on behalf of his party. The Liberals aren't going to go for it either.

Dipper strategist Ian Capstick reminded iPolitics that Cullen ran for the NDP leadership on the idea of a rapprochement with the Grits. "It's like we all have collective amnesia," he sniffed. "Soon someone will tell me Justin Trudeau will legalize pot."

Before the upcoming federal election, as long as polls indicate the possibility of a three-way race, there would be little to gain for either Liberals or New Democrats from an alliance, acknowledged or otherwise.

After the election, if the Liberals found themselves propping up an NDP government, they'd risk signing their own death warrant by supporting the party most likely to render them irrelevant as a national force.

From the NDP perspective, chances are now good that left to their own devices, progressive voters will migrate their way anyway, allowing them to swamp the federal Liberals just as the Alberta NDP swamped the Alberta Liberals.

Granted, the pre-election Canadian and Alberta situations are not precisely the same. The Alberta Liberals were victims of a uniquely bad leader. Former Conservative Raj Sherman, who has since resigned, acted as a one-man wrecking crew, pretty well destroying the party as a serious political force in just three years. Trudeau has his flaws, but they're nowhere near as grave.

But the point at which the two jurisdictions' similarities do line up is voter behaviour. Die-hard Dippers and Grits may despise one another and find it difficult to vote strategically, but large numbers of soft progressive voters do not.

Indeed, many soft progressives don't give a hoot about the history of animosity, or even the significant policy differences, between Grits and New Democrats. They will vote strategically for whichever party they think is most likely to defeat the Conservatives in their riding.

In other words, for a pre-election deal with the NDP to be good enough to make sense to the Liberals, it would have to eliminate any possibility of an NDP majority government. The NDP would never agree to that, even if they didn’t have reason to think that what has just happened in Alberta could happen again across Canada.

Here in Alberta, when it became apparent the Alberta Liberals were on the ropes and the Liberal-like Alberta Party hadn't yet pulled its act together, progressive voters along with conservatives disgusted with the Jim Prentice Tories shifted en masse to the NDP. The rest is history.

The May 5 Alberta election results should tell New Democrats that the notion of a coalition -- which always seems most like a good idea when you believe you just can’t win -- is a loser's strategy in the Westminster system. If Premier Rachel Notley's NDP had been formally allied to Sherman’s Liberals, we'd have a Conservative government today. If Alberta had had proportional representation, the NDP could well be the Opposition.

As for the federal Liberals, since the same thing could happen to them, they would have to be nuts to encourage it by anything less than a deal in which the NDP agreed not to run candidates in strong Liberal seats. Obviously that’s not on.

This is surely why Trudeau quickly moved to squelch such talk. "A formal coalition is out of the question," he said at a news conference in Winnipeg. "There are a number of issues on which the Liberal party and the NDP disagree on a quite a fundamental level," he added with total accuracy.

Liberal strategists will likely do whatever they can to maintain as much distance as possible between themselves and the NDP, especially if the New Democrats lead them in polls and seats. And that will suit the NDP just fine.

So Cullen's mistimed musings are moot, no matter what his own party's strategists think -- although the National Post was likely right when it gleefully speculated Harper’s minions are even now likely cooking up a TV advertisement warning the Conservative base about a terrifying Liberal-NDP conspiracy.

As for the Conservatives, despite their policy similarities, they despise the Liberals -- and Harper, the former Young Liberal, hates them with a particular passion. So the Tories would have to be cornered like rats to consider a deal with the Grits.

Moreover, both the NDP and the Conservatives think they would benefit from the elimination of the Liberals and the development of national two-party mentality.

Notwithstanding all this, it would still be a big mistake for the NDP and the Conservatives to count out Trudeau and the Liberals.

If a three-way race is still a possibility, thanks to his party's slightly lower standing and his occasional bouts of foot-in-mouth disease, Trudeau will go into any debates with low expectations -- which, you could argue, is exactly where he might want to be.

After all, recent Alberta political developments support two additional propositions:

1)    That third place can be the best spot to be as an election campaign nears its climax -- especially if you happen to have a campaign strategist like Stephen Carter in your corner

2)    That a good debate performance can change things dramatically overnight -- especially if you happen to have a leader like Rachel Notley who is a nimble debater

So if Trudeau delivers an unexpectedly great performance in any of the upcoming debates, his standing with voters could soar.

If he doesn't, but the Conservatives only manage to get a minority, they might be desperate enough to stay in power to let him prop them up, even though that would ensure his party, which they hate, survives to fight another day.

If the NDP forms a minority, no one should rule out the possibility Trudeau would try to cut a deal with the Conservatives to form a government. Harper might hate that idea, but it could seem better than the alternative. And it might be fine with another Conservative leader, and that would be a distinct possibility in such circumstances.

Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

If either the NDP or the Conservatives form a majority, however, the Liberals are likely done like dinner -- a development that would suit everyone but the Grits.

As for Cullen's musings to the Georgia Straight, well, it’s lucky for the NDP they weren't spoken a month from now. The damage will probably be insignificant, and Cullen will be under virtual house arrest for the rest of the campaign, with a roll of duct tape visible on the kitchen counter to remind him of his duty to keep his lips zipped.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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