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To prevent the unthinkable, the NDP and Liberals must cooperate

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A federal election will take place this year, most likely in October. Whatever the final date, there are only a small number of possible outcomes:

1. The Harper Conservatives will be re-elected with a majority.  
2. They will receive the largest number of seats but not a majority.
3. One of the opposition parties will win a majority.
4. One or another of them will emerge with the most seats but no majority.

Pundits pretend to know things, but the truth is that any result, however implausible right now, is in fact possible. Jack Layton and his third party were sitting at about 18 per cent two weeks before the 2011 election, and were nowhere in Quebec. After a series of unpredictable and unplanned circumstances, they ended up with 30 per cent of the vote, a near-sweep of Quebec, and the Official Opposition. That's the allure of politics -- anything can happen and occasionally does.

If either the Liberals or NDP end up with a majority government, that party would of course govern. But if any of the other outcomes prevail, a new era in Canadian history must begin. Some kind of long-term rapprochement between the NDP and Liberals must be pursued. Don't think, after a lifetime of deep attachment to the NDP, it doesn't kill me to write these words. But anything else is a recipe for continued Conservative rule, a fate that Canadian progressives must not inflict on our country in the name of party loyalty. If we take seriously the assertion that the Conservatives have already undermined the values that we and most Canadians hold dear, and that another term will entrench their work and make it irreversible, we have no choice but to place Canada before party.

If an election produces a majority Conservative government, that government must then face a united and determined opposition, working to at least minimize the great, irreversible harm Stephen Harper or his successor would inflict on the country.

If the result is a Conservative party with no majority but a plurality of seats, it will try all in its vast storehouse of chicanery to continue to rule in the face of a divided opposition, as indeed they successfully got away with doing from 2006 to 2011. That's why the Liberals and NDP, with a majority of combined seats, must come together prepared to form a united government.

If either opposition party gets a plurality but not a majority of seats, it cannot form a government without the support of another party. That party must be the other opposition party, and the arrangement must be firm and unshakeable. The Conservatives will use every trick in the book and then some to destabilize the new government, which is why it must be able to operate with the same stability as a majority government. That requires an accord or formal agreement of some kind, perhaps even a full-blown coalition, looking to the eventual creation of a single moderate progressive party.

Some in both parties will scream blue murder about such an arrangement. I quite understand because I share a good deal of that reaction. It won't be an easy negotiation. But the truth is, as Dr. Freud might have said, much of the antagonism between the two parties reflects the narcissism of small differences. Whether either side likes to admit it or not, most New Democrats have much in common ideologically with many Liberals. Of course both sides would have to compromise on some issues, but this sacrifice would be worth the gains to be achieved. And saving the country demands nothing less.

New Democrats must be sensible. They need to remember that only once before 2011 did the NDP ever poll as much as 20 per cent in any federal election. Even now, with Mr. Layton's success a mere historical artifact, the NDP seems to have the support of somewhere in the 20 per cent range of public support. The NDP must find ways to increase its appeal and its support. Its policies, its very raison d'etre, must be broadened. Working with the Liberals would achieve this.

As for the Liberals, too often they have cynically campaigned from the left and governed from the right. But at least they've shown they know where the left is. A deal with the NDP would be good for Liberal souls while offering them a substantial piece of power.

I understand fully that this proposal has no chance of buy-in from either party before election day 2015. Indeed, both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have explicitly repudiated the idea of working together, and were I in their shoes right now I'd do the same. Both need to insist that it alone can defeat the Harperites and that all anti-Conservatives must unite behind one party. If this strategic voting strategy works (most likely for the Liberals), future co-operation is off the table. But if it doesn't, members of both Opposition parties will have no ethical or political choice but to seek some form of collaboration. The alternative -- leaving the country by default to the Conservative Party -- is simply unthinkable.


This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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