Hoping for opposition co-operation

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In December 2008, there was an electrifying moment in Canadian politics as the opposition parties threw away their usual scripts and boldly formed a coalition to prevent Stephen Harper's Conservatives from doing further damage to the Canadian social fabric.

When Harper responded by pressuring the Governor General into shutting down Parliament, thereby denying the opposition the chance to defeat his government, there were demonstrations across the country.

Yet now, with this same Conservative wrecking crew apparently poised to win a majority, there appears to be widespread apathy.

At first glance, this seems puzzling. What's at stake is enormous. Harper has presided over a mean-spirited, security-obsessed, business-dominated government that silences whistle-blowers, defies election finance laws and shows contempt for Parliament. A majority would allow Harper to implement deeply unpopular policies -- such as two-tier health care -- which he openly championed only a decade ago as leader of the fiercely right-wing National Citizens Coalition.

The current apathy may be driven by a sense of hopelessness. For the past five years, at least 60 per cent of the electorate has supported parties opposed to the far-reaching changes the Conservatives have in mind. Yet elections come and go, and Harper only seems to become more entrenched.

The opposition parties bear some responsibility for failing to use their parliamentary power to oust him. After Harper shut down Parliament, the Liberals simply walked away from the coalition they'd formed with the NDP. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff launched his current campaign by needlessly ruling out a coalition.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, while leaving the door open to co-operation with the Liberals, spends almost as much energy attacking Ignatieff as Harper.

All this creates plenty of cheer in the Conservative war room. It's clearly in Harper's interests to keep the opposition parties at odds with each other -- even when there's much common ground in the current Liberal and NDP platforms, and a huge gulf between theirs and the Conservative one.

Harper's determined efforts to demonize the notion of a coalition has helped push it off the agenda, even though coalitions are perfectly legitimate, common in European countries, and often more representative than governments elected in our first-past-the-post system.

Harper is now trying to scare off any sort of co-operation among the opposition in the event that the Conservatives win the most seats, yet fail to win a majority.

But in that situation, it would be entirely legitimate -- and democratic -- for the opposition parties to refuse to support another Harper government. If Ignatieff insists on ruling out a coalition (in which coalition partners jointly form a cabinet), the opposition parties could simply sign an accord. This would allow one party, presumably the Liberals, to assume power, with a binding written agreement to implement certain policies. (And, yes, an accord might include the Bloc -- a party that Harper himself actively pursued as a coalition partner in 2004.)

An accord worked well in Ontario in the 1980s, when the Liberals and NDP seized an opportunity following an indecisive 1985 provincial election. Although the long-ruling Conservatives had won more seats and expected to stay in power, the Liberals pushed them out, after signing an accord with the NDP.

That accord called for a number of progressive measures -- involving pay equity, social housing and protections for labour, the environment and Medicare -- which were all passed into law.

And the public liked the results.

In the next election, they rewarded the Liberals with a majority -- and the NDP with official opposition status. Three years later, the NDP won a majority, with its leader, Bob Rae, becoming the only NDP premier in Ontario history.

The significance of all this is not lost on Rae, now an influential member of the Ignatieff's caucus. Last May, Rae wrote about how the 1985 accord was a "lesson worth remembering."

All that apathy may be premature. It may feel like we're heading into a dark and stormy sea. But if Harper can be held to a minority, and our opposition leaders show some imagination, there might well be lush land ahead.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.

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