OTTAWA, Ont. — Michael Ignatieff says coalition governments are “perfectly legitimate” and he’d be prepared to lead one if that’s the hand Canadian voters deal him in the next election.
But the Liberal leader says it would be disrespectful to voters and damaging to his party to try to strike any deals with the NDP before voters have spoken.
In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, Ignatieff dismissed talk of a merger or any sort of election non-compete agreement with the NDP as “absurd.”
Pressure has been mounting on Ignatieff in recent weeks to embrace some sort of co-operative arrangement with the NDP, a notion fuelled by tepid poll numbers for the Liberals and the example of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government installed last month in Britain.
In his first extensive comments on the issue, Ignatieff said he has no problem with the principle of coalition governments.
“Co-operation between parties to produce political and electoral stability is not illegitimate. It’s never been illegitimate, it’s part of our system,” he said, noting that coalitions have been formed in parliamentary democracies around the globe.
“But the right way to do it is to run your flag up, (opposing parties) run their flag up, you fight like crazy, you put your choices clearly to the Canadian people, they make their choices and then you play the cards that voters deal you.”
Ignatieff insisted he still believes the Liberals can win the next election. But should no party win a majority and the numbers make it feasible for a Liberal-led coalition to provide “progressive, stable, compassionate, good government,” Ignatieff said he’d “make it work for Canadians.”
“I can make all kinds of electoral arrangements work and people should have confidence that I can. I’m a unifier, I’m not a divider.”
Until now, Ignatieff has sent mixed signals about coalitions.
He was a reluctant signatory to the unpopular 2008 coalition deal struck by then-leader Stephane Dion with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to topple Stephen Harper’s newly re-elected minority Conservative government.
Upon taking over from Dion, Ignatieff briefly maintained the coalition threat — coining the phrase “a coalition if necessary but not necessarily a coalition” — to wring some budget concessions from Harper.
But he eventually abandoned Dion’s deal and has seemed opposed to the idea ever since.
Last September, as the Tories were trying to revive the spectre of Liberals joining forces with “separatists and socialists,” Ignatieff declared: “Let me be very clear. The Liberal party would not agree to a coalition. In January we did not support a coalition and we do not support a coalition today or tomorrow.”
Just two weeks ago, talking points issued by Ignatieff’s office asserted: “Liberals will campaign to form a Liberal government. We aren’t interested in coalitions.” The script further argued that “parties in Parliament can work together — without forming a coalition.”
In the interview, Ignatieff said he can’t recall ever having categorically ruled out a coalition. He said he continues to adhere to the “coalition if necessary, but not necessarily coalition” line.
The studied ambiguity is designed to put a lid on all the current coalition talk without ruling out the option should it prove necessary after the next election.
Liberal strategists don’t want to give ammunition to Harper’s Tories, who so successfully demonized the 2008 coalition attempt.
And they don’t want to make it harder for Liberals to win enough seats to make a coalition, much less a majority, possible.
Strategists reason that New Democrats who want to defeat Harper would have little incentive to vote Liberal if they felt the Liberals would inevitably invite the NDP to join a coalition.
Ignatieff alluded to those considerations, saying: “The talk of coalition actually, if you’re a Liberal, only gives comfort to the Conservatives and the NDP.”
He agreed it makes no sense to talk about a coalition before knowing whether it would be either necessary or feasible.
“Bingo . . . That’s the key point. There’s nothing to talk about until the Canadian people have made up their minds at the next election,” he said.
“Talk of coalition (now), it seems to me, is not only a distraction but I don’t think it serves the interests of my party and I actually don’t think it serves the interests of the country. I think what’s right is we should stand up and raise that Liberal banner and say, ’Here’s what we stand for. Vote for us.’ ”
Moreover, Ignatieff said he finds all the current talk of coalitions “disrespectful of the voter,” implying that Liberals are looking for a short cut back to power.
“We’re in opposition and we have to earn our way back to government day by day by day with policies that speak to the Canadian people . . . No short cuts, no clever deals, no nothing.”
Nevertheless, he offered some hints about the parameters of a possible coalition government.
For instance, while Liberals and Bloquistes can work together on some issues, Ignatieff said the fact that the Bloc is dedicated to the break-up of Canada “sets limits to what you can do” with the party. That suggests he might balk at a coalition that required the Bloc’s support, such as Dion’s 2008 deal.
Ignatieff wouldn’t get into speculation about how well the Liberals would have to do in an election for a coalition to be palatable to voters. But he scoffed at Harper’s assertion last week that the British example proves “losers don’t get to form coalitions,” that public opinion will only tolerate coalitions led by the party that wins the most seats.
“Harper’s got no business telling Canadians what’s going to happen after an election. He should fight one first.”
Talk of a coalition has been muddied by chatter of a possible merger with the NDP or some sort of electoral arrangement wherein Liberals and New Democrats would divvy up the country’s 308 ridings, not running candidates against each other.
Ignatieff was unequivocal in ruling out both ideas.
“The talk of merger is absurd,” he said bluntly.
Some pundits argue that the Liberals’ only hope for longterm survival is to unite the left, in much the same way Harper united the right when he brought the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives together under the Conservative banner.
But Ignatieff said there’s no comparison between the union of right-wing parties, which had splintered before coming back together 10 years later, and a merger of Liberals and New Democrats, who’ve been separate entities with different cultures and policies since the 1930s.
“These are two very different realities.”
In any event, Ignatieff said the Liberal party has won a reputation as the most successful party in western democracies because it has always hugged the middle of the political spectrum. A merger with the NDP would tug the party to the left.
“Liberals win elections by fighting in the centre and I’m not giving the centre to anybody.”
He was equally dismissive of any non-compete agreement with the NDP.
In the 2008 election, Dion and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May struck a limited non-aggression pact in which each party agreed not to run a candidate against the other’s leader. May did not win her seat and Dion, although he won his own seat, led his party to its worst electoral showing in history.
“Look how well that went,” Ignatieff commented wryly.
He said such non-aggression deals are a betrayal of grassroots activists, many of whom have slaved for decades to promote their respective parties.
“These parties, they’re not the playthings of party leaders. They are traditions, they are lives and they’re identities and they’re loyalties.”
Furthermore, he said such deals are “a form of disrespect to voters” who deserve the chance to vote Liberal in each of the country’s 308 ridings.
“And I did say 308,” he added. “I didn’t say 307, I didn’t say 306, I didn’t say 285. I said 308.”