Little support for Liberal, NDP merger at retreat

Jack Layton’s death has revived talk of a merger of federal New Democrats and Liberals but neither party seems interested.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae delivers a speech during the Liberal Summer Caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae delivers a speech during the Liberal Summer Caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday.

OTTAWA — Jack Layton’s death has revived talk of a merger of federal New Democrats and Liberals but neither party seems interested.

Veteran Liberal MP Denis Coderre said Monday the outpouring of grief for Layton tells him Canadians want a united, progressive alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Justin Trudeau agreed the idea should at least be discussed but said he’s not yet convinced it’s the best option.

Apart from those two Montreal MPs, however, there appeared to be little support for a merger at a four-day Liberal caucus retreat to plot strategy for next month’s resumption of Parliament.

Interim leader Bob Rae and other current and former MPs said a merger is not in the cards, even though both opposition parties are weakened and leaderless.

Indeed, Rae boldly predicted the decimated Liberals can win the next election in 2015 under their own steam — provided they demonstrate effective parliamentary opposition to the Harper government and overhaul their party’s membership, fundraising and organizational machine.

They’ll start proving their mettle when Parliament resumes Sept. 19, pushing the government to focus on creating jobs and stimulating the economy rather than just slashing spending. Rae said Liberals will respond to the Tory mantra of “cut spending and lower taxes” with their own mantra: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Coderre acknowledged his timing might be premature.

“I’m not saying we should do it right away. We have four years. You don’t pull a flower to make it grow faster,” he said.

Still, he said it’s something both parties need to examine. Coderre said mourners he spoke to at Layton’s funeral Saturday seemed to espouse the same values as Liberals and are all hungering for an alternative “so we can take care of the people.”

“I think personally it’s a good idea. … I think the time has come to have real and serious discussion, debate and I think it’s got nothing to do with a party or the future of a party. It’s about the future of the country.”

He noted that former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien has in the past informally discussed the idea of a merger with former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and former NDP premier of Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow. Moreover, he pointed out that New Democrats left the merger option open at their June convention.

Trudeau was more equivocal.

“If we’re serious about getting this country on the right track and reflecting the will of the vast majority of Canadians who didn’t vote for Mr. Harper, I think we have to be open to looking at different possibilities,” he said.

“I’m certainly not going to take anything off the table but I’m certainly not convinced that a merger is the right thing or the way to go. I’m open to being convinced, but I’m not there.”

Rae himself suggested on election night on May 2 — when the Liberals were reduced to a third-party rump of only 34 seats — that merger discussions were inevitable. But he agreed to drop all such talk when he became interim leader and said Monday it’s not in the cards.

“That’s not on our agenda,” Rae said on his way into the caucus retreat.

“People are free to talk about whatever they want to talk about, but it’s not on my agenda at the moment. I think we really have to focus on the Liberal party.”

Most other Liberals agreed.

“I remain firmly convinced that our future remains as a Liberal party. There is no need to merge with anybody else,” said former MP Mark Holland.

Brian Topp, the NDP’s president and one of the potential front-runners in the imminent race to find Layton’s successor, was similarly dismissive. Topp, the NDP’s chief negotiator in coalition talks with the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois in 2008, said the NDP will continue working with other parties “as and when circumstances justify it.”

“That said, New Democrats aren’t interested in becoming Liberals. And the Liberal party has been crystal clear, as recently as today, that this idea isn’t on their agenda,” Topp added.

“I don’t think it’s on ours either.”

In a rousing speech to the Liberal caucus, Rae said Canadians he met during his cross-country travels over the summer repeatedly told him: “Don’t give up, Mr. Rae, because we want to hear from the Liberal party, we want to hear what your message is and we want you to earn our support.

“And that’s exactly what the Liberal party is going to do, that’s exactly what we have to do.”

Rae acknowledged his prediction of a Liberal victory in 2015 is considered far-fetched by most people. But he said “the biggest mistake we can make is by over-reading the election results of May 2.”

The results do not indicate Canadians have become more conservative, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has suggested, or that they’ve turned their backs for all time on the Liberals, Rae said. Canadians still want a progressive alternative that’s practical, non-dogmatic and puts people first.

While he promised Liberals will remain civil, Rae vowed: “We are going to fight (Harper’s) government every single step of the way.”

With the largely rookie NDP caucus preoccupied with choosing Layton’s successor, Liberals believe Rae and his more experienced caucus will have a chance to shine during the fall parliamentary session.

“Right now, the only concrete opposition that Mr. Harper has is Mr. Bob Rae,” said former Montreal MP Alexandra Mendes.

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