Conservative-NDP Cooperation? But How?

Before I launch into today’s post, the latest Bloggers Hotstove is here. It’s a full house this time thanks to my actually remembering to show up. A good time was had by all as we discussed the latest developments of the campaign, from the fallout from Beer and Popcorn, to the reaction to the American ambassador’s comments, to the debates (which two of the panelists did not watch). We also talked a bit about what could go into a Conservative-NDP informal coalition, something I discuss more at length below.

As I said, this podcast was fun, but Greg Staples should record us in the lead-up to the podcast. Some of the funniest material was there.

Paul Martin’s blacklisting attempts aside, the fact remains that Prime Minister Harper is not a scary prospect. Thanks to the strength of the Bloc in Quebec, and thanks to the resurgence of the New Democrats, it is unlikely that either the Liberals or the Conservatives will come away with a majority. So whatever agenda might be hidden in Stephen Harper’s back pocket is going to run up against a brick wall of three other parties who aren’t going to play ball.

So those who are easily frightened by the Conservative boogeyman can rest easy. It doesn’t exist. Even if it did, and even if the Conservatives were handed a majority, anything radical would be redressed four years later by the Conservative government’s defeat. And if the Conservative government does get re-elected? Then the agenda they’ve passed was not only constitutional, but not that radical. Such is the whim of democracy.

But this still leaves a quandary for Harper. If he is the leader of a minority parliament, he has to work with at least one party who is quite ideologically opposed — at least, in terms of the impression Canadians have. What does he have to do to keep his minority alive beyond three months? Is the dream of a Conservative-NDP informal coalition nothing more than a dream?

It is in the interests of both the Conservatives and the NDP to consider what it would take for them to cooperate in the next parliament. If nothing else, the NDP need this as a bargaining chip to use against Paul Martin. Everybody just assumes that the NDP will side with the Liberals. Everybody just assumes that the Conservatives will receive the support from the Bloc. If those assumptions become expectations, what incentive, really, does Paul Martin have to deal? Proportional representation? Spending reinvestments? Care for the environment and health care? Your price is too high, Mr. Layton; go ahead and bring down the government; I’ll blame it on you. It’s not like you and Mr. Harper can come up with a coalition, oh ho ho ho!

But we have been surprised before. Take a look at the minority situation in Nova Scotia. There, the ruling Conservatives managed to pass a tax cut budget with the assistance of the New Democrats. And while Nova Scotian politics are not the same as federal politics, it does show that two parties who negotiate honestly can get things done for the majority of the electorate. For Harper, receiving cooperation from the NDP would significantly increase the legitimacy of his government well beyond anything Paul Martin could hope for. Rather than just accepting the grudging support of the separatists, Harper would show that he is willing to govern for all Canadians, not just his base constituency.

So, what would an agenda of a Conservative-NDP informal coalition look like? Where, in these two parties’ divergent agendas, are the commonalities?

Here’s a list:

1) Ethics

Stephen Harper could secure NDP support for a throne speech and the first few weeks of parliament if he appointed Ed Broadbent to be the head of a commission designed to implement changes to the government system which prevents things like AdScam from happening again. Both parties have been running well against the Liberals’ “culture of entitlement”. Both parties have been saying good things about each others’ anti-corruption program (here’s Ed’s plan). Two parties cooperating to clean up the process gives the impression that these changes are more than just window dressing; that they not just being done for the benefit of the current ruling party. And the result could be a legacy that would be of benefit to Canadians for years to come.

2) Democratic Reform

The Conservatives haven’t campaigned as hard on such democratic reform measures as proportional representation as the NDP have, but it’s not off their platform. John Reynolds has already said that the Conservatives and the NDP could work together to implement some sort of system that replaces the derelict first-past-the-post model. And if I were Jack Layton, I would make this element key to securing NDP support and, if I were Stephen Harper, I’d accept that demand, because changing the system to something that reflects the true vote of Canada is something that will give the next parliament a legacy that Canadians will remember for decades.

3) Decentralization/Urban Affairs

This is one area that Stephen Harper will have to finesse. The NDP will come to parliament campaigning for more money for Canada’s cities to meet urban infrastructure concerns, and they will not be happy if the federal government backs out of the commitments it has made to urban affairs. The Bloc will come to parliament campaigning for more money and power to Quebec. The Conservatives will come to parliament having campaigned on tax cuts and reducing government spending. At first glance, these would seem to be conflicting desires, but try this:

In 2004, the Conservatives had a campaign plan to transfer three cents of the gasoline tax to the provinces. This went some way towards making up for the complete lack of material on urban affairs in their campaign. They can argue, with considerable authority, that urban affairs is a provincial matter alone, and the federal government should vacate the field.

The transfer of the gas tax to the provinces will satisfy at least some of the NDP’s demands, especially if premiers like Dalton McGuinty turn around and pass the money on to municipalities. The Bloc will appreciate this appearance of decentralization, even though it’s simply a reversal of the Liberal’s intrusion on provincial jurisdiction. And the Conservatives will come away with the appearance of having backed out of billions in government spending.

4) Tax Relief

In Nova Scotia, the Conservatives secured NDP support for its budget by promising tax relief for lower income Canadians. This meets the two parties’ divergent goals: cutting taxes, and improving the lot of the working poor. Jack Layton has derided the Conservatives’ promise to cut the GST by a single percentage, but the fact remains that this tax cut benefits the working poor more than it benefits the rich., and you may have noticed that Jack hasn’t been deriding the Conservatives GST cut promise all that loudly.

If the Conservatives want to cut taxes (of course they do), they will find themselves more likely to make those tax cuts stick if they’re targetted first and foremost at the lower end of the income spectrum.

5) Same Sex Marriage

This is not a point of agreement, but the NDP has to think up some way to assuage the fears of same-sex marriage proponents to show them that a Conservative minority isn’t a threat to what they gained in the last parliament. And to that end, I’ll point you to Don at Revolutionary Moderation, who is an NDP supporter (and former candidate) who refused to call Stephen Harper’s same sex announcement a gaffe in his Gaffe Contest. Why?

Yes, social conservative views are the weakest spot on the Tory platform. Talk of reopening the debate only serves to shore up support that was probably a near-lock for the Conservatives already. It meanwhile carries the risk of alienating voters who are otherwise leaning toward “throw the bums out”. How can’t it be a gaffe?

Well, first and foremost it undermines the “secret agenda” thing. The question was asked, and he answered it straightforwardly. Second, he did it at the start of the campaign. There was some risk of helping the Liberals define the election debate along the lines of “scary Tories” (something even Harper predicts they will do, in nearly every speech), but he bought lots of time to undo any damage, and it’s likely that there’s a huge metaphorical “reset” button on the campaign right around Jan. 2. Third, he gave the caucus crazies their talking points for the next seven weeks - a Myron Thompson talking out of turn about gay marriage won’t derail the campaign.

But best of all, listen to what he promised. A free vote. On reopening the debate. In other words, given that a minority is nearly inevitable, nothing at all. It even gives his own moderates some cover: “Sure, I’m against it, but the decision is made. Why reopen old wounds? I’m voting no.” Nope, rather than a gaffe, this was an ingenious move, closing one of the larger holes left over from the last campaign.

For the NDP, the message they should be giving out is clear: if people are afraid of losing same-sex marriage, the obvious answer is to vote NDP, not Liberal. The NDP will be better able to hold the Conservatives to account. This is especially true in ridings where Liberal MPs broke party ranks and voted against the same sex marriage bill. For this reason, I bet even money that former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien will fall to the NDP challenger of his riding.

More of that, and the Conservatives might re-open the debate on same-sex marriage, but faced with the combined opposition of NDPers, Blocquistes and pro-equal marriage Liberals, they won’t have the numbers to carry the day.

And, for Harper, this is not a confidence vote. The country can, at last, move on.

The NDP and the Conservatives are going to disagree on a number of issues in this coming parliament, but it’s worth remembering that not every measure that goes before the MPs is a confidence vote. Where Harper loses NDP or Bloc support, he might be able to gain support from the remaining Liberal MPs. Either way, Harper’s challenge is to secure just enough NDP support to keep his government alive through various confidence measures. If he gives the appearance of negotiating honestly with Layton, and throwing open most of his policies to free-wheeling votes within the minority parliament, he will be seen as prime ministerial. And if Layton plays ball, he will be seen as an honest broker. There is benefit to be had on both sides, here. I’m pretty sure Layton knows the benefit to the NDP of working with a Prime Minister Harper. The only question is, does Harper himself understand this?

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