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Canadians weary of cynical politics

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CALGARY -- Just when you might think sanity has a half a chance in our national politics, a new debate erupts over the undead notion of a federal Liberal/NDP coalition.

That's right, it appears some pundits think enough whipping will bring that horse back to life. Further, they say the future of the country hangs in the balance. Those in the party establishments who resist the push, they contend, are only propping up the Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"It is a truly sickening prospect to imagine, once again, these two self-interested parties allowing a Harper minority to continue its destruction of the country because they haven't got the integrity or the guts to put the country first," columnist Murray Dobbin argues in the current edition of the Tyee, B.C.'s progressive online magazine.

Several points of that argument are curious. The first is the claim that Harper's Conservatives are destroying the country -- a contention that reveals a sense of desperation unbefitting the role of any Deep Thinker. While the Conservatives' values differ dramatically from those of their opponents, it is outrageous to suggest being right of centre is by definition un-Canadian.

Secondly, it is a little rich to suggest parties should be condemned as self-interested merely because they won't openly admit to considering a coalition. (If any discussions are taking place, it would be imperative not to admit it until a deal is cast. Hence, we operate under the assumption no such talks are taking place, but really have no way of knowing.)

The truth is, there are many reasons both Liberals and the NDP should think long and hard before entering into any such Faustian bargain. While both parties might be labelled left of centre, the NDP has historically been much more to the left than the Liberals, which at any given moment can be placed on either side of this mythical line (mythical because just where "the centre" is depends a great deal on one's perspective). The point is, while these two parties share an antipathy for the Conservatives, there are many ways in which they are different from each other. Attempting a shotgun wedding would only serve to bring out those differences.

Secondly, a Liberal/NDP coalition moves us closer to the polarized politics on the model seen the U.S., in which Republicans and Democrats are the only two parties with a shot at power. One of the joys of the Canada's parliamentary system has always been the potential for true deal-making, in which a minority government must compromise to hold onto power. If there are just two main parties, then there can't be any more minority governments.

There have been 13 minority governments in 12 legislative sessions at the federal level in Canada, and those sessions -- while stormy -- have produced not only great theatre, but also some pretty interesting legislation. Think of what happened after the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson achieved a minority in 1963. The ensuing chaotic 548 days, in which the Liberals were forced to make nice to the then-young New Democrats, led to the creation of Canada's health-care system, our now-beloved Maple Leaf flag and the Canada Pension Plan.

Give us more minorities like that.

The Conservatives, too, have been beneficiaries. Harper's back-to-back minority outcomes from 2006-2011 were a blessing in disguise for the Tories, allowing voters to keep the party in check until they were assured rumours of a secret agenda to tear apart the country were rooted more in paranoia than in any demonstrable fact.

Finally, it is vital to think about vision. The Conservatives earned their way into power because they enunciated a clear vision -- what they stand for, what they would do and why they think it's in the best interests of the country. The Liberals once had their own vision, lost it during the power-at-all-costs days of Jean Chrétien, and can only hope to regain power if they find a way to reach today's Canadians on their terms.

The NDP, as well, has a unique formula for the country, and has both the right and responsibility to advocate for that option as forcefully as possible.

How cynical the backroom boys can be sometimes, to think forming an alliance just to toss out "the other guy" is either logically or ethically acceptable. Canadians are growing wearing of manipulation, and our radar is more finely attuned than ever. Think of the outcry that arose when NDP Leader Jack Layton, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe signed an accord in December 2008 to form a coalition government as a replacement for the Conservatives.

That's not the type of democracy we were taught in grade school. And, more than ever, it's a style of politics Canadians have no stomach for.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J11

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