Use the C-word at your own risk

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Using the C-word is always risky on the campaign trail.  Talking about coalition should be a legitimate part of every campaign, yet since it is not really part of Canada’s culture, you bring it up at your own risk.

Perhaps this explains why NDP leader Jagmeet Singh appeared to walkback from his coalition pitch made during the weekend, when he said he would “absolutely” form a coalition with other parties, including Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, to stop Andrew Scheer from forming a Conservative government.

This pitch wasn’t a surprise to me, since at the beginning of the campaign, Singh had already cast himself as the anti-Scheer candidate.  At first, this manoeuvre seems to be targeting primarily the Green Party, as Elizabeth May was musing openly about working with the Conservatives after the election, should they win the most seats but fall short of a majority.

She was following the common wisdom that in politics, you must keep your powder dry and your options open while you await the verdict from Canadians, especially in a political context conducive to the arrival of a minority government in the House of Commons.

In that, May was also following in the footsteps of the BC Greens, who played the Liberals and the NDP against each other as they negotiated their balance of power,

But May’s willingness to work with Scheer doesn’t seem to sit well with Green voters, something the New Democrats have exploited on the ground with good results.  The hopes of a major Green breakthrough are slowly dimming.

The logical next step for the anti-Scheer candidate was openly discussing forming a coalition to stop the Conservatives.  The pitch seemed to make some sense tactically.  The Liberals were moving forward with their typical fear campaign that a vote for the NDP was a vote for the Conservatives.  This polarization strategy has worked well in the past, so the old playbook was being used once again.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was put on the defensive, refusing to answer questions about his willingness to work with other parties to stop the Conservatives.  Voters were reminded that during the last minority government, it was the Liberal Party of Canada that kept the Conservative government afloat, voting confidence in Stephen Harper over 100 times in the House of Commons while getting very little in return.

By calling for a coalition with the Liberals, was Singh trying to inoculate the NDP against strategic voting?  Was he signalling that there was little risk to vote NDP, since he was the anti-Scheer candidate and would do anything to stop him, unlike Trudeau?

But then, Jagmeet Singh tried to put some of the toothpaste back in the tube on Monday: “My focus is not on a coalition, he said.  My focus is on this: If you vote New Democrat, you’re going to get someone on your side.”

The NDP might have realized that the coalition pitch was a little complicated and still a bit risky for most voters.  If the goal is to stop Scheer, at all cost, you might as well vote Liberal!

The NDP had also been gaining from the Conservatives during this campaign, especially in Ontario.  These voters are surely not keen to see Trudeau remain in power, if they jump from one opposition party to the other.

Not surprisingly, Scheer brought back the anti-coalition talking points of 2008, when Jack Layton convinced Stéphane Dion to make a deal, supported by the Bloc, to oust Stephen Harper.  Back then, the Conservatives’ rhetoric eventually spooked Dion’s successor Michael Ignatieff, who walked away from the deal and kept Stephen Harper in power for 7 more years.

Coalitions are a legitimate governance model.  Voters deserve to hear how each party will navigate the waters if no one returns to Parliament with a majority.  But the parties, and their leaders, need to keep in mind that voters may not like what they hear.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Karl Bélanger.    Follow Karl Bélanger on Twitter at @KarlBelanger.

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