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The coalition was our coming out to the politics of change

The coalition was our coming out to the politics of change.  An experience that, of course, has now been stuffed back in the closet behind the old hat.  But those nine weeks of possibility that began one year ago stripped us of our innocence and showed that Canadian democracy can escape the limits of neo-liberalism that have constrained us for 30 years.

A number of anniversary memoirs of the coalition, created by Jack Layton, Stephane Dion and Gilles Duceppe on December 1, 2008, will appear this week.  (The most fascinating so far is Brian Topp’s in the Globe.)  Look for a lot of political history to tumble out of these accounts, and much of it will make a number of Liberals squirm when their commitment to a coalition, and their duplicity later, is revealed.

My recall of those heady days is mostly of the intensity and the optimism that took over amid a dizzying pace of events.  There was an adrenalin rush, palpable in all my friends and coworkers, that came with the realization that the country could change before our eyes.  A minority, extreme right wing government could be replaced by a majority coalition including five NDP ministers.

At first, reaction to the coalition was derisory: it will never happen. Then there were calls from Jack Layton -- this is real.  Immediately, labour movement offices threw everything at the coalition.  

There were urgent messages aimed at Liberals. There was intense debate over the program, and shopping lists and bottom lines submitted.  There were communications to members, and mobilization for hurry up rallies.  Labour leaders held daily conference calls; in my office we also held daily meetings and calls with other unions and NGOs.

We remember the high drama at Rideau Hall when Harper and the GG agreed to prorogue Parliament, and, needless to say, we will not forget the disappointment in Michael Ignatieff which began January 27 when he chose to vote for Harper’s budget and officially end the coalition.

Conventional wisdom has now returned to pre-coalition cynicism.  But I prefer to ask, one year on, what did we learn?

I think we learned why progressives should favour coalition politics over the “big tent” strategy.  In every case that I know of where social democratic or Liberal “big tents” have formed governments, they have implemented neo-Liberal policies, marginalized progressives, and shattered the hopes of social change activists.  The coalition brought forward a program developed explicitly in opposition to the neo-liberal agenda at that time, and provided major roles and real influence for progressive voices.  Yes, it is possible to achieve political breadth without eviscerating everything you stand for. 

We also learned that Canadians are very open to coalition politics, provided that parties are open and transparent with them.  One of the noteworthy analyses of the coalition was that original hostility to the coalition turned more favorable after a period of public discussion.  Strategic Counsel polls for the Globe and Mail on December 5, 2008, showed 58% opposition to the coalition and 38% support.  By January 15, support for the coalition had increased to 44%.  An EKOS Globe and Mail poll published January 21, six days before the budget, showed support for a coalition government at 50%.

Unfortunately there are some lessons we didn’t learn, and for me chief among these is the centrality of Quebec for the future of the Canadian left.  I was excited by the coalition, because it included the Bloc Quebecois.  The coalition did not envisage Bloc ministers, but it did contemplate a working relationship towards shared social and economic goals.  

There are some who see the relationship with the Bloc as the achilles heel of the coalition -- but I believe they could not be more wrong.  First, there was no coalition possible without the Bloc’s support.  Second, 80% of Bloc supporters in Quebec supported the coalition and showed by their support the possibility of a new unity between English and French progressives, and ultimately the basis for a truly representative bi-national Canadian government. 

When Harper denounced the coalition by vilifying the Bloc and questioning the legitimacy of the confidence votes by Bloc MPs, it was one of the most ugly and divisive episodes I have ever seen in Canadian politics.  It should have been forcefully repudiated, but it was not.  

Of course, the big lesson not learned is that for the Liberal Party, the coalition was and remains for the foreseeable future -- the shortest and perhaps only route back to government.  

A year later, an election now will return yet another minority government.  Unless, there is a coalition.

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