Saturday, November 19, 2011

Role Reversal

Once upon a time there was a majority government that was prone to episodes of arrogance, and which would frequently demonize its opponents. When necessary, hardline tactics were used to end debate. They could be ruthless when necessary, capitalizing on the missteps of their opponents to secure victory.

At the same time there was an opposition. A collection of MPs, many of which shared similar views even if they did not share the same party affiliation. They were spirited, divided and frustrated. They did not consistently give the appearance of being a government in waiting.

This was the scene a decade ago. The government was Liberal and the opposition was the divided right (along with the NDP and the Bloc).

Fast forward ten years and the roles have been reversed.

The Conservatives are united and have their majority. They are a government which regularly faces accusations of arrogance and fear-mongering.

The progressive vote is now very much divided, with the NDP as the official Opposition and the Liberals trying to define themselves. Looking at the front benches of either, one struggles to see the makings of a full Cabinet.

While there are obvious differences to between the two eras, there are nevertheless interesting parallels that can be drawn - particularly for the opposition. I am going to focus on two: the pressure to merge; and the opportunity to influence.

1. The pressure to merge

In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, there was growing pressure for the parties of the right to merge. In the end, it took three things to make it happen. Mr Harper's leadership (with Mr. Mackay's acquiescence), the push from the conservative establishment, and the fear over what a (pre-sponsorship scandal) Martin government would do to the right in an election.

Looking at things today and we do not see the same pressure points, yet. Permanent leadership among the NDP and Liberals is needed for a real dialogue to occur. The absence of the election around the corner also means that the parties are not feeling that same level of fear Conservatives had when it was widely assumed Martin would take power and immediately seek his own mandate.

Finally, the progressive vote is only now starting to see what a Conservative majority looks like. Over the next 12-24 months - and two budgets - the answer to the question "what will a Harper majority look like" will be answered. Depending on that answer, the progressives may start to see greater impetus to merge.

2. The opportunity to influence

During the late 1990s, the conservative right gradually came to have some influence on policy. Deficit reduction and clarity act are the two big examples where their influence could be seen.

This is not to say that they drove these policies or exacted them out of the government. However, the fact that views they were expressing were shared by many Canadians helped move the Liberal government to act. Put another way, they were on the right side of the argument. This had the effect of allowing more Canadians to see the right as being able and ready to govern.

Looking at things today, the progressive opposition would do well to find similar such opportunities to get on the right side of the argument. They need to develop cogent positions which mirror the public mood and try to influence.

The first opportunity will come over the coming months as the government prepares what promises to be an austerity budget. This budget (and the next) will introduce sharp contrasts between the conservative and progressive views on the role of government. In other words, there is a great opportunity to do more than oppose - they can present an alternative.


The Conservative government isn't going anywhere for the next few years, and are well-positioned for the next decade. Those are the facts. However, the same could be said of the Liberals during much of their 13 years in power. The lesson - everything changes, so be prepared.

The progressive parties have time to prepare. Part of that preparation should include a meaningful discussion on merging. It should not be simply ruled out. They also need to use the coming months to start to develop policy positions which both reflect and influence how the public views the role of government.

In other words, they need to start down the path of looking like a viable alternative. It will take time, but it has to be done if they want to see roles reversed again.

1 comment:

  1. If the LPC merges with NDP it will be a BIG, HUGE mistake. They do have better odds at rebuilding, and they will. They aren't done as much pundits and people believes.

    But it will take much discipline and focus on the party, they need to stop focusing on Harper and Co. Harper is here to stay for as long as he wants to and it wont be huge surprises or disapointments coming up.

    Another thing none of the leaders at NDP or LPC are electable, as I say LPC just should work on rebuilding, they will be fine, NDP is a one hit wonder, Jack is the one that got elected not the party.


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