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Merger: What’s in it for the NDP?

Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, looking fit under a mask of TV make-up, gave an interview this week in which he predicted that a merger of the Liberals and the NDP, “will be done one day.”

A master politician, Chretien is probably right. There is a solid case to be made for an NDP-Liberal merger, which would create a centre left party that would give Canadians a single, clear alternative  to the centre right of Stephen Harper”s Conservative Party.

The question is, what time frame does “one day” mean?

Amid the heavy discussions about the possibility of a merger — intensified by the death of Jack Layton and the beginnings of a race to name his successor — the issue of what might be in it for the NDP is being overlooked.

Parties only unite when they see it in their mutual interest to do so. That was the case early in the 20th century when Mackenzie King’s Liberals swept up the remnants of the Progressive Party. The leaderless Progressives had no where else to go.

Turn the clock ahead to the 2000s, and we have the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative party. As Mr. Chretien mentioned, that came about despite PC leader Peter McKay’s promise that he would never entertain such a horror.

Despite their differences, it wasn’t as much a merger of two parties as it was the reassembly in one tent of an old party — the party of Brian Mulroney. But it didn’t come about easily, and it took time. Both parties went through three leaders and three elections before Stephen Harper struck his deal with McKay to “unite the right.”

The NDP and Liberals share many values: a commitment to a strong public sector, belief in the social safety net, support for multiculturalism, and suspicion of adventurous foreign entanglements. Both parties also have blocs bitterly opposed to their opposite numbers: right-wing Bay Street Liberals that a merger would send into the arms of the Conservatives, and the NDP’s left wing activists, quiet under Layton, who would be tempted to start their own party.

Overriding all of these concerns, however, is the fact that having become the Official Opposition, the NDP now has a historic opportunity to nudge the Liberals out of the political centre, the great mainstream where most Canadian voters spend most of their time.

With this prospect, may NDPers are asking: Why bother with a merger? What’s in it for us?

The Liberal governments of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, in doing their duty as they saw it, lost both Quebec and the West. Quebec went when the PQ was able to convince voters that Trudeau’s new Constitution and Charter of Rights was the product of a conspiracy against la Belle Province. The Clarity Act cinched the myth. The West started to go when Trudeau asked Western farmers, “Why should I sell your wheat?”  The rout was completed with the National Energy Policy, a 1970s program that stripped the three Far Western provinces of oil revenue and paralyzed the exploration industry, beggaring the oil patch of Alberta.

The NDP is at a historic junction, made all the more challenging due to the fact of its sudden and unexpected successes in Quebec. Embracing the Liberal party at this stage would hardly reinforce its tentative hold on its 59 Quebec seats.In the West, embracing the Liberal party would put new difficulties in the way of the NDP rebuilding its federal strength on the prairies.

There may be an NDP-Liberal merger some day, but I would not expect it to come about before at least one, or perhaps two federal elections have passed into history. Along about 2020, when Canadians have grown tired of Jason Kenney as their Conservative Prime Minister, Mr. Chretien’s prediction could well come true: “One day.”

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