Former prime minister Jean Chrétien is fanning the flames of merger talk, predicting a union of the Liberals and NDP could happen just as suddenly as Stephen Harper's successful bid to form a new Conservative Party in 2003.
Mr. Chrétien, 77, suggests protests from politicians currently denouncing the idea should be taken with a grain of salt, pointing to the example of Peter MacKay. As the last leader of the Progressive Conservative party, Mr. MacKay rejected the idea of a unite-the-right merger just months before he ultimately approved one.
"It will be done one day. And it will come very quickly or not happen," Mr. Chrétien said Tuesday in an interview with CBC's Power and Politics. "Look at the way that Harper did that. Harper had MacKay there, [who]made a solemn promise in writing that never he would talk merger with the Reform. He's now the Minister of Defence. Things happen and they happen sometimes at moments unexpected."
Mr. Chrétien was referencing the scribbled letter Mr. MacKay offered behind closed doors at a PC convention in the spring of 2003 to win the support of rival leadership candidate David Orchard. The deal was described as a "gentlemen's agreement" not to merge the two parties. It was attacked at the time by leading Canadian Alliance members such as Jason Kenney as a "deal with the devil" and Mr. Harper quickly urged the new PC leader to shelve the pledge, saying "Peter MacKay made a mistake with the Orchard deal."
Mr. Chrétien, who was prime minister from 1993 to 2003, also drew on his own party's history to show that Liberals and New Democrats aren't all that different.
"You have to keep in mind that it's not [new]" he said, before recalling a 1956 quote from then-Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent.
"Talking about the NDP, who were the CCF in those days, [St. Laurent said:] 'They are Liberals in a hurry.' ... It's a long time. Almost 56 years ago. And now the financing of the political parties, it's not the same. They [the NDP]are not financed by the unions any more. It was a problem in my book. I don't like any political party representing only one group in society. We're there to govern for everybody in society," he said.
New financing rules limiting union and corporate donations – brought in by Mr. Chrétien near the end of his time as prime minister – also put a major dent in the amount of money available to the Liberal Party, which was heavily dependent on corporate donations. In power, Mr. Harper's Conservatives eliminated union and corporate donations entirely and are also phasing out taxpayer subsidies, which Mr. Chrétien's government introduced as a partial replacement for corporate and union funds.
Meanwhile, deputy NDP leader Libby Davies moved Tuesday to put a lid on all the merger talk, advising her colleagues that such discussions don't fit with what late party leader Jack Layton was advocating.
"Talking mergers (as they do in the corporate world) is not a way to realize this vision – and is not something I'm in favour of," she wrote for the website rabble.ca.
Pushing for a merger is nothing new for Mr. Chrétien. He caused a stir during the last Parliament with behind the scenes talks with NDP veterans exploring the possibility of a merger.
"If they had done it," Mr. Chrétien said, "a lot of people think, and I think too, they would have been the government today."