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A counterintuitive alternative to a Liberal-NDP merger

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

As political Ottawa starts to move their minds toward the future of the NDP after an awful week, beyond leadership considerations pundits are once again musing about the need to merge the NDP and Liberals.

On the one hand, as I've been crystal clear in this space and elsewhere, I'm very much opposed to a merger of the Liberals and NDP.

On the other hand, maybe Canadian politics has changed in an important way with Jack Layton's tragic passing. Wouldn't it be petulant to not even contemplate the future of not only my party but the broader political landscape given the overwhelming reaction to Layton's life and death by broad swaths of Canadians? Suddenly both parties are leaderless with uncertain futures – and to butcher the now trite saying, maybe we should see the uncertainty as an opportunity.

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My opposition to a merger, at its core, boils down to three main objections:

1. The wildly different histories and cultures of the two parties;

2. The difference in beliefs on core issues between the NDP and Liberals (when both parties are at their best, at least); and

3. I don't buy that it's a short-cut to power, the way some proponents of merger contend.

I have no more interest in taking on an ownership of the history of the NDP than I imagine most New Democrats do the Liberals' past. Unlike the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance, the NDP and Liberals were never one party that split apart. Corporate cultures and management styles are critical determinants as to whether a merger works or fails. Among political parties this is even more so than in a business environment. There is absolutely no reason to think that if you try to glue these parties together that they would stick.

I could expand – again – about all the other reasons why a merger of the two parties is more likely than not to be a flop. And I still believe them to be true. But that doesn't negate the very serious electoral challenges facing the Liberals and NDP. There's no doubt they're different challenges, with different root causes, but they are significant. This is accentuated if replacing the Harper government any time soon is the objective.

So if a merger is a surefire mess and the status-quo is fraught with challenges, what's left?

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How about forming a brand new political party. Really, my alternative to shrinking the number of parties is to create a new one. Stick with me for at least a second while I expand.

Any first-year corporate lawyer knows there are lots of ways to structure a deal. One way is to create a new vehicle that certain assets get transferred up to. That's what I'm thinking.

No history, no baggage, a brand new culture. To personalize this, I would no more have to go on TV and defend the NDP's historical views than a New Democrat talking head would have to defend Trudeau or sponsorship. The party would be all about the future, not the past.

Again – the PC and Alliance merger is not a good precedent. They were coming back together, not forming something brand new. This may seem like a semantic, legalistic difference but I think it's key.

I have no idea if such a new party could possibly be a big enough tent where someone who's pro-rational economic growth policies (ya, including ditching supply management and having the federal government strike down all inter-provincial trade barriers), pro-strong federal government Liberal (i.e., me) can fit with a protectionist union leader who thinks the Sherbrooke Declaration is the bare minimum they can buy into. Really, at a certain point the party's coalition of supporters becomes incoherent but why not have that discussion? Why not see if a new party could be coherent and accommodate these different perspectives.

This party may not be able to attract all New Democrats or all Liberals. That's okay – that doesn't mean it can't or won't be a success. Can it attract "Red Tories"? Disaffected voters? Young Canadians? Of course I have no idea. It depends on a whole host of factors. But I can certainly imagine it working. Are there enough like-minded Canadians who could get excited about this and put some skin in the game? Again, I have no idea.

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Another big problem I had with certain pro-merger advocates is this notion that it's up to "elder statesmen" (read, old white guys) from both parties to hash something out behind closed doors and come out and tell us when it's done. The year is 2011, there is zero chance that's gonna work out. None.

But why not start a discussion between Liberals, New Democrats, Red Tories, and young people who have never been a member of a political party in their lives about a new vehicle – a new party. Consider it a blank slate. If we were starting from scratch, what would we fight for? How would we organize ourselves? So while there would still by definition be trade-offs (unless you start a new party by yourself, it's impossible for there not to be in politics), hopefully by starting something new, instead of squishing together two organizations with existing rules and structures, you could avoid the easy-to-imagine analysis of "who's taking over who," "who won and who lost" that permeates so much Ottawa groupthink. Instead you'd create a new party for the next century. Naive potentially, I know.

The worst-case scenario? There's nothing there, both parties go on their merry way with new leaders and life goes on. Either there's something there to discuss, or not. Something that can be agreed to, or not. Something that a big enough group of caucus and membership of the parties are willing to leave their existing party in favour of, or not.

It is hard to imagine both the Liberals and NDP both being leaderless with uncertain futures at the same time for decades to come. While it may be counterintuitive to suggest that we should consider seizing the parallel leadership openings to ditch both parties entirely, I think it could be a path forward worth pursuing.

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