PHOTOS: Loose-lipped New Democrat Nathan Cullen – whatever was he thinking? Below: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, former Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman, federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP strategist Ian Capstick.

Whatever Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen was thinking when he flapped his lips to the delight of the conservative mainstream media about how the NDP would consider a coalition with the Liberals to get rid of Stephen Harper, the chances of it happening are very close to zero.

As suggested in this space before, if the Liberals were going to form a coalition with anyone, it would be an axis of neoliberalism with Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives.

But in the present circumstances, an NDP-Liberal accord makes no sense from either of those parties’ perspectives.

Not only do the Liberals have much more in common with the Harperites on the economic front, and for that matter on human rights and Bill C-51, but as recent developments in Alberta have clearly illustrated the NDP now presents an existential threat to the former Natural Governing Party of Canada. The Conservatives do not.

If the Liberals are going to try to keep their powder dry and their program alive, it’s much more likely to be by co-operating to some degree with the Conservatives than the NDP. And that could only happen if the Conservatives were desperate.

So never mind that NDP party strategists horrified by Mr. Cullen’s bizarrely timed outburst insist that whatever the B.C. MP and former leadership candidate was trying to say, he wasn’t floating a trial balloon on behalf of his party. The Liberals aren’t going to go for it either.

Dipper strategist Ian Capstick reminded iPolitics that Mr. Cullen ran for the NDP leadership on the idea of a rapprochement with the Grits. “It’s like we all have collective amnesia,” he sniffed. “Soon someone will tell me Justin Trudeau will legalize pot.”

Before the upcoming federal election, as long as polls indicate the possibility of a three-way race, there would be little to gain for either Liberals or New Democrats from an alliance, acknowledged or otherwise.

After the election, if the Liberals found themselves propping up an NDP government, they’d risk signing their own death warrant by supporting the party most likely to render them irrelevant as a national force.

From the NDP perspective, chances are now good that left to their own devices, progressive voters will migrate their way anyway, allowing them to swamp the federal Liberals just as the Alberta NDP swamped the Alberta Liberals.

Granted, the pre-election Canadian and Alberta situations are not precisely the same. The Alberta Liberals were victims of a uniquely bad leader. Former Conservative Raj Sherman, who has since resigned, acted as a one-man wrecking crew, pretty well destroying the party as a serious political force in just three years. Mr. Trudeau has his flaws, but they’re nowhere near as grave.

But the point at which the two jurisdictions’ similarities do line up is voter behaviour. Die-hard Dippers and Grits may despise one another and find it difficult to vote strategically, but large numbers of soft progressive voters do not.

Indeed, many soft progressives don’t give a hoot about the history of animosity, or even the significant policy differences, between Grits and New Democrats. They will vote strategically for whichever party they think is most likely to defeat the Conservatives in their riding.

In other words, for a pre-election deal with the NDP to be good enough to make sense to the Liberals, it would have to eliminate any possibility of an NDP majority government. The NDP would never agree to that, even if they didn’t have reason to think that what has just happened in Alberta could happen again across Canada.

Here in Alberta, when it became apparent the Alberta Liberals were on the ropes and the Liberal-like Alberta Party hadn’t yet pulled its act together, progressive voters along with conservatives disgusted with the Jim Prentice Tories shifted en masse to the NDP. The rest is history.

The May 5 Alberta election results should tell New Democrats that the notion of a coalition – which always seems most like a good idea when you believe you just can’t win – is a loser’s strategy in the Westminster system. If Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP had been formally allied to Dr. Sherman’s Liberals, we’d have a Conservative government today. If Alberta had had proportional representation, the NDP could well be the Opposition.

As for the federal Liberals, since the same thing could happen to them, they would have to be nuts to encourage it by anything less than a deal in which the NDP agreed not to run candidates in strong Liberal seats. Obviously that’s not on.

This is surely why Mr. Trudeau quickly moved to squelch such talk. “A formal coalition is out of the question,” he said at a news conference in Winnipeg. “There are a number of issues on which the Liberal party and the NDP disagree on a quite a fundamental level,” he added with total accuracy.

Liberal strategists will likely do whatever they can to maintain as much distance as possible between themselves and the NDP, especially if the New Democrats lead them in polls and seats. And that will suit the NDP just fine.

So Mr. Cullen’s mistimed musings are moot, no matter what his own party’s strategists think – although the National Post was likely right when it gleefully speculated Mr. Harper’s minions are even now likely cooking up a TV advertisement warning the Conservative base about a terrifying Liberal-NDP conspiracy.

As for the Conservatives, despite their policy similarities, they despise the Liberals – and Mr. Harper, the former Young Liberal, hates them with a particular passion. So the Tories would have to be cornered like rats to consider a deal with the Grits.

Moreover, both the NDP and the Conservatives think they would benefit from the elimination of the Liberals and the development of national two-party mentality.

Notwithstanding all this, it would still be a big mistake for the NDP and the Conservatives to count out Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals.

If a three-way race is still a possibility, thanks to his party’s slightly lower standing and his occasional bouts of foot-in-mouth disease, Mr. Trudeau will go into any debates with low expectations – which, you could argue, is exactly where he might want to be.

After all, recent Alberta political developments support two additional propositions:

  1. That third place can be the best spot to be as an election campaign nears its climax – especially if you happen to have a campaign strategist like Stephen Carter in your corner
  2. That a good debate performance can change things dramatically overnight – especially if you happen to have a leader like Rachel Notley who is a nimble debater

So if Mr. Trudeau delivers an unexpectedly great performance in any of the upcoming debates, his standing with voters could soar.

If he doesn’t, but the Conservatives only manage to get a minority, they might be desperate enough to stay in power to let him prop them up, even though that would ensure his party, which they hate, survives to fight another day.

If the NDP forms a minority, no one should rule out the possibility Mr. Trudeau would try to cut a deal with the Conservatives to form a government. Mr. Harper might hate that idea, but it could seem better than the alternative. And it might be fine with another Conservative leader, and that would be a distinct possibility in such circumstances.

Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

If either the NDP or the Conservatives form a majority, however, the Liberals are likely done like dinner – a development that would suit everyone but the Grits.

As for Mr. Cullen’s musings to the Georgia Straight, well, it’s lucky for the NDP they weren’t spoken a month from now. The damage will probably be insignificant, and Mr. Cullen will be under virtual house arrest for the rest of the campaign, with a roll of duct tape visible on the kitchen counter to remind him of his duty to keep his lips zipped.

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  1. Mr. Cullen also supported strategic voting and/or a coalition during his NDP leadership bid and some say that his politics would put him solidly in the middle of the beltway in DC. So it appears on the surface as no surprise that Cullen is now making this suggestion again. However, getting the Liberals to refuse to do so is a coup for the NDP and a setback for those panting about the benefits of strategic voting. So on balance, this tactic may bear significant fruit for Mulcair & company.

    Out here in the Federal riding of Delta, BC, specifically Tsawwassen, which has been held by the Conservatives for 22 years, many are saying they so want to be rid of Harper, that they have decided to vote for either the NDP or Justin’s party, depending on who it looks like is going to win. seems to be the main proponent of this so-called strategic voting. So one now has to ask oneself: If the Liberals are not willing to form a coalition with the NDP, then what is the point of strategic voting? Of course the answer is, none!

    People should always vote their values, not according to a trumped up strategy that only benefits Harper.

    1. I think you’re correct about the strategic value of Cullen’s ‘play’ – putting the Liberals into a situation in which they are seen as cooperating with the Conservatives is surely advantageous to the NDP, who still have votes they can peel off the poor Grits. many of the ‘soft progressives’ that the article mentions would consider any cooperation between Harper and Trudeau to be a betrayal, and a public perception that Mulcair is the only true opponent to Harper is very valuable to the NDP campaign. I think Cullen knew exactly what he was doing.

  2. I don’t get the reference to Stephen Carter. Are you suggesting he is working for the Liberals in the imminent federal election? And you have to consider that Nenshi aside, his results have been abysmal (Alison Redford). I think Nenshi was a Nenshi phenomenon, Carter just happened to be along for the ride. I stand to be corrected, but any elucidation would be welcome. The 2010 mayoralty campaign was a dog’s breakfast, and Nenshi pulled a rabbit out of a hat, but I have never seen a detailed account of Carter’s contribution to his campaign.

    1. Not really, simply that Stephen Carter has a reputation as a clever strategist who has successfully used the come-from-behind jump to and from third-place on at least some occasions. Certainly I think he deserves credit for playing a significant role in both Alison Redford’s capture of the PC leadership in 2011 and the general election of 2012, both campaigns to which I was paying attention, although there was of course more to it in both cases. I am aware of the view that Mr. Carter was simply along for the ride in the case of Mr. Nenshi’s election, as well as that that he did play a significant role. I’m not really in a position to commentate on that particular election because I wasn’t there to watch it unfold and when I did try to commentate on it, as you may recall, I got it spectacularly wrong. Lesson learned, sort of. Nevertheless, I do have some regard for Mr. Carter’s abilities, although he should have paid attention and let me give him credit for a role in Christie Clark’s 2013 campaign, back when it appeared she was going to lose. He demanded a correction and he got it, because I took him at his word and therefore confessed to my errors. So he is forever on record as having had NOTHING to do with Ms. Clark’s ultimately and unexpectedly successful campaign.

      1. Adrian Dix has the rights to all credit for Christy. As does Andria for the Wynne! When we suck, we suck.

  3. This part of your post seems a trifle harsh:

    Granted, the pre-election Canadian and Alberta situations are not precisely the same. The Alberta Liberals were victims of a uniquely bad leader. Former Conservative Raj Sherman, who has since resigned, acted as a one-man wrecking crew, pretty well destroying the party as a serious political force in just three years. Mr. Trudeau has his flaws, but they’re nowhere near as grave.
    I don’t know Dr. Raj Sherman personally, and yet, he always struck me as a competent Liberal Party leader. He also is -in my opinion, a decent human being who had the courage to speak up for citizens. This was at a time, when most of us were sheep afraid to say boo to the big bad wolves around us.

    Heck, we’re still afraid to say boo to the Tory folks around us —just in case we lose our jobs or get labelled as troublemakers or we find it suddenly difficult to make our way in the society surrounded as we are by PC inserts in every ABC (agencies, boards and commissions) around us.

    All this fear is troubling to me. And yet, at a time when doctors were being harassed and losing their jobs in Alberta– as was the case with Dr. Fanning –we had Dr. Sherman speaking out and working on our behalf to reveal the failures of the useless Tories.

    I think you are far too hard on Dr. Raj Sherman. I don’t see him as a “one-man wrecking crew”. He had a difficult time in Alberta because of the Tory smear campaign with reference to the federal Liberal Party.

    The myth making machinery of the Tories paid for no doubt via the Tapcal Fund (that the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta—has not provided any information on) plus the government advertisements extolling the virtues of the Tories (that we paid for) did much to hurt the Liberal brand in Alberta. This Liberal brand like the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta brand is pretty much toast now.
    Because of the myth making machinery, the government propaganda (think action plans) and the obliviousness of Tory voters (like myself) we have had a train wreck party for 44 years in power. It’s a shame. But that’s deMockracy for you. It’s not the fault of Dr. Sherman we were slightly indoctrinated and did not vote for his party.
    The National Energy Program proposed by the Liberals–always seemed like a good idea to me. I was mystified by the position of the bought and sold Tories who felt that we should let ourselves be ripped off by the industry. They managed to convince whole swathes of citizens of the virtues of the rigged free market. Instead of the oil and gas industry being run by us –we are told it is better to let the oil and gas industry run the energy sector and the government. In my mind, this rigged free market stuff is always a good thing for businesses in Alberta –even when it doesn’t work because taxpayers subsidize the corporate sector even when they fail. We subsidize the oil and gas industry when they are booming and we do it when they are down the toilet. We are told this is for our own good. I wonder why having oil leaks from new pipelines (Nexen leak) is good for us?
    The NEP would have been good for all Albertans. I think if we had the NEP now this would mean that we would have more money in the Heritage Trust Fund, more control over environmental messes, a functional health and long term care sector funded adequately by revenues from the corporate sector plus enough money to actually provide for our most disadvantaged citizens.
    But of course, the oil and gas industry would prefer to have the rigged free market and good for them. It’s our own fault for our stupidity.
    Dr. Sherman did his best and we should be appreciative of his work. It takes many folks to wake us all up from our collective unconsciousness.

    I think there is a possibility of the federal NDP winning the next election simply because the federal Liberals made a big mistake supporting bill C-51. I don’t know why they did this. But this support indicated to us that the federal Liberals appear to be identical to the federal Conservatives. So after enduring the Tories for ages, why would we vote in another Tory party in Liberal format?
    Bill C-51 is a big issue and needs more coverage by the media. I am not in favour of it and believe that it will increase the bad politics of division that is Harper’s fingerprints on the crime scene of deMockracy.
    It’s too bad we’re all so somnolent during the summer months. Hopefully we will wake up when it is time to vote. Not only should we remember Bill C-51 but also all the money that has been wasted by the Tories on stupid action plans, advertisements that subsidize big oil (which has enough cash of its own to pay for its own myth making machines), the lack of receipts for 3.1 billions dollars, the airplanes that cost us big bucks, the submarines we paid for that are defective and so on and so forth. This federal government has not done anything about the major losses of children (mostly aboriginal) in our foster care system, doesn’t give beans about the health/ education of aboriginal kids and seems to be oblivious to their unsurprising unpopularity with reference to these failures.

    Giving mummies like myself, an increase in the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) as a directed bribe to vote for them won’t work. Real deliverables are what we want. These real deliverables would be intelligent planning for the baby boom seniors with inclusion of long term care facilities under the Canada Health Act with national standards of care enforceable by the federal government of Canada.
    Long-term care does not fall under the Canada Health Act. It therefore remains outside of
    the universally insured health services (Alexander, 2002).

    Long-term care does not fall under the Canada Health Act. It therefore remains outside of
    the universally insured health services (Alexander, 2002).
    “Continuum of Care” Definition: Appropriate care in homes or facilities for
    people with chronic or long-term care needs.
    Long-term care facilities are not covered under the Canada Health Act. The federal government does not provide first-dollar coverage as it does for “medically necessary” services.2 The federal government has not established national standards on continuing care, which is why the number of available beds, the availability of supplies, hours of care for each resident, public funding, and out-of-pocket expenses varies between provinces and territories, and in for-profit and not-for-profit facilities.3

    But instead of such planning we have hocus pocus at the federal level with each part of Canada doing their own thing to the detriment of seniors.
    I’m not impressed by the Tories or the Liberals with reference to the care of our seniors and I believe all citizens need to think ahead to our own old age and vote accordingly. Who would you want in charge of the care of our most vulnerable citizens in Canada? I’d say I’d want the federal NDP in charge and no, I’d not want the Tories after the messes in Alberta.

    1. If you’ll forgive my condescension Julie, you have a very good analysis and very good read.

      My take on the Liberals in Alberta, and now, federally, is that they want to govern the same way; corporations first, people second. Only they promise to do it in a more ‘Liberal’ way, whatever that means. It never made any sense when I talked, then argued with the Liberal Party believers in Alberta and I’m left scratching my head in wonder at the federal iteration.
      Small wonder, that for those of us who want change, that the NDP is an easy choice.

      Regarding your comments about the provincial mythmaking, the PC inserts in every ABC, summer somnolence and being afraid to say boo; I wonder how much of this plays into the inaction of the Notley government. They face a very real uphill battle to make substantive changes in this province, to be sure, but delay and inactivity will not play in their favour.

  4. I like Mr. Cullen except for his too frequent forays into promoting pre-election coalitions. I would not be able/willing to vote for a formal re-election effective merger of the NDP and Liberals as there is too much that I despise in the Liberal parties history and platform and would thus be foreced to support some other minor party such as the Greens. Has Mr Cullen forgotten the PC and Reform (or was it CRAP?) alliance that failed at least initially to deliver the expected votes because members of both originating parties refused to vote for the resulting menage?

    Now if the parties decide to form a temporary alliance post election to form a government, then that is a different matter as it will be temporary, and likely short term.

  5. I believe there is a false assumption here that conflates pre-election cooperation, which Nathan Cullen proposed during the leadership contest, and post-election coalition, which he and the NDP have mused about since Jack Layton was first elected Leader. This is not a new concept.

    And I disagree that this was some sort of off-the-cuff, ill-conceived musing by a rogue MP. I have no proof of this, but in my mind it is a brilliant strategy. The federal NDP want as much as possible to make this a two-way race between them and the Conservatives. In places like BC where they have a real shot at making some serious gains, and split with Liberals poses a problem. Cullen also senses the extreme anti-Harper sentiment in that province and I believe was playing that up. To most left-coasters, the single most important issue is getting rid of Stephen Harper. Using long help NDP policy about coalition, he show that it is the NDP that share British Columbian’s number 1 goal. When Trudeau slams the door on that, it looks as all he and the Liberals care about is once again taking power, to which they believe they are entitled.

    Another indication that Cullen’s remarks were not undisciplined rantings, as you suggest, is the number of other NDP MPs from across the country who made similar comments at about the same time. I suspect, although I have no direct intelligence on this, that this was a well-orchestrated, well-planned strategic move on behalf of the federal NDP.

    1. Jerry: I am always prepared, and sometimes delighted, to be proved wrong on such opinions. But I lean toward the chaos theory of political utterances, and the inability of political parties, any political party, to sustain and deliver a conspiracy, if that’s the word, of the complexity that your argument suggests. If there had been a well-organized, orchestrated attempt to say such things for strategic reasons, everybody in NDP circles would have been blabbing about it within hours, and Robin Sears and Ian Capstick, both quoted in the iPolitics article, wouldn’t have been so dismissive.

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