NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Progressive Conservative Party Leader Joe Clark during a televised debate during the 1979 election. May 13, 1979.

In 1980, Pierre Trudeau defeated Joe Clark’s bumbling regime and formed a new Liberal government. However, he faced a serious problem constructing his cabinet. The voters of western Canada showed they did not much like the prime minister who had taunted them with the question, “Why should I sell your wheat?”

Although he won 147 seats and a clear majority, 126 of those were in Ontario and Quebec, 19 in Atlantic Canada, and only two in western Canada, and those were in BC. On the one hand, that was OK. It was, after all, a majority. On the other hand, it was a disaster. Traditionally, every province (except Prince Edward Island) could count on at least one minister sitting at the cabinet table that could be counted on to explain and defend their province’s unique circumstances and would press for its needs to be met.

So Trudeau had a problem. Where was he to get those ministers from? Eventually he reached for the traditional solution: he appointed senators. Joe Clark had done the same in 1979 to compensate for his weakness in Quebec.

Before Trudeau resorted to this strategy, he made a bold and imaginative move. He asked NDP leader Ed Broadbent if he were willing to form a coalition government. This strategy was highly unusual, since prime ministers with a majority rarely wanted to make life more difficult for themselves by having another party’s leader, and two or three of his followers, in the cabinet, with the NDP leader holding a senior cabinet portfolio.

Broadbent, of course, had something Trudeau needed—Western MPS, in fact 27 of them. All but five of the NDP contingent hailed from West of Ontario. Broadbent thought seriously about the matter, and then told Trudeau it was no go. On the plus side, the idea of joining the government and advancing part of the NDP’s agenda appealed to him, but there was a big minus. Since Trudeau held a majority in the House of Commons, there was nothing stopping him two or three years down the line from ending the coalition, whenever he thought that act would benefit the Liberals. So Broadbent refused. We will never know whether an NDP presence in the cabinet would have stopped the divisive National Energy Program.

Would a coalition, which eluded the parties in 1980, be possible today? There are three important considerations. Could the two parties act in concert? There is really no point in calling a loose working arrangement a coalition if the parties aren’t prepared to co-operate very closely together.

Second, although the two parties could agree to disagree on some elements in their platform as the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have done in the United Kingdom, their core proposals, especially in economic policy, would have to coincide. Voters quite reasonably will expect coherence before they trust the two parties to govern.

Third, there would have to be very tough negotiations over which constituencies the NDP would run candidates in and which ones the Liberals got. It is best that a coalition’s candidates don’t run against one another in every constituency. So, is a coalition possible? Sure, but it is not to be seriously discussed until both the Liberals and the NDP have new leaders in place. It is too important a decision to be made by acting NDP leader Nycole Turmel and Bob Rae.

What about a merger? There have been several mergers in Canadian history. The NDP’s predecessor, the CCF, replaced several smaller socialist parties in 1932. The Progressive Conservative party was created in 1942 when Manitoba’s Progressive party premier, John Bracken, became leader. More recently, the Conservative Party of Canada was formed by the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative party in 2003.

A merger is indeed possible. The two parties’ core principles overlap. However, the NDP is riding a wave right now. They would insist that a merger took place on their terms, more a takeover than a melding. It is unlikely that a proud and historic entity like the Liberal party would vote itself into oblivion until their future is far bleaker than it is right now.

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia to learn more about the elections of 1979 and 1980.

 

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About William Christian

William Christian formerly taught political science at Mount Allison University and the University of Guelph. He has contributed regularly to newspapers for over thirty years. His biography of Canadian philosopher George Grant was a national best-seller. He recently published Parkin: Canada's Most Famous Forgotten Man (Blue Butterfly Books), a biography of Grant's maternal grandfather (and Michael Ignatieff's great-grandfather). He lives in Guelph, Ontario. He tweets at @WEChristian.

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