Shades of Ontario 1990: let’s hope this flirtation with Dippers ends this week…

This past week’s flirtation with the NDP in Quebec and perhaps elsewhere reminds me of Ontario’s flirtation with the NDP in 1990. Quebecers have never experienced life under NDP rule. Ontarians did from 1990 to 1995, and it wasn’t overly pretty: an idealistic platform of expensive promises were quickly abandoned after the Ontario NDP came to power and it went downhill from there. I’ll spare you the history lesson, but it’s safe to say that Ontarians have no illusions about the NDP anymore, unlike our Quebecois neighbours.

Jack Layton is a decent, hard-working man with the polished charisma one would expect from a career politician. I can’t criticize him as a person and obviously he’s talented at what he does. But he’s not offering a serious governing option to Canadians in 2011. Check out this recent Jeffrey Simpson article for more evidence.

I’m afraid a strengthened NDP in this election (coupled with a Liberal result that barely moves up from the 2008 result) will only make the removal of Stephen Harper and his Conservatives further delayed. Worse, it could pave the way to a Harper majority.

It’s time for those who oppose Harper to get serious and vote for an actual alternative government. In this election, that’s Michael Ignatieff’s Liberal Party, who have done the work to present a platform that is balanced, progressive and costed.

It’s easy to appeal to voters when you are untried and untested and are offering pie-in-the-sky platitudes that soothe our progressive hearts and fantasies. But this is not the NDP of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and even Nova Scotia provincial politics. This is still the pre-1990 Ontario NDP with a bunch of promises, an appealing leader and a record free of experience.

If the NDP win a breakthrough in Quebec in this election and take down the Bloc a peg or two, that will be momentarily interesting to watch. But it’ll also further deepen the schism that runs through Canada’s opposition parties and helps ensure repeated Conservative victories. In an ideal world, we’d have one federalist, progressive alternative to the Conservatives called the Liberal Democrats, with credibility and support across the entire country. Our nation’s progressive bent would ensure this new party beats the Conservatives more than not.

But of course, it’s not clear how that could ever happen. If the NDP wins a breakthrough in this election, why would they want to abandon their party and merge it with the Liberals? I fear the only thing that could bring about such a merger would be repeated Conservative majority wins, and I don’t want to see that happen to our country.

The Liberal Party of Canada’s success in the 1990s and early 2000s was built largely on a weak NDP with barely 10 per cent support (and of course a divided conservative movement). Since Jack Layton became NDP leader, the Liberals have had a difficult time beating those pesky Conservatives because huge chunks of the progressive left have opted out of choosing a real governing option. It seems the only way for the Liberals to one day beat the Conservatives on their own is with a suppressed NDP vote. That was certainly the goal of the Liberal campaign in this election.

Sadly, Layton’s beaming smile has screwed that option (at least this week.)

We’ll see how this all works out.