MONTREAL — The federal Liberals should have merged with the NDP when they had the chance in the 1990s, former prime minister Jean Chretien said while reflecting on his time as prime minister.
The move could have solidified the progressive movement at the cost of only a couple of cabinet positions in his majority Liberal government, he said in a feature one-on-one interview on Global’s The West Block with Tom Clark.
“I should have done it,” he said on Thursday. “You know, some of my ministers suggested it… But I had decided at the beginning to have a very small cabinet of only 23 ministers. So I would have to expand. I should have done it. I didn’t do it.”
Chretien stuck with his decision to keep his government relatively small. But in 2003, as he was stepping down and handing the Liberal reins to Paul Martin, he watched the two parties on the right, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, merge to form the present day Conservative Party of Canada.
Two elections later, and the Conservatives would win a minority government, taking power away from the Liberals.
The idea of uniting the left to beat the Conservatives is as old as the hills; as Chretien put it, his musings on the matter “were not new. I’m not reinventing the wheel.”
Chretien recalled that in 1956, then-Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent described the New Democrat’s predecessors, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, as “Liberals in a Hurry.”
Then, Chretien spoke of when he was in Lester B. Pearson’s cabinet in the 1960s, creating social programs like medicare, and the Liberals were working closely with NDP leader Tommy Douglas.
And when Pierre Trudeau was leading the majority Liberal government, he went so far as to offer NDP leader Ed Broadbent a cabinet position.
“Trudeau had a view that he had a majority government, but he had no seats in the West,” Chretien said. “And it would give him more legitimacy with the westerners if he had seats out there.”
Broadbent declined Trudeau’s offer.
A safe bettor today would put money on the NDP’s new leader, Thomas Mulcair, continuing the trend and turning down an offer to join forces with the third-party Liberals.
Chretien, meanwhile, wouldn’t even wager a bet.
“I don’t know whether the current Liberals and NDP will merge,” he said, before considering the future of the Liberals. “I hope that the values I fought for my whole life will not disappear. I don’t think it will disappear, or the people will react very badly. But sometimes they can make mistakes.”
To watch the full interview with Jean Chretien, watch The West Block with Tom Clark this Sunday.
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