Here's a little test: what would the Conservatives do if they found a clip of Michael Ignatieff calling Canada a "benign dictatorship?"

Right: they'd put it in an attack ad.

Another test: what would the Liberals do if they caught Stephen Harper saying that?

Right: nothing. At least, that's what they've done with it so far.

So, let's consider that obscure but intriguing article, written in 1997 by two brainy conservatives, Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper. Yes, it calls Canada "a benign dictatorship."

Oh, and it's a passionate defence of coalition governments.

That's right: the whole article is a detailed, persuasive and deeply-researched plea for governments to be forced to compromise with opposition coalitions. That's the only way, said Harper and Flanagan, to curb the tendency to a "one-party state" induced by Canada's "winner take all" system.

At the time, Harper was on a break from active politics, working at the National Citizens' Coalition. When he returned as Opposition leader, Flanagan became Harper's chief of staff in 2003 and became campaign co-chair in the 2004 election.

Their article is lucid, but it's way too long for the Age of Twitter. In fact, it's a slog. But for political geeks, it's a fascinating review of the Canadian scene, asking, why can't we have a system like those in Europe, where coalitions prevent governments riding roughshod over their critics?

Here's how Flanagan and Harper begin:

"Although we like to think of ourselves as living in a mature democracy, we live, instead, in something little better than a benign dictatorship, not under a strict one-party rule, but under a one-party-plus system beset by the factionalism, regionalism and cronyism that accompany any such system. Our parliamentary government creates a concentrated power structure out of step with other aspects of society. For Canadian democracy to mature, Canadian citizens must face these facts, as citizens in other countries have, and update our political structures to reflect the diverse political aspirations of our diverse communities."

What do they mean by "update our political structures?"

It emerges that Harper and Flanagan wanted a "strategic alliance" of opposing parties to dislodge the Liberals, aided by reforms of the electoral system to ensure that those parties get more seats in Parliament.

For examples of superior democratic systems, they point to the Clinton administration's forced cohabitation with a Republican Congress after 1996, and to numerous European examples. Only Britain, they say, gives all power to the winner. (And even that example no longer holds. It's another coalition country now.)

The TV pitch

Harper's views on all this were not confined to academic articles. He laid them out forcefully in a 1997 interview with Paula Todd of TVO:

"The way the Liberals are eventually going to lose office," he said, "whether it's this election or the next one, is they are going to fail to win a majority. And that's where you're going to face someday a minority Parliament, with the Liberals maybe having the largest number of seats."

And the solution was — wait for it — a coalition! Never mind that the other guys won more seats.

"What will be the test is if there is any party in opposition that's able to form a coalition, a working one with the others, and I think we have the political system that's going to continue to have 3 or 4 different parties, or 5 different parties, and so, I think, parties that want to form government are going to eventually have to work together."

Asked about his past enthusiasm for coalitions, Harper sidestepped this week by saying he was just talking about 'uniting the right" — namely, his plan to merge the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties.

But that's not what he said at the time. In his article with Flanagan, he said the opposite:

"A merger between Reform and the PCs, though still discussed, seems to us out of the question. Too many careers would be at stake. Political parties almost never merge in the true sense of the term, and the gap between today's opposition factions is simply too great."

Well, times change. Another aspect of the article has attracted comment: the suggestion that an alliance of anti-Liberal forces might include a Quebec separatist faction. A careful reading shows the article doesn't rule that in or out.

It says "a strategic alliance of Quebec nationalists with conservatives outside Quebec might become possible, and it might be enough to sustain a government."

A Quebec nationalist isn't necessarily a separatist. They're not the same thing. But "nationalists" don't have a party in Parliament; separatists do. The article does suggest that conservatives might have "little choice" but to deal with the separatist party — the Bloc — as the only political formation able to join such an alliance where it counts — in Parliament — along with the Reform and the PCs.

As the article puts it, "conservatives who are unhappy with a one-party-plus system featuring the Liberals as the perpetual governing party may have little choice but to construct an alliance, at least of the two anglophone sisters, and perhaps ultimately including a third sister. An alliance would face many difficulties, to be sure, but it would also have two great advantages. It would reflect the regional and cultural character of Canadian society, and it would give that character an institutional expression."

So - they're not saying an alliance with the "third sister" from Quebec would be easy, but it would have "advantages." Of course, the main advantage would be the possibility of replacing a Liberal minority, as Harper described in his TVO interview.

Now, talking about it in a pamphlet is one thing. As the Conservatives point out, Michael Ignatieff did more than talk about it — he signed the Liberal coalition agreement with the NDP - which, while it did not include the Bloc as a member, nevertheless enjoyed its support. That sounds a lot like the "strategic alliance" that Harper and Flanagan recommended in 1997. In 2004, of course, Harper did enter into a strategic alliance with the NDP and the Bloc, but that alliance did not actually attempt to topple the government.

The leaders of both the NDP and the Bloc both say Harper had that in mind. Harper says he didn't. Either way, it didn't happen.

The upshot? Stephen Harper is right to say that he never tried to seize power from a party which won more seats — which he now says is "illegitimate."

But he sure did think about it — and approved of it. He didn't think it was "illegitimate" when he was the one who came in second.

Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan: Our Benign Dictatorship, Next City, Winter 1996/97