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NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe shake hands as then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion looks on after signing a coalition agreement on Dec. 1, 2008. (Adrian Wyld)
NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe shake hands as then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion looks on after signing a coalition agreement on Dec. 1, 2008. (Adrian Wyld)

Book review

Bye-bye coalitions? Add to ...

Brian Topp has written an insider's account of the coalition near-crisis of 2008 -and what a tale it is. The author, a former NDP national campaign director, writes uncommonly well for someone who's been in the business of clip and spin. And he's writing about a controversy that stirred Canadians to a degree not seen since the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords.

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In Mr. Topp, Jack Layton had the right man for the job. Born and raised in Quebec, he's bilingual and is sensitive to the distinct society. As deputy chief of staff to Roy Romanow - who writes the book's preface - he was present at the creation of the Saskatchewan coalition government in 1999. Now head of Toronto-based ACTRA, Mr. Topp possesses the skills, stamina and ability to schmooze that are the stuff of a good negotiator.

Not surprisingly, most of the juicier anecdotes in the book concern the Liberals: Bob Rae initially keeping his head down, in order not to re-awaken memories of his accord with David Peterson and subsequent term as premier of Ontario; like Michael Ignatieff, his principal objective was to replace Stéphane Dion. Marlene Jennings explaining that Mr. Dion would not be able to offer the NDP cabinet seats - as was the original understanding - since a long line of Liberal MPs (presumably including herself) had been patiently waiting their turn. Gilles Duceppe whispering to Liberal staffers at the last minute that it might not go down well in the West for him to be in the picture when the deal was announced. Ralph Goodale unable to look Mr. Topp in the eye after Mr. Ignatieff reneged.

Still, Mr. Topp is never nasty: as a good negotiator, he never burns bridges that might prove useful next time around. And, that moment may not be too far off - judging from the proposals, prefigured in the final part of the book, that Messrs. Ignatieff and Layton have put forward to prevent the Governor-General from ever again agreeing to prorogue the House in a situation akin to December, 2008.

Moreover, though a draft of the book was read by members of Mr. Topp's "tribe," the final product is not completely scrubbed of material unhelpful to coalition proponents. We learn, for example, that Stephen Harper had not discussed formation of a coalition government with the opposition parties in 2004, as many claim; their letter to the Governor-General was about "sending the minority Liberal government [of Paul Martin]a message that it was going to have to govern in consultation with the Opposition parties." Later on, when Mr. Duceppe explained that Mr. Harper would be prime minister of a coalition government, Mr. Layton "withdrew from the three-party group."

How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot is full of other surprises, even for those who closely followed the saga. Personally, I did not appreciate at the time the role played by NDP and Liberal "elders" - at one point, Mr. Romanow even suggested that Jean Chrétien, not Mr. Dion, serve as interim prime minister of the coalition government. But the greatest surprise was that Liberals and New Democrats were already informally exploring the possibility of a coalition government prior to the 2008 election.

Among other things, this revelation puts paid to the notion that the new party financing rules included in the Conservatives' fiscal update - which Mr. Topp refers to as a "coup" - were responsible for the explosion. Rather, Mr. Harper's huge blunder, which united the left, gave Jack Layton the opportunity he'd been thinking about since becoming leader.

Since it was founded in 1961, the NDP's overriding problem has been the cruelty of our electoral system to third parties. They've sometimes secured the balance of power, but not often enough for their liking. New Democrats have tried once or twice to replace the Liberals as the second party. When all else failed, they at least could count on the Liberals stealing their ideas for campaign purposes, and implementing one or two after the election.



Most of the juicier anecdotes in the book concern the Liberals: Bob Rae initially keeping his head down ... Gilles Duceppe whispering to Liberal staffers at the last minute that it might not go down well in the West ... Ralph Goodale unable to look Mr. Topp in the eye after Mr. Ignatieff reneged.


Mr. Layton was hungry, and he understood that none of these approaches would give him much influence over a Harper government. With prospects of electoral reform not on, a coalition government became the NDP's best option; had they succeeded, it would have had the added virtue of giving their MPs some experience in government and the party a track record.

In the end, as we know, the coalition failed, mostly due to mistakes that Mr. Harper ruthlessly seized upon to win the battle of public opinion outside Quebec. To his credit, Mr. Topp accepts his share of the blame, but one wonders whether a misunderstanding of the Saskatchewan precedent both by him and by his colleagues contributed to the failure. While few doubt the constitutionality, legality and legitimacy of the Romanow coalition, or that it provided stable government, the 2008 attempt - labeled a "coup" by the Economist magazine - was seen by most Canadians outside Quebec as illegitimate.

Still, various coalition spokespersons, together with their allies in the media and academe, argued that the Governor-General would have little or no choice but to transfer power to them without an election; the record shows, however, that Mr. Topp and his negotiating counterparts knew that not to be true. Frankly, I don't know how much of what we were hearing back then - and still are - was spin, and how much flowed from an inadequate understanding of how our constitutional democracy works. For, in reality, it was virtually inconceivable that Michaëlle Jean would hand power to a coalition headed by Stéphane Dion - a man who had just been soundly thrashed by voters - even if the secessionist Bloc Québécois had not been in the picture.

It's true, contrary to Mr. Harper's assertion, that a prime minister does not derive his mandate from the people. Nor, however, does Parliament "select a ministry from among its ranks to do its bidding," as Mr. Topp writes. After an election, the Governor-General registers the will of Canadians and then decides whom to call upon to form a government. The Queen's representative also has a choice to make if that individual fails to obtain the confidence of the House, or loses it.

That said, with a majority of voters backing the opposition parties - and with these parties having more in common with each other than with the Conservatives - the prospect of a coalition government will quite possibly figure in the next election; in that case, one would hope that all potential partners would be up-front about their intentions - as Mr. Dion, in particular, was not the last time.

Who knows? If the election results are similar to the outcome in Saskatchewan in 1999, it could work. If not, perhaps the time will have arrived for Liberals to do as Stephen Harper did after the parties of the centre-right suffered a third consecutive electoral loss, lest the Conservatives eventually replace them as Canada's natural governing party.

Norman Spector, who served as chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, is a former academic, deputy minister and ambassador. He has been writing for The Globe and Mail since 1995

 

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