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Before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables the federal government's budget in March, Canadians will be asked their suggestions.
Before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables the federal government's budget in March, Canadians will be asked their suggestions.

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: The Prime Minister <br/>makes a big mistake Add to ...

"What is the state of the 'letter' that we had been considering sending to the political leaders?" Layton asked me at 7:24 a.m. via his BlackBerry. "Was there a list of legislative initiatives that would form the basis of a relationship? (such a list would have to be revised in light of emergency in any event)."

Layton was referring here to a draft letter, never sent, which we had planned to present to Stéphane Dion on election night had the numbers justified it, proposing a coalition government.

"Clearly it [our draft letter]needs a substantial revision," I replied (7:31 a.m.). "Its focus was our 08 platform with biggest move being child benefit. What we need here is an economic focus. Toughest deal point remains the corporate tax cuts, which both Dion and Rae said they still support. Our draft proposes to indefinitely postpone these."

"If the Senator is in Ottawa, I or others could meet him if needed," Layton wrote back that morning (7:36 a.m.).

Layton's run for Mayor of Toronto earlier in his career had been blocked in part by some manoeuvring by Senator Smith ("sharp practice" is how Allan Blakeney might have called what Layton believes Smith did to him in that campaign). Layton didn't want to let go of Smith as a channel for poetic as well as practical reasons, I think.

"Also, what do you think of a public call for a coalition if the economic update does not include dramatic action on an economic stimulus? The media will say we're doing it because of the cut to party financial, of course. But if we stay the course, we can weather that storm because of the economic news and how the coalition handles it will dominate the news over time."

This was good political analysis by our leader, and one I found persuasive then and now. The prime minister had called an election that fall in direct violation of his own fixed elections law. Nobody cared on election day. Canada was now facing a dangerous economic crisis. If the Conservatives focused on playing political games instead of addressing that crisis, we might be able to dump and replace them, and then drown out the inevitable backlash from the Conservative party's anger machine by controlling the government agenda and - hopefully - doing a better job.

"Key in all of this is who is the PM?" I replied (7:44 a.m.). I was warming up. "That requires a prior conversation with the Libs. If they agree it can be Goodale or McCallum, then this has some legs. If they insist it must be Dion, then you are probably holding a busted flush given Bloc won't play."

I was pointing out here that we did not have the numbers between the Liberals and NDP to unseat Harper, and that the Bloc seemed unlikely to me to be interested in installing the author of the Clarity Act as prime minister in place of the decentralizing Harper Conservatives.

"I don't believe the Bloc will be in as strong a position as they were a few weeks ago in opposing Dion as PM," he wrote (8:14 a.m.). "They will be very concerned about losing the public funding and they will be seized with the importance of strong action on EI and stimulus. Standing in the way of a new government because of their attitude towards Dion could be very damaging to them. I will meet with Dion and propose that he consider the scenario, based upon a lack of economic stimulus and the anti-democratic nature of the proposal to cancel, essentially retroactively, the funding of the democratic process - bringing in the era of big-money politics again."

I was pleased Layton was going to deal directly with Dion. Straight to the Liberal leader without any further dancing, so that we could get our "no thanks" and get back to work.

My phone and email buzzed all day with speculation and rumour. I collected it, sceptically.

The Liberal caucus met that afternoon. I kept an eye on CBC Newsworld to see what the Liberals might say.

In due course, Stéphane Dion stepped in front of the cameras to announce that his caucus would end their support for Stephen Harper in the House of Commons, and would vote against the Conservative government's economic statement.

"He said the Liberals are voting against. It would seem this might be real!" I wrote to Layton and McGrath (4:52 p.m.). "Indeed," Layton replied (4:56 p.m.). "I intend to meet him tonight to start the process. He's saying no because he knows our option can work and that Duceppe will support it. Good job we were prepared."

Layton's chief of staff, Anne McGrath, also commented (4:55 p.m.): "Gadzooks!"

Gadzooks indeed.

Some of the day's random rumour mongering now seemed worth reporting. So I sent a further little report, with a process kicker.

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