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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 ...

"Backchannels: Rae and his people don't want bitter Liberal memories of the Peterson accord and its consequences to stick to him, so he's keeping his head down so far internally," I wrote to Layton and McGrath (5:02 p.m.). "Iggy folks also reserving, awaiting developments. If this gets real I think you'll want to assemble whatever you have in mind as your working group in Ottawa tomorrow."

What Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff thought about all of this was, of course, critically important. Stéphane Dion had resigned as Liberal leader. Rae and Ignatieff were the leading candidates to succeed him. If they supported a coalition proposal, it had some sort of a chance. If not, it didn't.

I was also suggesting Mr. Layton think about his working group. I hoped that the members of our "scenarios committee" (a study group that included chief of staff Anne McGrath, former federal leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, and myself) would be part of our bargaining team, since we had spent many hours thinking about these issues over the past four years. In the alternate I wanted to be cleanly severed from the process so that I could stop thinking about it.

"Start booking the flights," Layton replied at 5:08 p.m.

It was time to get to work.

Over the past three federal elections, I had gotten to know some of the strategists on Stephen Harper's team. That afternoon I decided to throw a few pebbles into the blue team to see how serious they were about their widely reported program, and to give them fair notice that something big was coming.

I picked a friend I had good reason to believe was close to the prime minister's thinking and sent him a brief note (5:43 p.m.):

"My folks just pushed the red button. I'm on a 7:00 a.m. flight to Ottawa."

He bit (5:56 p.m.): "Do some polling first... what do your voters (not activists or insiders) think about government giving $26 million to political parties during a recession?"

I replied (5:57 p.m.): "There isn't going to be an election."

He knew what that meant (5:59 p.m.): "You're gonna run the government with separatists?"

In hindsight, I should have thought more carefully about the implications of that question. From the first moments when Mr. Harper's team turned their minds to the prospect of a combined opposition coalition, they knew that its key vulnerability was the role of the Bloc Québécois. They zeroed in on this in their nimble campaign against the coalition the following week, and handily won the battle for public opinion in English Canada at the price of their immediate hopes in Quebec.

My assumption was that Harper was committed to finding his majority in Quebec, and saw his constituency there in the nationalist-bleu vote currently parked with the Bloc. Further, I knew that Harper himself had proposed a variant on a coalition arrangement to both the NDP and to the Bloc during Paul Martin's minority - a proposal Jack Layton pulled the plug on.

I didn't fully appreciate that the prime minister was perfectly capable of tossing away his immediate prospects in Quebec if that was expedient. And that he and his team were capable of (to call things what they are) bald-faced lying, denying his own discussions with the Bloc and making the Quebec separatist party the flash point in the debate. Had I understood this, I would have pushed very hard indeed to keep the Bloc much farther away from the coalition negotiations and away from the coalition public announcement, looking instead for a separate, unilateral statement of support Mr. Duceppe could have made a day or two after the coalition was announced.

This was probably our fundamental strategic mistake. And there it was in my Tory friend's email on the first day.

Tabarnacle!

News kept coming from Ottawa.

At 6:46 p.m., NDP press secretary Karl Belanger reported: "Just bumped into Pierre-Paul, senior Bloc official. Duceppe just off the phone with Dion. He's going for it."

I reported to Layton and McGrath at 7:05 p.m.: "Senator Smith just called me. No real news - he just wanted to report his team is thinking about our proposal."

At 9:02 p.m., Anne McGrath emailed a report about Ed Broadbent, who Jack Layton was trying to touch base with: "No need for you [Layton]to call him. We just spoke. There is a caucus revolt brewing in the Libs to replace Dion with Iggy... Said that he was told that you were opposed to either Rae or Iggy in your conversations with Dion. I confirmed this was not true. You have said nothing about the leadership of their party. That's up to them. Sounds like Dion's trying to hang on now. The basis of our agreement should be an economic stimulus package."

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