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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 ...

Much of what would happen in the next four days was prefigured in this report. As was later widely reported in the media, Ed Broadbent and Jean Chrétien engaged in a number of discussions leading up to and during the coalition negotiations. They found common cause on the coalition's central elements very quickly.

The incubus in the Liberal Party was also immediately visible - Michael Ignatieff's revolt against his leader.

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was holding a fundraiser at the Royal York Hotel that night. Several of my colleagues from film and television were attending to show the flag for our industry tribe. They called me from the event to report that a number of federal Liberals were present. Notably, a number of people from Michael Ignatieff's leadership campaign. Given all the news about Mr. Ignatieff, it seemed helpful to see what they might have on their minds.

So a bit later that evening I walked over the Royal York Hotel and slipped into the fundraiser. At the event, my good friend and long-time film industry colleague the late Hon. Doug Frith introduced me to some of Mr. Ignatieff's key campaign aides. On the floor of the event and then at the Royal York's Library Bar, we settled down to what turned into an almost two-hour discussion, punctuated by calls and emails to Jack Layton on my part and (from what I could tell) to Mr. Ignatieff on their part.

We had a conversation in three acts.

In the first part of the conversation, my new acquaintances asked me to explain to them why they should be supportive of a coalition with the NDP at all. In their view they had a crushing majority of the Liberal caucus behind them, and they were confident that Michael Ignatieff would win at the planned May 2009 Liberal leadership campaign on the first ballot. They could then expect a nice bump in the polls during Ignatieff's honeymoon; they could defeat Harper in the House in the spring or fall of 2009; defeat him again in the subsequent election; and then they'd be in office nice and clean, the old and traditional way. As it later turned out, they never really deviated from this strategy.

I replied by pointing out that as long as the Bloc Québécois was viable, they were not going to win a majority government in any conceivable scenario - a view they agreed with. This being so, why go through a year's political work with all of its uncertainty, hoping to end up at the head of a minority government, when you could have exactly that outcome next week?

They took a little pause to make a series of phone calls to their mothership.

In the second part of the conversation, they asked me very directly about who would be the prime minister of such a government. Specifically, was it true that Jack Layton had told Stéphane Dion that only Dion would be acceptable to us?

As noted above, Ed Broadbent had also heard that one.

I called Layton to ask him what I should say in reply. He told me to tell Mr. Ignatieff's people that the NDP took no position on who the Liberal leader and prime minister should be - that was up to the Liberals to decide.

This answer seemed to please Ignatieff's people a great deal, and they took a time out to make some more calls.

In the third part of the conversation, on their return, their tone changed markedly. They were suddenly a good deal less friendly. Their message was that we would see what would happen in coming days. They provided some contact numbers, and then they left to go join the rest of their team.

I had a couple of glasses of wine with my film industry friends and then called it a night.

It was a long walk through empty downtown Toronto streets, surrounded by brightly lit skyscrapers, from the Royal York to my car back at my office. The walk sobered me up.

I wondered how good this was all going to look in the morning.

Tomorrow: The Shape of The Agreement

(Photo: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivers the government's fiscal update in the House of Commons on November 27, 2008. Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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