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Party stalwart Ed Broadbent chats with NDP Leader Jack Layton as they leave his Parliament Hill office on Friday, November 28, 2008. (Tom Hanson)
Party stalwart Ed Broadbent chats with NDP Leader Jack Layton as they leave his Parliament Hill office on Friday, November 28, 2008. (Tom Hanson)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: The shape of the deal Add to ...

Yesterday I began a series of posts I'm going to be putting up here, giving you a bit of the flavour of last year's efforts by federal opposition parties to replace the Conservative minority government with something better.

By the end of the first week, the scene had switched to Ottawa. We had assembled a team and talked through our objectives. Then we sat down with the Liberals for the first time.

- - - - -

Friday, November 28, 2008: Our first exploratory meeting with the Liberals began in mid-afternoon that day at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Ottawa. We met in an airless boardroom on the second floor.

Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale and Ottawa policy consultant Herb Metcalfe led the Liberal team. Dawn Black, a wise veteran NDP Member of Parliament, and I represented the NDP.

I had never met Metcalfe before and knew nothing about him. I soon found him to be a smart, friendly, thoughtful political adviser working with remarkable commitment to try to get his luckless leader back on a winning track.

Mr. Goodale, on the other hand, I knew quite a bit about. We had put some thought earlier in the game into proposing that Mr. Goodale be named prime minister of the coalition government.

Further, Allan Blakeney was going to be a key part of our team that weekend. Goodale and Blakeney had known each other in the Saskatchewan legislature - Blakeney as opposition leader, Goodale as leader and sole MLA for the Saskatchewan provincial Liberals. In the 1986 provincial election, Goodale had waged a lonely campaign on a platform of strict fiscal discipline, while the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP duelled over how much more could be done by government for the economy and public services. Goodale had been clobbered in that election. But he turned out to be right about the fiscal state of the province. When Premier Romanow was elected in 1991 and found himself confronted with the disastrous fiscal mess left by the Conservatives, our government tackled the issues Goodale was trying to warn about in 1986. In that sense there was some hope for finding a common fiscal language with Goodale.

We got down to business.

After some conversational throat-clearing about the weather and a round of introductions, Herb Metcalfe opened the discussion by saying that the Liberals were committed to trying to negotiate a coalition, and wanted to commit that coalition's key principles to paper as quickly as possible. "We need to have a letter signed by Monday," Metcalfe said. "A letter from Jack, Duceppe and Dion to the Governor General."

I agreed to this proposal - we would sign a joint letter from the entire opposition to the Governor General, telling her that a majority of Parliament supported a new government.

I then suggested we talk in more detail about the "shape of the deal." Metcalfe agreed.

I outlined our view, reading from notes I had taken of Jack Layton's direction a few hours before.

We proposed that we work up two documents: a government accord between the Liberals and the NDP; and a policy accord that would also have the support of the Bloc.

The government accord between the Liberals and the NDP would provide for a coalition; a proportionate cabinet; and a term going to June 2011 to permit two budgets.

The policy accord would commit the new government to a focus on the economic crisis. There would be a stimulus package including infrastructure investment; income support and security; and co-operation with the Obama administration on priorities like a continental environmental cap-and-trade system.

If this was roughly the shape of the deal we were both interested in, Dawn Black and I suggested we discuss the government accord on Saturday with a view to negotiating it in final form, and then that we discuss the policy accord Sunday. We proposed this work plan because we had a fairly clear idea about what we wanted in the government accord. But we needed more time to do our homework on the policy issues. The agenda we outlined therefore created a workday on Saturday that our mothership could use to carefully consider the policy issues.

Metcalfe and Goodale agreed to this work plan.

Goodale discussed some of the parliamentary issues around defeating the Conservatives. The Liberals would table several draft opposition day motions immediately. There were several motions we could choose from, he said.. One would be a straight non-confidence motion. This might then set up two separate votes Monday that the government could be defeated on - the ways-and-means motion, and the Liberal confidence motion.

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