Metcalfe moved on to what seemed to be a favourite topic of his, the need for a minister whose sole job would be to oversee cabinet committees and to ensure they all really worked. We received this proposal without comment.
At this point I proposed that we review our notes and make sure we had clearly heard each other on the "shape of the deal." I went through the deal points again: an NDP/Liberal governing coalition; a policy accord also supported by the Bloc; a proportional cabinet; a two-and-a-half-year mandate to June 2011; a focus on the economy. They agreed that this was the shape of the deal.
Goodale outlined his proposal for a 30-day consultation process about the economy and the next budget. He said what needed to be done was fairly clear, but that there should be a wide consultation process to ensure stakeholders were heard and the government's actions were seen to be legitimate and based on wide agreement.
I pointed out that the stimulus package we were contemplating the corporate tax cuts that the Liberals favoured were going to add up to a very substantial deficit. I asked Goodale if he was comfortable with that. Goodale replied that our goal had to be to get back on track to debt reduction as quickly as possible after the economic crisis was over, aimed for a goal of having the debt down to 20 per cent of GDP by 2020. The recovery plan would have to include a plan to get the federal government back to fiscal health..
We thought that was fine, betting it could not be achieved without backing off on the corporate tax cuts Harper introduced and the Liberals supported.
"Do you expect the agenda to include your carbon tax proposal?" I asked next. Everyone laughed. No, they didn't. A continental cap and trade system was the way to go. The two programs were basically equivalent if carefully costed out and would get us to the same end. There was no talk of a "tax shift" any more. Agreed.
Goodale went directly to the corporate tax issue. Did we understand that some of those measures were needed? I said we would see, as the government's fiscal strategy played itself out.
Metcalfe raised the final issue that day - dispute resolution. If we are going to persuade the Governor-General that we had a viable government, we needed some sort of machinery to resolve disputes between the coalition partners, short of having the government come apart. The Liberals were thinking of some sort of party elders committee, that we could refer disputes to for mediation. Since Ed Broadbent and Jean Chrétien seemed to be working well together behind the scenes, this sounded like a good idea to us. We agreed, suggesting that Chrétien and similar figures from the Liberal party could be their picks, and that people like Ed Broadbent, Allan Blakeney, and Roy Romanow would figure among ours.
Both sides thought we had enough to report back to our principals. Metcalfe said the Liberals had reserved the penthouse boardroom on the 17th floor of the same hotel for the following day. We agreed we would consult the people we worked for, and that if they were satisfied with progress we'd resume the following day.
Dawn Black and I stumped back to Layton's caucus services office a few blocks from the hotel, doing a debrief en route. We marvelled at the role of Liberal leadership politics in this affair. This was about Mr. Dion retracting his resignation and grabbing the prime ministership. The audacity of what he was trying to do kind of impressed us. And worried us.
We reported progress to Layton. He felt things were on track and that the negotiations should continue. At Layton's direction I emailed Metcalfe (5:54 p.m.): "Confirming for 10:00 a.m. tomorrow." The Liberal negotiator was succinct in reply (6:05 p.m.): "See you at 10:00 a.m."
Tomorrow: The agreement comes together
(Top photo: Ed Broadbent chats with NDP Leader Jack Layton as they leave his Parliament Hill office on Friday, November 28, 2008. Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp