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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.

Metcalfe talked about the press. He proposed that we adopt a joint communications approach, and say as little as possible to journalists while we were working. "It's best for all of us if much is left to idle speculation," he said.

Things seemed to be going well. The discussion was also drifting into operating issues of secondary importance. So it was time to test how solid this house was, by delving into some of the tougher questions.

"Let's talk about who is going to be prime minister," I said. "Who you have as your leader is entirely up to you. We'll work with whomever the Liberal party chooses. But since Mr. Dion has resigned, and in the spirit of 'idle speculation,' who do you think will be your designate for prime minister?"

There were some interesting expressions on the Liberal team members' faces when I asked this question.

Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien refuses comment on a possible coalition deal with the NDP as he arrives at his downtown Ottawa office on Friday, November 28, 2008. Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

Metcalfe answered.

"You'd have to be stupid to not use the current leader," he said. "How could we possibly pass up this opportunity? But some people might take a contrary view. The leader is calling some of the caucus members who are supporters of his. We need to arrive at a deal. If we get there, then we can get our internal matters cleared up."

There was a longish silence in the room while Dawn Black and I digested this answer. What Metcalfe was telling us was that Mr. Dion intended to use a coalition accord to "unresign" - to step back into the Liberal leadership as prime minister of a new government, much as Pierre Trudeau did in 1979 after the fall of the Clark government. This explained the determination of Dion's negotiators to have the accord wrapped up by Monday, when their leader would have to face his caucus.

What were our interests?

In the very short term, the Liberals had just handed us some serious leverage in these negotiations. The coalition was a do-or-die proposition for their leader. That meant they probably weren't going to walk away, provided the accord was in a form they could get through their caucus.

But in the bigger picture, we were indelibly weaving the coalition into the fate of Mr. Dion, unless we moved immediately to change the game. If Mr. Dion was going to use the coalition to keep his job, that meant Mr. Ignatieff might end up opposing the coalition for the same reason - and Ignatieff's people believed he had over 50 MPs in his corner.

A bolder, perhaps more effective approach might have been to stop the talks at that moment, and to tell the Liberals that we could not proceed until we knew who the Liberal leader was. This might have handed us Ignatieff to deal with that Monday. Who, perhaps, would have proceeded with this project in his new circumstances. But none of the signals from his camp were encouraging. Which is why we stuck with the Liberal we knew. Dion was the leader. He was who we had to deal with. Liberal leadership politics were too dark and murky for us to try to navigate in. We would have to take our chances, and see what happened.

It was time to break the silence and ask more interesting questions.. "What are your plans with regard to senior appointments and ABCs [agencies, boards and commissions]" I asked.

Metcalfe answered that in their view there didn't need to be wholesale changes to the senior public service. But there were definitely five or six deputy ministers - he cited the deputy minister of finance - that were not going to be comfortable with the new agenda and would need to be moved. They didn't have any particular thoughts on ABCs. I offered that some of the federal government's boards (I cited the trade tribunal and the CRTC) were of particular interest to us, and that we would be proposing some language on Saturday that respected the prime minister's prerogatives but contemplated consultation on the composition of boards.

Metcalfe raised the size of the cabinet. Mr. Dion was interested in a much smaller cabinet than Harper had, he said. They would be looking at 24 ministers. The savings from reducing the cabinet would save the government much of the $16-million or so that Harper was trying to claw back from public financing of political parties. I said that sounded quite acceptable. This point offered an opportunity for us to get into the relative share of cabinet between the two parties. I told Metcalfe we would be looking for the cabinet to be proportional to the relative weight of our caucuses. This didn't seem to surprise either Metcalfe or Goodale and they noted it down without demur.

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

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