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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: The shape of the new government Add to ...

On Monday I posted a piece here titled " The Prime Minister makes a big mistake," narrating the Conservative government's foolish attempt a year ago to bankrupt the opposition, its failure to address the economic crisis and the resulting decision by the Liberals and the New Democrats to hold talks about replacing Stephen Harper's government with a new and better one.

On Tuesday I posted " The shape of the deal," which described the initial exchange of views between the red and orange teams.

Here, I describe some of the detailed discussions that occurred between the parties about the form that proposed new government was to take - which, it turned out, was a trickier conversation than we had first thought.

- - - - -

Saturday, November 29, 2008: At 10:00 a.m., Allan Blakeney, Ed Broadbent and Jack Layton settled down in an windowless boardroom in the NDP caucus office with a staff team to review, discuss and debate the policy proposals we would put to the Liberals the following day, to be followed later that day by a caucus meeting to consult our MPs.

Dawn Black and I headed up to the penthouse boardroom at the Sheraton Hotel.

Herb Metcalfe continued to lead for the Liberals, but he showed up with a new team - Marlene Jennings, a Liberal MP from an anglophone riding in Montreal and Liberal deputy House leader (standing in for Goodale, absent that day); Stéphane Dion's chief of staff, Johanne Sénécal; and Dion's deputy chief of staff, Katie Telford.

Since we were now outnumbered two to one, we briefly considered calling for two more New Democrats to round out our team. But we decided not to, reasoning that having a smaller team might turn out to be an advantage as indeed it did.

We began by talking about Metcalfe's proposal that the three parties send a letter to the Governor-General. We offered our draft, which was reviewed and quickly agreed with little substantive amendment. A little too quickly, I thought.

In other negotiations, I've seen periods when it seemed that the union could make no proposal that the employer wouldn't accept. At ACTRA we've called this the "collecting the flowers" phase. Almost without fail, what was going on was that the employer had a bomb they were planning to drop, and they were trying to accumulate some positive capital, create some goodwill and generate some momentum in the talks before getting to the tough stuff. In my view this tactic doesn't work, but from the union's perspective it is a pleasant period in a negotiation because much of what you might like to get, you get. Before the anvil drops.

Sénécal left the meeting.

We turned to the main piece of business before us - the government accord. I told Metcalfe that we had been thinking about this and had an outline to suggest. He invited us to set it out, and so I outlined what we had in mind, closely tracking the issues I had discussed with Romanow the previous night. In all its essentials I described a coalition agreement between the Liberals and the NDP modeled on the 1999 Saskatchewan NDP-Liberal coalition. The Liberals agreed to discuss this, point-by-point.

It still seemed to me things were going a little too well.

After some fumbling around we arranged to have a laptop and projector, so that the text we were working on could be put up on the wall and drafted collectively.

We began with the role of caucuses. We set out our view: the NDP and Liberal caucuses would sit side-by-side on the government bench. Both would be "government caucuses" with standing to take part in the business of government, but would keep their identities. In other words, we were not proposing to merge our caucuses. Agreed.

Next up: cabinet. We opened by offering a sentence to the effect that nothing in the accord "is intended to diminish or alter the power and prerogatives of the prime minister." We wanted the Liberals to see that we understood modern cabinet government, including the critical role of central agencies led by the prime minister, and were committed to a coherent and effective government. Agreed.

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