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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 ...

We offered that the prime minister would be the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada - the individual unspecified. This was intended to put on paper that it was up to the Liberal caucus to decide who the PM was. Agreed.

We proposed, given the panic on CBC that we might have the effrontery to have our party's long-standing commitment to fiscal responsibility enshrined through an "NDP finance minister," to send a reassuring message to the contrary. So we proposed the agreement detail that the finance minister would also be chosen from the Liberal caucus. Agreed (with relief).

We picked up on Metcalfe's idea from the previous day and proposed the accord say that the cabinet would number 24 ministers. We liked this idea for a number of reasons, the key one being that such a cabinet was small enough to actually meet and discuss issues. That meant cabinet might creep towards becoming a real forum for decision-making after its long sleep, to our benefit as junior partners who did not control the central agencies. Agreed.

We proposed that the cabinet be in the same proportions as our caucuses. The Liberals would be contributing 77 MPs to the government. We would be contributing 37. So we proposed that 8 of the 24 ministers be named from our caucus.

Metcalfe seemed to steel himself. I wrote down what he said next in my notes:

"Some players are questioning the number of cabinet seats," he said. "Some are proposing an accord instead of NDP seats in the cabinet - or an election, instead of doing this agreement."

Katie Telford, Dion's deputy chief of staff, weighed in. She said that the idea of NDP cabinet ministers was just not selling in the Liberal caucus and that it would be more productive for us to work on a different model. The Liberals, she informed us, were now prepared to consider negotiating an accord with us.

So the anvil had dropped. Mr. Dion's team was reneging on the key element of the agreement we had the previous day, the core concept that we were forming a coalition government with a joint cabinet.

Dawn Black and I pondered this in silence for some time, while Metcalfe outlined a complex idea that perhaps Jack Layton could sit in on a Liberal cabinet as some sort of observer without portfolio, perhaps with some role in cabinet committees.

I began by letting a wave of wonderfully intense anger and outrage course through me.

Anger was followed by a moment of despair. We had been baited and switched. The Liberals had cranked up a national media drama. Our leader had committed a significant share of his political capital into a coalition proposal that they had agreed to the previous day, but had now taken off the table - offering instead a Rae-Peterson-style accord that we had told them very clearly we were not interested in.

My despair passed quickly. This wasn't a plan. Dion's team didn't look like people who played that way. They were trying this on us because Dion was getting worried about his caucus, and wanted to see if we would agree to an easier sell.

I turned to thinking about how to crack this Liberal position. At the end of the day, I reasoned, Mr. Dion needed an agreement with us more than we needed one with him. If the accord failed it might damage the NDP to some extent but our base would see it for what it was, a good try to rid the country of the Conservative government and to replace it with a more progressive one. Mr. Dion on the other hand would not be prime minister and would not be leader of the Liberal Party. It was all-or-nothing for him. So there was no reason to play this game with Mr. Dion's team. It seemed to me what we needed to do was try to get Mr. Dion's negotiators to set out whatever their real bottom line was in this discussion, and then report out so that Jack Layton could take the matter up directly with Mr. Dion.

Dawn Black and I consulted in whispers for a moment. She saw things the same way.

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