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Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins)
Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: Things come together Add to ...

I caught up on emails. Dawn Black had an interesting report from a Liberal contact (12:56 p.m.): "I just heard from a friend of Michael. He was only able to speak to his press liaison at this point. He said our read on it is correct. The Libs need to iron out how long Dion stays, what he stays to do. What is less defined - in time as it is in milestones - i.e. budget. They don't seem to know where the line will be drawn between Dion and his successor."

That was interesting - a potential compromise between Dion and Ignatieff, in which Dion could serve as prime minister for a time but then agree to cede his place to either Ignatieff or Rae after their spring convention.

It was now time for the skillful folks in the Prime Minister's Office to try to drop a bomb in the middle of our negotiations.

The raw material they had to work with was a transcript of an NDP caucus meeting teleconference held the previous day, apparently taped by Vancouver Conservative MP John Duncan, an inadvertent invitee due to a name mix-up by a junior NDP staff member.

The Prime Minister's Office leaked this transcript to CTV News, who promptly aired it. A key focus of the network's reporting was a snippet from Layton's leader's report to caucus in which he reviewed the discussions he had had with the Bloc through the FTQ earlier that fall, exploring the possibility of replacing the Conservatives.

This was not news to the NDP caucus, but it caused some impressive hyperventilating on air. The NDP had been PLOTTING with the SEPARATISTS.

Anne McGrath reported the effect of this news on our negotiations in an admirably understated email to Layton (2:51 p.m.): "Brian and Dawn have been in sidebar discussions to calm down the Liberal team," she reported to Layton. "This is definitely not helpful. I think we should not have any more conference calls."

Indeed.

However, once the shouting had stopped and it came down to brass tacks with Herb Metcalfe, the Liberals shrugged the leak off and we got back to work.

At about 3:00 p.m., we returned to the main boardroom to hear the Liberal counter-proposal. They had been drafting with a laptop and projector, and walked us through their counter-proposal line-by-line. Blakeney, Broadbent and Black asked detailed questions, paragraph by paragraph. Essentially all of our proposals were reflected in their version, in much less detail and with no spending commitments attached. There was one key omission - they did not want to include any reference to an enhanced child benefit or to childcare.

It was time for another Dawn Black moment.

Black picked up the cudgel, demanding to know what the Liberals had against families and children, especially given all the complaining they had done about the fate of their last-days-of-Martin press releases about childcare.

The Liberal front-line seemed extremely embarrassed to defend the position they were taking, and as the discussion proceeded more and more of the Liberal talking was being done by their leader's office research staffer.

He argued, relentlessly and repetitively, that no spending commitments must be made that would be "structural spending." Helping families and children, to his mind, was "structural spending," and so nothing could be done about child poverty or the real-world consequences of unemployment to average Canadian families.

It was fascinating to look at the Liberal team during this exchange. They looked ashamed of themselves. They also looked defeated and powerless. How many times during their recent decade in office, I wondered, had elected Liberals had expressions like that on their faces, while staff and bureaucrats chanted neo-con blather? Permanent tax cuts for wealthy individuals and business were "investments." Help for poor families was "structural spending."

Black was on a bottom line. She spelled it out for the arrogant young Liberal staffer. If there was nothing about child poverty and childcare in the agreement, Black said, then there would be no agreement and no coalition government.

Ed Broadbent, author of a landmark motion in the House of Commons calling for concrete steps to end child poverty in Canada, unanimously adopted, backed her up strongly.

Blakeney caught Goodale's eye. What if we put in a very clear commitment on this issue, with the note that we will move forward "as finances permit?" Goodale jumped at this solution, and into the accord it went: "As finances permit, we are committed to move forward with improved child benefits and an early learning and childcare program in partnership with each province, and respectful of their role and jurisdiction, including the possibility of opt out with full compensation."

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