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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 ...

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.

Wednesday it was " The shape of the new government," where we discussed what the new government was going to look like - how it would be structured and governed.

Here, I describe some of the discussion that occurred around the policy priorities of the new government. We were pinching ourselves by the end of this day. It had all come together. This might just work. We were tantalizingly close to removing the Harper government and replacing it.

- - - - -

Sunday, November 30, 2008: The Blackberry flood started early for a Sunday.

Kathleen Monk (8:18 a.m.): "Iggy will be on Newsworld at 9 a.m. Baird will follow. Apparently Iggy and Kory T. were seen having lengthy tête-à-tête last night at the gallery dinner." In the morning light that still didn't sound good.

Dawn Black (8:26 a.m.): "Ujjal. We just spoke. He said we must be hard line - not give an inch to the Conservatives no matter what they bring forward. His view was that Peter J[ulian]and Paul Dewar left an impression on TV we would consider a new package if one is brought forward from the Conservatives."

This, of course, is exactly what Dosanjh and his Liberal colleagues themselves would agree to do only a few days later.

Herb Metcalfe and I met for breakfast in the restaurant in the Delta Hotel in downtown Ottawa. We loaded up on comfort food for what was going to be a long day, and got down to business.

By 9:09 a.m. the cards were on the table. I BlackBerried a report to Dawn Black, so that she could brief Jack Layton and the rest of the team meeting at NDP caucus office: "[The Liberals]offered eight parliamentary secretaryships. Agreed that if PM feels he must have more than 24 ministries, our proportion would be maintained. They offered five seats. I countered with five + deputy PM, or six seats. Liberal negotiator is choking on deputy PM because if Liberal PM is run over by a bus, we're PM. I offered to write a line that this won't happen. No take-up. We've recessed. He's off to talk to Dion. Will get back at 9:30 or so. I think he'll recommend six seats in a 25+1 cabinet (i.e. another Lib added too). He believes scenario is Dion will be PM until May, and then be replaced by a new leader, likely Ignatieff. We gossiped. Rae easy. Ignatieff extremely reluctant. Dion listening to Chrétien, who was very tough with them last night."

Metcalfe was gone somewhat longer than expected. Eventually he returned looking a little flustered - police had pulled him over and he had received an ill-timed traffic ticket. This BlackBerry exchange with Jack Layton tells the tale of what happened next:

Me to Jack Layton (10:13 a.m.): "Final offer: They are offering 5 ministers + 8 parliamentary secretaryships/privy councillors. No to DPM. No to 6. 24 ministers + PM. If a larger cabinet is selected then our proportions are maintained. Instructions please."

We marked time while our principals talked directly to each other. Ed Broadbent and Jean Chrétien discussed the issues. They spoke to their principals. Eventually, Metcalfe looked at his buzzing BlackBerry and then looked at me.

"Okay, it's six," he said.

We shook hands and the government accord was complete.

Me to Layton (10:58 a.m.): "Excellent work well done. Everything signed and sealed."

Whew! Back in the boardroom of NDP caucus office, Layton, Broadbent and Blakeney were meeting with a fairly large group of NDP research and communications staffers. Our staff quickly finalized our policy pitch document; we grabbed a quick bite to eat; and then we gathered ourselves together and set off two blocks away to the hotel for the next round of talks with our new friends and allies on the red team.

We settled back into the tight, non-descript meeting room at the Sheraton. The Liberal delegation was again led by Metcalfe, joined by Ralph Goodale and Marlene Jennings and a rotating cast of Liberal staff members including, most of the time, Dion chief of staff Joanne Sénécal and deputy chief of staff Katie Telford. The tone was friendly and businesslike. With the governing accord under our belts we knew we were in sight of an agreement, provided we could come to terms on our basic agenda.

We discussed how to proceed. We agreed the NDP would start off by setting out our proposals. We would then adjourn, the Liberals would consider their counter-proposal, and then we'd see if we had enough overlap to find an agreement.

Volunteers and staff on both sides of the table now stepped back. It was time for our party's statesmen and stateswomen to carry the negotiations.

Blakeney and Broadbent began by reiterating the basic understanding we had arrived at on Friday. The new government's job was to address the present economic crisis, and all of its focus would be on economic issues. Speaking for the Liberals, Goodale agreed.

Our team then presented our proposals verbally and in writing. We wanted four things: First, we wanted the policy accord to spell out the New Democratic Party's commitment to fiscal responsibility, a commitment we knew Goodale was also passionate about. Blakeney had been one of Roy Romanow's closest counsellors when Romanow struggled to save Saskatchewan from bankruptcy in the early 1990s, courtesy of another reckless tax-cutting Conservative government. Some of Blakeney's proudest achievements as premier, including what remained of the province's dental and drug plans, had been lost while our government dealt with $15-billion of public debt sitting on fewer than 300,000 taxpayers.

Ralph Goodale also knew what conservative fiscal recklessness had done to his home province, and shared our views on this matter. We wanted it hardwired into the governing accord. That meant a commitment that the budget would be rebalanced once the economic crisis was mastered.

Second, we wanted the new government to commit to a strong economic stimulus package, focused on infrastructure investments. Jack Layton paid particularly close attention to this part of our package during our discussions. As a former Toronto city councillor and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Layton had a detailed understanding of the gaping infrastructure deficits blighting our economy in every part of the country. He also knew how quickly municipal authorities could get to work on new projects if funded, and he knew what a big difference investment in this area could make to people's lives. We wanted to see a strong commitment to new infrastructure, to housing and housing retrofit, and to renewing Canada's manufacturing and resource industries.

Third, we wanted families hurt in the recession to get some help, immediately. In three previous federal campaigns, we had told the people of Canada we would fight in Parliament for working families. Journalists made gagging sounds when we said this. But we meant it. The top of mind issue for many policy-makers in the Western world as they work through the consequences of small "c" conservative misrule is what to do to repair the balance sheets of banks and major corporations. Our top of mind issue was what to do for the working families who are paying and will continue to pay a double price for the incompetence of their betters - losing their livelihoods, while bailing out their bosses with their taxes. We wanted measures to help the rising tide of unemployed meet their mortgages, pay their bills, and be given some hope for future employment. We had three measures in mind: enhanced training; restoring Employment Insurance; and expanding the child benefit, an excellent vehicle for redistributing wealth to low-income working families, hardest hit in the recession.

Finally, the policy accord needed an "and another thing" section to deal with some specific issues. The Tories had lost their majority in Quebec in part because of foolish insensitivity about issues affecting cultural industries. We wanted that spoken to. Allan Blakeney did one for the home team by putting the Canadian Wheat Board and supply management on the agenda. And we wanted to see our environmental agenda woven into the accord - nicely packaged into a continentalist vision so that our Liberal coalition partners could accept it.

This was all presented. Goodale asked some clarification questions and offered some preliminary comments. And then we adjourned, heading down the hall to wait in another bleak boardroom while the Liberal team settled down to consider their response.

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."

Agreed.

It was time to check with headquarters, and to decide if we had what we needed.

In essence, the Liberals were doing to us what they do to the Canadian public every election. They had picked up on our themes and priorities, stripped out the operating detail, and had fed the resulting comforting words back to us to persuade us that a progressive agenda would be pursued, while avoiding any detailed or concrete commitments.

Should we play along with this?

Each member of our negotiating team had to make up their own mind about that. I was inclined to work with what was before us, for several reasons.

First, I was mindful that no plan survives contact with the enemy, especially in the context of a major economic crisis. Our team had worked hard on our proposals. But could we really be sure we had anticipated every contingency that might occur to Canada's national government over the next two years? Likely not.

Second, I knew that an overly detailed policy agenda can be a trap.

In provincial politics, policy specifics are sometimes helpful. You commit to pave 50 kilometres of that road. At some point during your four-year term, you do it. Next election you point to the road, and promise with credibility to do the next stretch.

On the other hand, policy specifics that seemed smart at the time do not always turn out to be so. A few years ago I attended a retirement party for a colleague in the government of Saskatchewan. I was seated next to our then newly appointed justice minister, whose first words in his life to me were: "so you're the stupid ass who promised to hire 300 more police officers." There had indeed been such a commitment in our 1999 election platform that I might have had something to do with. We were trying to communicate our commitment to safe communities. Perhaps it was good politics at the time (it had worked for Bill Clinton), but it would seem that specific proposal had proved challenging to implement given the many other pressures in the justice and corrections system.

Third, there was the rhythm of the negotiation to consider. Our counterparty had invested heavily in an internal debate late into the previous night to meet us on a position we would not budge from - we intended to be in the ministry if we were to support a new government. Insisting on the letter and form of our policy draft might force them into a similar process again. Would they come around to our point of view a second time? Or would they conclude they were dealing with an overly greedy partner and refuse to close? Likely the latter. When you are a cat and you already have a pretty good canary in your mouth, it is time to think about how the other side gets one too, so that you get to keep your canary. This being so, it was better in my view to let the Liberals author a key coalition document, and therefore have cause to hope they would be able to shape and lead a government in which they would have 66 per cent of the caucus and 75 per cent of the ministry.

Finally, the Liberal policy draft was at least putting most of the right issues on the agenda. Unlike Liberal ministers and backbenchers, we wouldn't be powerless in the face of obdurate and regressive positions from neo-con staffers in the proposed government's leader's office. Our team would retain their identity and leverage as a separate party, and would be in a position to insist on progress on those files whether or not the price tags and operating details were included in the coalition policy accord.

Our bargaining team discussed all of this. Then I wrote to Layton (3:37 p.m.): "They are proposing we be silent on price tags on commitments... in return for basically accepting our entire list. Is that ok?" Layton took some time to think about it and then replied with admirable brevity (4:05 p.m.): "Yes."

We caucused. The rest of our bargaining team were of like mind in the circumstances. We would work with the Liberal draft, as amended.

So, we told the Liberals we had a deal. And - for a brief moment, and a fine one - we did.

Tomorrow: Things Fall Apart

(Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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