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NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe shake hands as then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion looks on after signing a coalition agreement on Dec. 1, 2008. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe shake hands as then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion looks on after signing a coalition agreement on Dec. 1, 2008. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: Things fall apart 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.

Yesterday, in " Things come together," I described some of the discussion that occurred around the policy priorities of the new government. We reached agreement on all points. We were tantalizingly close to removing the Harper government and replacing it.

Today, I offer some of the highlights of what happened over the following few days, from my perspective. The coalition - signed and sealed, approved by all three opposition caucuses and individually endorsed by 162 opposition MPs in writing to the Governor-General, quickly disintegrated. It fell apart thanks to some deft manoeuvring by the Prime Minister, and because of the very different values and political priorities Michael Ignatieff brought to these discussions.

If it had to collapse, at least its passing was mercifully quick.

Tomorrow I'll offer a few comments on implications and lessons learned.

- - - - -

Tuesday, December 2, 2008: Things went very badly.

The Prime Minister and the Conservative anger machine zeroed in on the key weakness of the coalition project, the high-profile role of the Bloc Québécois. In a high-decibel Question Period, Mr. Harper staked out the blue team's counter-attack. This exchange, which led the session that day, set the tone:

Hon. Stéphane Dion: Mr. Speaker, I will read the following statement: "The whole principle of our democracy is the government is supposed to be able to face the House of Commons any day on a vote. This government now has a deliberate policy of avoiding a vote..." The statement goes on to say that it is a violation of the fundamental constitutional principles of our democracy. Could the Prime Minister inform the House who said those words?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper: Mr. Speaker, the highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister one gets one's mandate from the Canadian people and not from Quebec separatists. The deal that the leader of the Liberal Party has made with the separatists is a betrayal of the voters of this country, a betrayal of the best interests of our economy and a betrayal of the best interests of our country, and we will fight it with every means that we have.

Mr. Dion reads a good deal better on paper than he sounded on television that day, a fact that was about to destroy him.

In his exchanges with the Prime Minister, he cogently pointed out that the Mr. Harper was flouting the fundamental principles of responsible government, and was behaving in the manner of a hypocrite, having argued the opposite case on all the issues only months before.

The Prime Minister's very first line captured the whole Conservative case: "Mr. Speaker, the highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister one gets one's mandate from the Canadian people and not from Quebec separatists."

That, of course, is not true. The highest principle of Canadian democracy is that Parliament gets its mandate from the Canadian people, and then selects a ministry from among its ranks to do its bidding. But truth had nothing to do with what happened next.

If the shoe had been on the other foot, and it had been Stephen Harper's Conservatives at the head of a parliamentary majority moving in the first days of a new Parliament to unseat an isolated minority government (as Mr. Harper had been planning to do when he was an opposition leader), English-speaking Canadians on December 2 and 3, 2008, would have heard a very different song from their television networks, open-mouth radio, newspapers and magazines. They would have been listening to lectures about parliamentary history, parliamentary democracy, responsible government, the need for the executive to be democratically accountable - and the need for the executive to find its legitimacy from a majority of the House of Commons each and every day of its existence, failing which the House had both the power and the duty to install a new ministry that could command that support.

But in this case, it was an isolated minority Conservative government that had lost its parliamentary support. And so it was the Tory Prime Minister's themes that English Canadians heard.

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