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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 ...

Our caucus booed the Prime Minister gamely, heckled his television image in fine House of Commons style, and waited for our guy, our nominee to replace Mr. Harper in the prime minister's chair, to destroy Harper and finally politically launch the new government. For a very brief moment, the NDP caucus was rooting for a Liberal leader.

No Canadian, with the possible exception of Pierre Trudeau, was less deserving of being accused of consorting with separatists than Stéphane Dion.

He had an opportunity here to make a devastating rebuttal to the Prime Minister, dedicated as Mr. Harper was to systematically dismantling Canada's national government with the parliamentary support of the Bloc at every step, co-author as Mr. Harper was of a "firewall" memorandum urging Alberta to partially withdraw from the federation, architect as Mr. Harper was of a similar coalition proposal he had been shopping only a few years before.

Dion had the opportunity to point to the exciting new Obama administration just elected south of the border; to say that 62 per cent of Canadians had voted for identical change in Canada; and to say that the economy demanded that change.

Dion had the opportunity to point to the long winter of increasingly centralized and out-of-touch government in Ottawa, and to say that this was the start of a new era of responsive, accountable government wherein the government, the cabinet and the prime minister would actually enjoy the voting support of a clear majority of the Canadian people, and not simply be the lucky recipients of the undemocratic quirks of Canada's antiquated electoral system.

Dion said some of this, more or less.

But nobody watching heard any of it.

As Dion's chief of staff, Johanne Sénécal, wrote to me in a BlackBerry exchange a few minutes after Dion's broadcast: "It was a flop as to quality - I have no idea what happened. They tell me it had to do with compatibility of technologies. I have no idea but it did not look good."

I thumbed my own first reaction to my ACTRA colleague Ray Guardia after Dion's video was finally, mercifully over: "Ouch!"

Guardia replied: "Brutal!"

My BlackBerry buzzed non-stop for more than 20 minutes as my various pen-pals let me know what they thought about what they had just seen.

A senior member of Ignatieff's leadership campaign offered the most ominous comment, a few minutes after Dion spoke (7:53 p..m.): "It's all over, Dude." I wrote back (7:58 p.m..): "How so?" He replied (8:03 p.m.): "The chief spokesman can't speak."

A few moments later, one of my friends from the Conservatives wrote to commiserate (8:00 p.m.): "Dion. You must really wish that Jack could speak instead of Dion."

I was looking morosely at the note from the Ignatieff campaign when this came across. In need of some levity just then, I decided to reply with a joke, alluding to some of our lines from the 2008 campaign, and then I added a little bait to see if he would tell me anything about the PM's plans for the Governor-General the following morning (8:03 p.m.): "Hey, as [Layton's]been saying for a while, every time your guy quits, he's going to apply for the job. GG ruling is going to be quite something, one way or another." To be provocative, I added (8:09 p.m.): "A little more seriously, that's a big decision there about the Quebec wing."

He mused about this for a few minutes and then replied (8:29 p.m.): "As you have been trying to tell your folks, you can't do good unless you're in power. So far you have played the Grits like a song. You know though, with every day, it's getting more difficult. Nonetheless, I give you credit. This was a big idea. I just don't think it will work." An elegantly written message that Dion had just blown his brains out.

We watched Layton offer a compelling, eloquently delivered, well-lit and well-recorded statement in front of the doors of Parliament to a microscopic audience of cable news viewers. Possibly a few more saw a few seconds of it on network news that night. But it didn't matter.

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