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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.

As became immediately clear, Stéphane Dion had no hope of making his own case over the combined efforts of the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party's anger machine, and ubiquitous Tory pundits. Dion was in a fixed poker game, just as he had been when arguing for Canada against the establishment "consensus" in his home province. This time he had his home province on his side - his problem was the rest of the country. He needed to kick over the table. He needed to do something audacious and game changing, in the style of his Clarity Act initiatives. He needed to find a way to go over the heads of the anglo-conservative monoculture, speak directly to the people of Canada, and compellingly persuade them that notwithstanding most of what they were allowed to hear about what was happening in Ottawa, Parliament was in fact moving to give them the better, smarter, progressive government that 62 per cent of them had voted for.

As Pierre Trudeau would have put it, Dion needed to go over the heads of the elites and take his case directly to the people. An opportunity emerged to do this the following day. An opportunity that, as things developed, was only going to come once.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008: There was a bit of the flavour of a phony war on Parliament Hill.

From the perspective of the New Democrat team, it was an oddly quiet day. Our Liberal partners were pre-occupied talking to themselves, and dripped out information with a dropper. By noon we knew two things: the three coalition partners were going to try to co-ordinate their work in Question Period to avoid the dangerously-effective pounding inflicted on us by the Prime Minister the previous day. And the Liberals disclosed, in fragments over the course of the day, that agreement had been reached with the television networks to broadcast statements by the Prime Minister and Mr. Dion to the Canadian people that night.

Neither Mr. Layton nor Mr. Duceppe would be included in these broadcasts, although the cable news outlets eventually agreed to carry them after Harper and Dion. We learned that both Harper and Dion would be preparing pre-recorded broadcasts. The Liberals let us know they didn't need any help to do theirs, and encouraged us to simply be supportive of Mr. Dion after he had spoken. They then hunkered down in their offices to prepare Question Period and their statement.

Our communications team talked about what to do. We didn't like being locked out of the main broadcast, but there was nothing we could do about it. We would just have to hope that Layton's statement would get clipped into the evening news that night (as it was - although by then it didn't matter). We agreed we weren't interested in pre-recording a statement since we wanted to know what Harper and Dion were going to say before responding.

Further, our team, fresh off an excellently staged election campaign, liked the idea of putting Layton in front of the doors of the House of Commons to emphasize that the prime minister was probably about to padlock them (those of us who dote on Saskatchewan political history recalled that Liberal leader Ross Thatcher did precisely the same thing to excellent effect during a dispute with the CCF government in the early 1960s. Famously, in Saskatchewan, Thatcher kicked the door to the legislative chamber to symbolize that the government had locked it). Finally, by making a statement in the lobby of the House of Commons, we could rely on the parliamentary press gallery to worry about the lights and the camera work, broadcasting seamlessly using the facilities available to them on Parliament Hill.

Had they asked us, we would have advised the Liberal team to do the same thing.

Question Period was noisy but irrelevant. Everyone was waiting to see what Harper and Dion would say to the public in their unmediated moments on national television that night.



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With our own arrangements made and not really much else to do, the NDP caucus and many of its staff assembled in the NDP caucus room with some snacks, and settled down in front of a set of big-screen televisions to watch the statements by Harper and Dion. Shortly after 7:00 p.m., the networks cut to a video of Prime Minister Harper. His waxy smile and rigid posture clearly conveyed his nervousness. But he delivered the points set out in the PMO memo as predicted, clearly warming up to his topic as he expressed his outrage - outrage! - that anyone would conspire with the Bloc Québécois to replace a sitting government - as he had done himself.

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.

The atmosphere in the NDP caucus room was funereal.

For the most ridiculous of reasons - basic tradecraft issues of staging, lighting and videography - our candidate for prime minister had thrown away his chance to reframe the debate and to counter Mr. Harper and his force-amplifiers. We were not going to get to first base in the debate. And so Mr. Harper was going to be free to play hardball with parliamentary democracy the following morning.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pauses while speaking as sleet falls at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2008, following his meeting with Governor-General Michaelle Jean.

Thursday, December 4, 2008: The Liberal leader's office had taken responsibility for all the logistics of delivering letters signed by the majority in the House of Commons telling the Governor General they wanted a change of government. It was therefore strangely quiet once again in the NDP leader's office. We watched pictures of the door of Rideau Hall on CBC Newsworld. The Prime Minister entered.

We allowed our hopes to grow a little as his meeting with Her Excellency seemed to take a long time.

It started to snow.

And then the Prime Minister walked out, looked up at the sky to take in the Lord's judgment on his evil works, and announced that the Governor-General had done what she was told, and that Mr. Harper had been authorized to avoid a confidence vote by padlocking Parliament.

Speaking directly to Michael Ignatieff, Mr. Harper announced there would be a new budget at the end of January and invited opposition parties to help draft it.

The Governor-General's office later told us that the petitions signed by the parliamentary majority didn't arrive at Rideau Hall before the meeting with Mr. Harper. A Conservative friend told me that in their view, one way or another, the Governor-General is not authorized to "see" any correspondence from anyone but the prime minister, and in Canadian practice was barred from taking the views of the majority in the House into account in deciding whether or not to lock the doors of the people's house.

I wrote to Johanne Sénécal and asked her what she believed would happen now. "We continue the coalition and will put onus on government," she replied (12:21 p.m.). "So far we have not seen anything."

I didn't believe it. Given the response to Mr. Dion's video, it seemed likely to me that his party would quickly rid itself of him, and that the Liberals would take a much more skeptical approach to replacing the government.

We watched the statements by Dion, Layton and Duceppe.

I wrote to the key players in the NDP election planning committee (2:48 p.m.): "Seems more likely than not the Libs will now find a way to dismount. Hopefully in the process they'll give us the gift of an ugly dismount and votes to prop up Harper. We'll see what the Libs want to do to keep talking about coalition. Maybe a lot, maybe not much. So I guess our election prep discussion needs to resume."

Parliament collapsed like a balloon.

A few days later Stéphane Dion was ousted in a Liberal caucus coup.

Bob Rae was brushed aside in a murky secondary coup played out at the national Liberal executive.

And then the newly-appointed Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, announced that there might be a coalition "if necessary," but that if the Conservative government tweaked its budget his support was available.

In late January Mr. Ignatieff in effect led his caucus into the Conservative lobby, voting confidence in Stephen Harper's government, support for its fiscal measures, and an end to the new and better government his party had agreed with ours.

In return, Mr. Ignatieff negotiated an arrangement under which the Harper government could and would use public funds to publicize its measures every quarter.

That was a commitment Mr. Harper was happy to give Mr. Ignatieff, and to keep.

Tomorrow: Lessons learned

(Top photo: Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe shake hands as Stéphane Dion looks on Dec. 1, 2008. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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