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Before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables the federal government's budget in March, Canadians will be asked their suggestions.
Before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables the federal government's budget in March, Canadians will be asked their suggestions.

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: The Prime Minister <br/>makes a big mistake Add to ...

It was, amazingly, only a year ago. It feels like a decade ago, but it was only this time last year that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government returned to a new Parliament and made the first major moves of its new term.

The world's finance services industry was melting down. Canada's economy was sliding into a deep recession. But instead of addressing these issues in their November economic statement, the Conservatives focused on three issues closer to their hearts: bankrupting the three opposition parties in Parliament; gutting federal pay equity; and stripping federal public services of their right to bargain collectively.

An example, to say the least, of misplaced priorities. And as it turned out, a near-fatal political mistake. In response, the opposition agreed to combine their forces. They would vote to kick Mr. Harper out of office, and to replace him with a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Mr. Harper bought himself some time. And then the Liberals cracked.

Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was removed in a caucus coup. Michael Ignatieff took his place. Mr. Ignatieff then tore up the opposition accords, reversed the Liberal Party's policy toward the Harper government, and voted to keep the Harper government in office in return for nothing. To be fair to Mr. Ignatieff, he was pursuing a coherent objective in doing this. He wanted to set up a traditional electoral contest at a time more convenient to himself.

I had a ring-side seat during all of this, as part of Jack Layton's negotiating team during discussions between opposition parties over what to do about Mr. Harper, his policies and his government. Today and over the coming week, the folks at globeandmail.com are going to post some extracts from a longer piece I've written on these events, to give you a sense of what it was like to be on that roller-coaster.

And what a roller-coaster it was.

- - - - -

Wednesday, November 26, 2008: Just before 6:00 p.m., my BlackBerry buzzed. An email from Jack Layton.

"CTV is reporting that the per voter public financing scheme is to be cancelled in tomorrow's update," he wrote. "I believe that the Liberals could be tempted by our earlier proposition, faced with such a catastrophic proposal. Self-preservation could provoke out-of-the-box thinking. I would like to discuss having you re-open your line of communication with your contact."

This was a more than interesting email.

In the fall of 2008, CTV news tended to be quite accurate in their news breaks about what the Harper government was planning to do. So when they reported that the Conservatives were planning to bankrupt the opposition parties, we needed to take the news seriously.

I took a bit of time before replying to our federal leader's email, to get my mind around the idea we were going to try to reactivate our coalition proposal (we had floated the idea of replacing the Conservatives through a coalition during the 2008 election and then again earlier that fall, and had been rebuffed by the Liberals, who were now focused on a new leadership convention).

On the one hand, the federal Liberals were in worse financial shape than we were, and would have to look at their options again in light of Harper's attempt to bankrupt them. Indeed all three opposition parties now had a compelling, concurrent reason to cooperate to rid the country of Mr. Harper.

On the other hand, I just didn't believe we had an interested partner. I had never heard any Liberal in any forum ever say that they supported "our earlier proposition." I didn't believe they were interested or would ever be interested.

However, when your federal leader asks you to do something, it's generally fit and proper to do it. So in mid-evening I gave "my contact", Liberal Senator David Smith, a call and left a message on his voice mail, which was not returned (Smith had co-chaired the 2008 Liberal campaign. I had done the same for the New Democrats).

"Can't raise my friend. You might be able to get this talk going faster tomorrow via House leader channel, or c-o-s [chief-of-staff]" I wrote at 11:46 p.m.. "I'll try him again later this morning just for fun, though."

I was sceptical that Senator Smith was a useful channel to talk to the Liberals - and indeed he was not. It seemed to me that talking to Ralph Goodale (Stéphane Dion's House leader) or to Johanne Sénécal (his chief of staff) would attract the inevitable Liberal brush-off more quickly.

Thursday, November 27, 2008: Jack Layton wasted no time pursuing this issue.

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