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Coalition redux: The Prime Minister makes a big mistake

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

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.

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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 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.

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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."

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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.

"What is the state of the 'letter' that we had been considering sending to the political leaders?" Layton asked me at 7:24 a.m. via his BlackBerry. "Was there a list of legislative initiatives that would form the basis of a relationship? (such a list would have to be revised in light of emergency in any event)."

Layton was referring here to a draft letter, never sent, which we had planned to present to Stéphane Dion on election night had the numbers justified it, proposing a coalition government.

"Clearly it [our draft letter]needs a substantial revision," I replied (7:31 a.m.). "Its focus was our 08 platform with biggest move being child benefit. What we need here is an economic focus. Toughest deal point remains the corporate tax cuts, which both Dion and Rae said they still support. Our draft proposes to indefinitely postpone these."

"If the Senator is in Ottawa, I or others could meet him if needed," Layton wrote back that morning (7:36 a.m.).

Layton's run for Mayor of Toronto earlier in his career had been blocked in part by some manoeuvring by Senator Smith ("sharp practice" is how Allan Blakeney might have called what Layton believes Smith did to him in that campaign). Layton didn't want to let go of Smith as a channel for poetic as well as practical reasons, I think.

"Also, what do you think of a public call for a coalition if the economic update does not include dramatic action on an economic stimulus? The media will say we're doing it because of the cut to party financial, of course. But if we stay the course, we can weather that storm because of the economic news and how the coalition handles it will dominate the news over time."

This was good political analysis by our leader, and one I found persuasive then and now. The prime minister had called an election that fall in direct violation of his own fixed elections law. Nobody cared on election day. Canada was now facing a dangerous economic crisis. If the Conservatives focused on playing political games instead of addressing that crisis, we might be able to dump and replace them, and then drown out the inevitable backlash from the Conservative party's anger machine by controlling the government agenda and - hopefully - doing a better job.

"Key in all of this is who is the PM?" I replied (7:44 a.m.). I was warming up. "That requires a prior conversation with the Libs. If they agree it can be Goodale or McCallum, then this has some legs. If they insist it must be Dion, then you are probably holding a busted flush given Bloc won't play."

I was pointing out here that we did not have the numbers between the Liberals and NDP to unseat Harper, and that the Bloc seemed unlikely to me to be interested in installing the author of the Clarity Act as prime minister in place of the decentralizing Harper Conservatives.

"I don't believe the Bloc will be in as strong a position as they were a few weeks ago in opposing Dion as PM," he wrote (8:14 a.m.). "They will be very concerned about losing the public funding and they will be seized with the importance of strong action on EI and stimulus. Standing in the way of a new government because of their attitude towards Dion could be very damaging to them. I will meet with Dion and propose that he consider the scenario, based upon a lack of economic stimulus and the anti-democratic nature of the proposal to cancel, essentially retroactively, the funding of the democratic process - bringing in the era of big-money politics again."

I was pleased Layton was going to deal directly with Dion. Straight to the Liberal leader without any further dancing, so that we could get our "no thanks" and get back to work.

My phone and email buzzed all day with speculation and rumour. I collected it, sceptically.

The Liberal caucus met that afternoon. I kept an eye on CBC Newsworld to see what the Liberals might say.

In due course, Stéphane Dion stepped in front of the cameras to announce that his caucus would end their support for Stephen Harper in the House of Commons, and would vote against the Conservative government's economic statement.

"He said the Liberals are voting against. It would seem this might be real!" I wrote to Layton and McGrath (4:52 p.m.). "Indeed," Layton replied (4:56 p.m.). "I intend to meet him tonight to start the process. He's saying no because he knows our option can work and that Duceppe will support it. Good job we were prepared."

Layton's chief of staff, Anne McGrath, also commented (4:55 p.m.): "Gadzooks!"

Gadzooks indeed.

Some of the day's random rumour mongering now seemed worth reporting. So I sent a further little report, with a process kicker.

"Backchannels: Rae and his people don't want bitter Liberal memories of the Peterson accord and its consequences to stick to him, so he's keeping his head down so far internally," I wrote to Layton and McGrath (5:02 p.m.). "Iggy folks also reserving, awaiting developments. If this gets real I think you'll want to assemble whatever you have in mind as your working group in Ottawa tomorrow."

What Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff thought about all of this was, of course, critically important. Stéphane Dion had resigned as Liberal leader. Rae and Ignatieff were the leading candidates to succeed him. If they supported a coalition proposal, it had some sort of a chance. If not, it didn't.

I was also suggesting Mr. Layton think about his working group. I hoped that the members of our "scenarios committee" (a study group that included chief of staff Anne McGrath, former federal leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, and myself) would be part of our bargaining team, since we had spent many hours thinking about these issues over the past four years. In the alternate I wanted to be cleanly severed from the process so that I could stop thinking about it.

"Start booking the flights," Layton replied at 5:08 p.m.

It was time to get to work.

Over the past three federal elections, I had gotten to know some of the strategists on Stephen Harper's team. That afternoon I decided to throw a few pebbles into the blue team to see how serious they were about their widely reported program, and to give them fair notice that something big was coming.

I picked a friend I had good reason to believe was close to the prime minister's thinking and sent him a brief note (5:43 p.m.):

"My folks just pushed the red button. I'm on a 7:00 a.m. flight to Ottawa."

He bit (5:56 p.m.): "Do some polling first... what do your voters (not activists or insiders) think about government giving $26 million to political parties during a recession?"

I replied (5:57 p.m.): "There isn't going to be an election."

He knew what that meant (5:59 p.m.): "You're gonna run the government with separatists?"

In hindsight, I should have thought more carefully about the implications of that question. From the first moments when Mr. Harper's team turned their minds to the prospect of a combined opposition coalition, they knew that its key vulnerability was the role of the Bloc Québécois. They zeroed in on this in their nimble campaign against the coalition the following week, and handily won the battle for public opinion in English Canada at the price of their immediate hopes in Quebec.

My assumption was that Harper was committed to finding his majority in Quebec, and saw his constituency there in the nationalist-bleu vote currently parked with the Bloc. Further, I knew that Harper himself had proposed a variant on a coalition arrangement to both the NDP and to the Bloc during Paul Martin's minority - a proposal Jack Layton pulled the plug on.

I didn't fully appreciate that the prime minister was perfectly capable of tossing away his immediate prospects in Quebec if that was expedient. And that he and his team were capable of (to call things what they are) bald-faced lying, denying his own discussions with the Bloc and making the Quebec separatist party the flash point in the debate. Had I understood this, I would have pushed very hard indeed to keep the Bloc much farther away from the coalition negotiations and away from the coalition public announcement, looking instead for a separate, unilateral statement of support Mr. Duceppe could have made a day or two after the coalition was announced.

This was probably our fundamental strategic mistake. And there it was in my Tory friend's email on the first day.


News kept coming from Ottawa.

At 6:46 p.m., NDP press secretary Karl Belanger reported: "Just bumped into Pierre-Paul, senior Bloc official. Duceppe just off the phone with Dion. He's going for it."

I reported to Layton and McGrath at 7:05 p.m.: "Senator Smith just called me. No real news - he just wanted to report his team is thinking about our proposal."

At 9:02 p.m., Anne McGrath emailed a report about Ed Broadbent, who Jack Layton was trying to touch base with: "No need for you [Layton]to call him. We just spoke. There is a caucus revolt brewing in the Libs to replace Dion with Iggy... Said that he was told that you were opposed to either Rae or Iggy in your conversations with Dion. I confirmed this was not true. You have said nothing about the leadership of their party. That's up to them. Sounds like Dion's trying to hang on now. The basis of our agreement should be an economic stimulus package."

Much of what would happen in the next four days was prefigured in this report. As was later widely reported in the media, Ed Broadbent and Jean Chrétien engaged in a number of discussions leading up to and during the coalition negotiations. They found common cause on the coalition's central elements very quickly.

The incubus in the Liberal Party was also immediately visible - Michael Ignatieff's revolt against his leader.

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was holding a fundraiser at the Royal York Hotel that night. Several of my colleagues from film and television were attending to show the flag for our industry tribe. They called me from the event to report that a number of federal Liberals were present. Notably, a number of people from Michael Ignatieff's leadership campaign. Given all the news about Mr. Ignatieff, it seemed helpful to see what they might have on their minds.

So a bit later that evening I walked over the Royal York Hotel and slipped into the fundraiser. At the event, my good friend and long-time film industry colleague the late Hon. Doug Frith introduced me to some of Mr. Ignatieff's key campaign aides. On the floor of the event and then at the Royal York's Library Bar, we settled down to what turned into an almost two-hour discussion, punctuated by calls and emails to Jack Layton on my part and (from what I could tell) to Mr. Ignatieff on their part.

We had a conversation in three acts.

In the first part of the conversation, my new acquaintances asked me to explain to them why they should be supportive of a coalition with the NDP at all. In their view they had a crushing majority of the Liberal caucus behind them, and they were confident that Michael Ignatieff would win at the planned May 2009 Liberal leadership campaign on the first ballot. They could then expect a nice bump in the polls during Ignatieff's honeymoon; they could defeat Harper in the House in the spring or fall of 2009; defeat him again in the subsequent election; and then they'd be in office nice and clean, the old and traditional way. As it later turned out, they never really deviated from this strategy.

I replied by pointing out that as long as the Bloc Québécois was viable, they were not going to win a majority government in any conceivable scenario - a view they agreed with. This being so, why go through a year's political work with all of its uncertainty, hoping to end up at the head of a minority government, when you could have exactly that outcome next week?

They took a little pause to make a series of phone calls to their mothership.

In the second part of the conversation, they asked me very directly about who would be the prime minister of such a government. Specifically, was it true that Jack Layton had told Stéphane Dion that only Dion would be acceptable to us?

As noted above, Ed Broadbent had also heard that one.

I called Layton to ask him what I should say in reply. He told me to tell Mr. Ignatieff's people that the NDP took no position on who the Liberal leader and prime minister should be - that was up to the Liberals to decide.

This answer seemed to please Ignatieff's people a great deal, and they took a time out to make some more calls.

In the third part of the conversation, on their return, their tone changed markedly. They were suddenly a good deal less friendly. Their message was that we would see what would happen in coming days. They provided some contact numbers, and then they left to go join the rest of their team.

I had a couple of glasses of wine with my film industry friends and then called it a night.

It was a long walk through empty downtown Toronto streets, surrounded by brightly lit skyscrapers, from the Royal York to my car back at my office. The walk sobered me up.

I wondered how good this was all going to look in the morning.

Tomorrow: The Shape of The Agreement

(Photo: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivers the government's fiscal update in the House of Commons on November 27, 2008. Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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