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Party stalwart Ed Broadbent chats with NDP Leader Jack Layton as they leave his Parliament Hill office on Friday, November 28, 2008. (Tom Hanson)
Party stalwart Ed Broadbent chats with NDP Leader Jack Layton as they leave his Parliament Hill office on Friday, November 28, 2008. (Tom Hanson)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: The shape of the deal Add to ...

Metcalfe talked about the press. He proposed that we adopt a joint communications approach, and say as little as possible to journalists while we were working. "It's best for all of us if much is left to idle speculation," he said.

Things seemed to be going well. The discussion was also drifting into operating issues of secondary importance. So it was time to test how solid this house was, by delving into some of the tougher questions.

"Let's talk about who is going to be prime minister," I said. "Who you have as your leader is entirely up to you. We'll work with whomever the Liberal party chooses. But since Mr. Dion has resigned, and in the spirit of 'idle speculation,' who do you think will be your designate for prime minister?"

There were some interesting expressions on the Liberal team members' faces when I asked this question.

Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien refuses comment on a possible coalition deal with the NDP as he arrives at his downtown Ottawa office on Friday, November 28, 2008. Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

Metcalfe answered.

"You'd have to be stupid to not use the current leader," he said. "How could we possibly pass up this opportunity? But some people might take a contrary view. The leader is calling some of the caucus members who are supporters of his. We need to arrive at a deal. If we get there, then we can get our internal matters cleared up."

There was a longish silence in the room while Dawn Black and I digested this answer. What Metcalfe was telling us was that Mr. Dion intended to use a coalition accord to "unresign" - to step back into the Liberal leadership as prime minister of a new government, much as Pierre Trudeau did in 1979 after the fall of the Clark government. This explained the determination of Dion's negotiators to have the accord wrapped up by Monday, when their leader would have to face his caucus.

What were our interests?

In the very short term, the Liberals had just handed us some serious leverage in these negotiations. The coalition was a do-or-die proposition for their leader. That meant they probably weren't going to walk away, provided the accord was in a form they could get through their caucus.

But in the bigger picture, we were indelibly weaving the coalition into the fate of Mr. Dion, unless we moved immediately to change the game. If Mr. Dion was going to use the coalition to keep his job, that meant Mr. Ignatieff might end up opposing the coalition for the same reason - and Ignatieff's people believed he had over 50 MPs in his corner.

A bolder, perhaps more effective approach might have been to stop the talks at that moment, and to tell the Liberals that we could not proceed until we knew who the Liberal leader was. This might have handed us Ignatieff to deal with that Monday. Who, perhaps, would have proceeded with this project in his new circumstances. But none of the signals from his camp were encouraging. Which is why we stuck with the Liberal we knew. Dion was the leader. He was who we had to deal with. Liberal leadership politics were too dark and murky for us to try to navigate in. We would have to take our chances, and see what happened.

It was time to break the silence and ask more interesting questions.. "What are your plans with regard to senior appointments and ABCs [agencies, boards and commissions]" I asked.

Metcalfe answered that in their view there didn't need to be wholesale changes to the senior public service. But there were definitely five or six deputy ministers - he cited the deputy minister of finance - that were not going to be comfortable with the new agenda and would need to be moved. They didn't have any particular thoughts on ABCs. I offered that some of the federal government's boards (I cited the trade tribunal and the CRTC) were of particular interest to us, and that we would be proposing some language on Saturday that respected the prime minister's prerogatives but contemplated consultation on the composition of boards.

Metcalfe raised the size of the cabinet. Mr. Dion was interested in a much smaller cabinet than Harper had, he said. They would be looking at 24 ministers. The savings from reducing the cabinet would save the government much of the $16-million or so that Harper was trying to claw back from public financing of political parties. I said that sounded quite acceptable. This point offered an opportunity for us to get into the relative share of cabinet between the two parties. I told Metcalfe we would be looking for the cabinet to be proportional to the relative weight of our caucuses. This didn't seem to surprise either Metcalfe or Goodale and they noted it down without demur.

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