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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: The shape of the new government Add to ...

I addressed myself to Metcalfe.

"We don't have a mandate to negotiate an accord with you," I told him. "Would you like us to leave?"

"No," he said.

At which point Marlene Jennings exploded. "I want to say a few things," she said.

She informed us, emphatically, that the coalition proposal was not selling well with her Liberal colleagues because it implied that NDP Members of Parliament might gain access to cabinet jobs. Liberal MPs had been waiting for many years for those positions, she explained, and they did not accept that people from some other party might take their places in line.

Dawn Black responded for our side. Over the next half hour or so, Ms. Black ripped Ms. Jennings's argument apart in a fine display of forensic, parliamentarian debate. Two parties would be coming together to form this government, Ms. Black explained. All of the members involved had worked very hard during their careers. The new government would only be possible because both parties were involved. Shouldn't simple fairness, and a desire to ensure both parties were equally committed to the success of the government, suggest that both should be represented fairly in the cabinet?

Ms. Jennings defended the entitlements of her caucus colleagues. Only Liberal MPs, she tried to get us to understand, were qualified for and entitled to cabinet positions.

Ms. Black explained, several times, that this meant there would not be a new government and therefore none of them would be reaching their career goals.

Ms. Jennings then began a rearguard action. She proposed that the NDP could perhaps be accorded a single seat at the cabinet, without a department, in order to monitor what was going on and to make suggestions.

Ms. Black was unmoved by this proposal.

Ms. Jennings offered two seats.

No better luck.

How about three?

Herb Metcalfe, a soft-spoken man, now raised his voice loudly enough that even his own MP heard him. "Maybe we should take a break," he suggested.

While the Liberals regrouped out of the room, Black and I reported back. I BlackBerried to Layton and McGrath (1:50 p.m.): "They are getting cold feet on any NDP ministers and are floating an accord... Don't do anything - but be ready that we will jointly ask you to speak directly to Dion to resolve."

McGrath did some checking. She wrote back (1:52 p.m.): "Bloc negotiator says that the Libs have only spoken Lib/NDP coalition and they believe we have to be in." That was a useful lever. The Liberals would find themselves isolated among the opposition parties unless they returned to the coalition model.

McGrath added (1:59 p.m.): "Ed says Chrétien in favour of cabinet posts too." I replied (2:19 p.m.): "Chrétien should call Dion."

The Liberals returned. Metcalfe noted that the Liberals had just made a significant move but that the NDP hadn't budged from our opening position. It was our turn to show some flexibility. The Liberals then outlined a proposal they hoped we would consider as an alternative to a significant role in a joint cabinet. Perhaps, in lieu of a proportionate share of seats at the cabinet table, we might accept a third of the parliamentary secretary positions. These would not just be assistants in the House of Commons; they would be sworn in as privy councilors with the right to review cabinet documents and to attend meetings when appropriate.

Metcalfe and Jennings went on at some length about how critically important these positions were; how much access they provided; and about why this might be a great way to get New Democrats involved in government without (to translate what they were saying into how we were hearing it) sullying the cabinet table with our presence.

Black and I consulted briefly. Clearly we were going to have to make some sort of a move to get this agreement.

We tried the following: I proposed to Metcalfe that the NDP receive seven cabinet positions in a 24-member cabinet. One "major" portfolio (for example, foreign affairs or a major economic or social portfolio other than finance - perhaps health care); three "mid" positions (for example environment or immigration); and three "small" portfolios (something in the style of the many secretary of state positions that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and many of his predecessors have larded cabinet with).

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