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Coalition redux: The shape of the new government

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

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.

Here, I describe some of the detailed discussions that occurred between the parties about the form that proposed new government was to take - which, it turned out, was a trickier conversation than we had first thought.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008: At 10:00 a.m., Allan Blakeney, Ed Broadbent and Jack Layton settled down in an windowless boardroom in the NDP caucus office with a staff team to review, discuss and debate the policy proposals we would put to the Liberals the following day, to be followed later that day by a caucus meeting to consult our MPs.

Dawn Black and I headed up to the penthouse boardroom at the Sheraton Hotel.

Herb Metcalfe continued to lead for the Liberals, but he showed up with a new team - Marlene Jennings, a Liberal MP from an anglophone riding in Montreal and Liberal deputy House leader (standing in for Goodale, absent that day); Stéphane Dion's chief of staff, Johanne Sénécal; and Dion's deputy chief of staff, Katie Telford.

Since we were now outnumbered two to one, we briefly considered calling for two more New Democrats to round out our team. But we decided not to, reasoning that having a smaller team might turn out to be an advantage as indeed it did.

We began by talking about Metcalfe's proposal that the three parties send a letter to the Governor-General. We offered our draft, which was reviewed and quickly agreed with little substantive amendment. A little too quickly, I thought.

In other negotiations, I've seen periods when it seemed that the union could make no proposal that the employer wouldn't accept. At ACTRA we've called this the "collecting the flowers" phase. Almost without fail, what was going on was that the employer had a bomb they were planning to drop, and they were trying to accumulate some positive capital, create some goodwill and generate some momentum in the talks before getting to the tough stuff. In my view this tactic doesn't work, but from the union's perspective it is a pleasant period in a negotiation because much of what you might like to get, you get. Before the anvil drops.

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Sénécal left the meeting.

We turned to the main piece of business before us - the government accord. I told Metcalfe that we had been thinking about this and had an outline to suggest. He invited us to set it out, and so I outlined what we had in mind, closely tracking the issues I had discussed with Romanow the previous night. In all its essentials I described a coalition agreement between the Liberals and the NDP modeled on the 1999 Saskatchewan NDP-Liberal coalition. The Liberals agreed to discuss this, point-by-point.

It still seemed to me things were going a little too well.

After some fumbling around we arranged to have a laptop and projector, so that the text we were working on could be put up on the wall and drafted collectively.

We began with the role of caucuses. We set out our view: the NDP and Liberal caucuses would sit side-by-side on the government bench. Both would be "government caucuses" with standing to take part in the business of government, but would keep their identities. In other words, we were not proposing to merge our caucuses. Agreed.

Next up: cabinet. We opened by offering a sentence to the effect that nothing in the accord "is intended to diminish or alter the power and prerogatives of the prime minister." We wanted the Liberals to see that we understood modern cabinet government, including the critical role of central agencies led by the prime minister, and were committed to a coherent and effective government. Agreed.

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We offered that the prime minister would be the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada - the individual unspecified. This was intended to put on paper that it was up to the Liberal caucus to decide who the PM was. Agreed.

We proposed, given the panic on CBC that we might have the effrontery to have our party's long-standing commitment to fiscal responsibility enshrined through an "NDP finance minister," to send a reassuring message to the contrary. So we proposed the agreement detail that the finance minister would also be chosen from the Liberal caucus. Agreed (with relief).

We picked up on Metcalfe's idea from the previous day and proposed the accord say that the cabinet would number 24 ministers. We liked this idea for a number of reasons, the key one being that such a cabinet was small enough to actually meet and discuss issues. That meant cabinet might creep towards becoming a real forum for decision-making after its long sleep, to our benefit as junior partners who did not control the central agencies. Agreed.

We proposed that the cabinet be in the same proportions as our caucuses. The Liberals would be contributing 77 MPs to the government. We would be contributing 37. So we proposed that 8 of the 24 ministers be named from our caucus.

Metcalfe seemed to steel himself. I wrote down what he said next in my notes:

"Some players are questioning the number of cabinet seats," he said. "Some are proposing an accord instead of NDP seats in the cabinet - or an election, instead of doing this agreement."

Katie Telford, Dion's deputy chief of staff, weighed in. She said that the idea of NDP cabinet ministers was just not selling in the Liberal caucus and that it would be more productive for us to work on a different model. The Liberals, she informed us, were now prepared to consider negotiating an accord with us.

So the anvil had dropped. Mr. Dion's team was reneging on the key element of the agreement we had the previous day, the core concept that we were forming a coalition government with a joint cabinet.

Dawn Black and I pondered this in silence for some time, while Metcalfe outlined a complex idea that perhaps Jack Layton could sit in on a Liberal cabinet as some sort of observer without portfolio, perhaps with some role in cabinet committees.

I began by letting a wave of wonderfully intense anger and outrage course through me.

Anger was followed by a moment of despair. We had been baited and switched. The Liberals had cranked up a national media drama. Our leader had committed a significant share of his political capital into a coalition proposal that they had agreed to the previous day, but had now taken off the table - offering instead a Rae-Peterson-style accord that we had told them very clearly we were not interested in.

My despair passed quickly. This wasn't a plan. Dion's team didn't look like people who played that way. They were trying this on us because Dion was getting worried about his caucus, and wanted to see if we would agree to an easier sell.

I turned to thinking about how to crack this Liberal position. At the end of the day, I reasoned, Mr. Dion needed an agreement with us more than we needed one with him. If the accord failed it might damage the NDP to some extent but our base would see it for what it was, a good try to rid the country of the Conservative government and to replace it with a more progressive one. Mr. Dion on the other hand would not be prime minister and would not be leader of the Liberal Party. It was all-or-nothing for him. So there was no reason to play this game with Mr. Dion's team. It seemed to me what we needed to do was try to get Mr. Dion's negotiators to set out whatever their real bottom line was in this discussion, and then report out so that Jack Layton could take the matter up directly with Mr. Dion.

Dawn Black and I consulted in whispers for a moment. She saw things the same way.

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).

This wasn't much of a move on its face, but to an alert bargainer it was a big signal. We had moved off our principle that the cabinet should be proportionate to the caucuses. We had dropped our "ask" by 12.5 per cent. And we hadn't said any closing words - "final and best offer" - i.e. there was still room in our minds to negotiate some more.

It didn't seem to us that these signals were picked up by the Liberal team, who appeared to still be having a hard time with the idea of socialists around the big table in any kind of role. Dawn Black and I didn't think we had a mandate to go much farther, especially when it seemed clear the Liberal team didn't have instructions that got them close enough to us to permit an agreement. It was therefore time to move this discussion to a better venue, preferably between Layton and Dion directly, followed by a clean-up session with fewer people involved. Punting the issue out of the room for a while would also have the virtue of creating a window for the Bloc to speak to the Liberals about their unwillingness to support a Liberal-only cabinet.

Black and I therefore suggested a three-step way forward: that we finish the rest of the coalition accord at this session; that we then go back to our principals for further instructions on the issue of the proportions within the cabinet, and perhaps have them speak directly to each other; and that Metcalfe and I then meet one-on-one early the following morning to finalize the government accord.


We went back to the laptop and projector and worked amicably on the rest of the coalition accord.

We agreed on a "no surprises" clause, cribbed from the New Zealand governing accord.

The Liberals proposed and we agreed to a "standing committee of the accord," chaired by the prime minister. They had drawn this idea from some of their own reading of other coalition accords. It created a formal mechanism for coalition principals to meet regularly to make sure the coalition was on track. We stapled into this the idea of a committee of respected party leaders who would assist in dealing with disputes. Agreed. A few other points were dealt with, and we were done.

We adjourned to report to our principals. We had a completed coalition accord, with one issue outstanding. We wanted seven cabinet seats out of 24. The last Liberal offer was three.

Later that night, I tried to see how Metcalfe was coming along on our remaining issue. I called him for the first time at 7:00 p.m. and left a message on his cellphone. I echoed this with a BlackBerry note telling him I'd left him a message, my phone number attached. At 7:27 p.m. he replied: "Do you have anything from your side?" I replied: "I have a bit of room to manoeuvre." Metcalfe (7:37 p.m.): "I think I can get some movement but would help if I had an idea of what room you have."

Jack Layton and Anne McGrath left Centre Block to attend the annual press gallery dinner.

I called Metcalfe and this time he picked up my call. We spoke briefly, dancing around each other. Metcalfe told me he had been authorized to canvass the leadership candidates about the issue.

I reported my conversation with Metcalfe to Layton on his BlackBerry (9:05 p.m.): "Heard from Libs. They are canvassing three leadership candidates on Dion proposal to offer four seats. I told them not to make that a bottom line but they're close. They agreed to leave themselves some flex." Via Layton's BB, Anne McGrath replied (9:32 p.m.): "Anne here. Showed this message to Jack. He nodded."

Around 1 a.m., Layton and McGrath returned from the press gallery dinner. They reported seeing Ignatieff and Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister's communications director, huddled together in an intense conversation that went on for some time.

That didn't sound encouraging.

It was time to call it a day.

Tomorrow: Things come together

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

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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