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Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins)
Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: Things come together Add to ...

We settled back into the tight, non-descript meeting room at the Sheraton. The Liberal delegation was again led by Metcalfe, joined by Ralph Goodale and Marlene Jennings and a rotating cast of Liberal staff members including, most of the time, Dion chief of staff Joanne Sénécal and deputy chief of staff Katie Telford. The tone was friendly and businesslike. With the governing accord under our belts we knew we were in sight of an agreement, provided we could come to terms on our basic agenda.

We discussed how to proceed. We agreed the NDP would start off by setting out our proposals. We would then adjourn, the Liberals would consider their counter-proposal, and then we'd see if we had enough overlap to find an agreement.

Volunteers and staff on both sides of the table now stepped back. It was time for our party's statesmen and stateswomen to carry the negotiations.

Blakeney and Broadbent began by reiterating the basic understanding we had arrived at on Friday. The new government's job was to address the present economic crisis, and all of its focus would be on economic issues. Speaking for the Liberals, Goodale agreed.

Our team then presented our proposals verbally and in writing. We wanted four things: First, we wanted the policy accord to spell out the New Democratic Party's commitment to fiscal responsibility, a commitment we knew Goodale was also passionate about. Blakeney had been one of Roy Romanow's closest counsellors when Romanow struggled to save Saskatchewan from bankruptcy in the early 1990s, courtesy of another reckless tax-cutting Conservative government. Some of Blakeney's proudest achievements as premier, including what remained of the province's dental and drug plans, had been lost while our government dealt with $15-billion of public debt sitting on fewer than 300,000 taxpayers.

Ralph Goodale also knew what conservative fiscal recklessness had done to his home province, and shared our views on this matter. We wanted it hardwired into the governing accord. That meant a commitment that the budget would be rebalanced once the economic crisis was mastered.

Second, we wanted the new government to commit to a strong economic stimulus package, focused on infrastructure investments. Jack Layton paid particularly close attention to this part of our package during our discussions. As a former Toronto city councillor and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Layton had a detailed understanding of the gaping infrastructure deficits blighting our economy in every part of the country. He also knew how quickly municipal authorities could get to work on new projects if funded, and he knew what a big difference investment in this area could make to people's lives. We wanted to see a strong commitment to new infrastructure, to housing and housing retrofit, and to renewing Canada's manufacturing and resource industries.

Third, we wanted families hurt in the recession to get some help, immediately. In three previous federal campaigns, we had told the people of Canada we would fight in Parliament for working families. Journalists made gagging sounds when we said this. But we meant it. The top of mind issue for many policy-makers in the Western world as they work through the consequences of small "c" conservative misrule is what to do to repair the balance sheets of banks and major corporations. Our top of mind issue was what to do for the working families who are paying and will continue to pay a double price for the incompetence of their betters - losing their livelihoods, while bailing out their bosses with their taxes. We wanted measures to help the rising tide of unemployed meet their mortgages, pay their bills, and be given some hope for future employment. We had three measures in mind: enhanced training; restoring Employment Insurance; and expanding the child benefit, an excellent vehicle for redistributing wealth to low-income working families, hardest hit in the recession.

Finally, the policy accord needed an "and another thing" section to deal with some specific issues. The Tories had lost their majority in Quebec in part because of foolish insensitivity about issues affecting cultural industries. We wanted that spoken to. Allan Blakeney did one for the home team by putting the Canadian Wheat Board and supply management on the agenda. And we wanted to see our environmental agenda woven into the accord - nicely packaged into a continentalist vision so that our Liberal coalition partners could accept it.

This was all presented. Goodale asked some clarification questions and offered some preliminary comments. And then we adjourned, heading down the hall to wait in another bleak boardroom while the Liberal team settled down to consider their response.

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