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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 ...


It was time to check with headquarters, and to decide if we had what we needed.

In essence, the Liberals were doing to us what they do to the Canadian public every election. They had picked up on our themes and priorities, stripped out the operating detail, and had fed the resulting comforting words back to us to persuade us that a progressive agenda would be pursued, while avoiding any detailed or concrete commitments.

Should we play along with this?

Each member of our negotiating team had to make up their own mind about that. I was inclined to work with what was before us, for several reasons.

First, I was mindful that no plan survives contact with the enemy, especially in the context of a major economic crisis. Our team had worked hard on our proposals. But could we really be sure we had anticipated every contingency that might occur to Canada's national government over the next two years? Likely not.

Second, I knew that an overly detailed policy agenda can be a trap.

In provincial politics, policy specifics are sometimes helpful. You commit to pave 50 kilometres of that road. At some point during your four-year term, you do it. Next election you point to the road, and promise with credibility to do the next stretch.

On the other hand, policy specifics that seemed smart at the time do not always turn out to be so. A few years ago I attended a retirement party for a colleague in the government of Saskatchewan. I was seated next to our then newly appointed justice minister, whose first words in his life to me were: "so you're the stupid ass who promised to hire 300 more police officers." There had indeed been such a commitment in our 1999 election platform that I might have had something to do with. We were trying to communicate our commitment to safe communities. Perhaps it was good politics at the time (it had worked for Bill Clinton), but it would seem that specific proposal had proved challenging to implement given the many other pressures in the justice and corrections system.

Third, there was the rhythm of the negotiation to consider. Our counterparty had invested heavily in an internal debate late into the previous night to meet us on a position we would not budge from - we intended to be in the ministry if we were to support a new government. Insisting on the letter and form of our policy draft might force them into a similar process again. Would they come around to our point of view a second time? Or would they conclude they were dealing with an overly greedy partner and refuse to close? Likely the latter. When you are a cat and you already have a pretty good canary in your mouth, it is time to think about how the other side gets one too, so that you get to keep your canary. This being so, it was better in my view to let the Liberals author a key coalition document, and therefore have cause to hope they would be able to shape and lead a government in which they would have 66 per cent of the caucus and 75 per cent of the ministry.

Finally, the Liberal policy draft was at least putting most of the right issues on the agenda. Unlike Liberal ministers and backbenchers, we wouldn't be powerless in the face of obdurate and regressive positions from neo-con staffers in the proposed government's leader's office. Our team would retain their identity and leverage as a separate party, and would be in a position to insist on progress on those files whether or not the price tags and operating details were included in the coalition policy accord.

Our bargaining team discussed all of this. Then I wrote to Layton (3:37 p.m.): "They are proposing we be silent on price tags on commitments... in return for basically accepting our entire list. Is that ok?" Layton took some time to think about it and then replied with admirable brevity (4:05 p.m.): "Yes."

We caucused. The rest of our bargaining team were of like mind in the circumstances. We would work with the Liberal draft, as amended.

So, we told the Liberals we had a deal. And - for a brief moment, and a fine one - we did.

Tomorrow: Things Fall Apart

(Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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