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NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe shake hands as then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion looks on after signing a coalition agreement on Dec. 1, 2008. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe shake hands as then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion looks on after signing a coalition agreement on Dec. 1, 2008. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: Things fall apart Add to ...

As became immediately clear, Stéphane Dion had no hope of making his own case over the combined efforts of the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party's anger machine, and ubiquitous Tory pundits. Dion was in a fixed poker game, just as he had been when arguing for Canada against the establishment "consensus" in his home province. This time he had his home province on his side - his problem was the rest of the country. He needed to kick over the table. He needed to do something audacious and game changing, in the style of his Clarity Act initiatives. He needed to find a way to go over the heads of the anglo-conservative monoculture, speak directly to the people of Canada, and compellingly persuade them that notwithstanding most of what they were allowed to hear about what was happening in Ottawa, Parliament was in fact moving to give them the better, smarter, progressive government that 62 per cent of them had voted for.

As Pierre Trudeau would have put it, Dion needed to go over the heads of the elites and take his case directly to the people. An opportunity emerged to do this the following day. An opportunity that, as things developed, was only going to come once.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008: There was a bit of the flavour of a phony war on Parliament Hill.

From the perspective of the New Democrat team, it was an oddly quiet day. Our Liberal partners were pre-occupied talking to themselves, and dripped out information with a dropper. By noon we knew two things: the three coalition partners were going to try to co-ordinate their work in Question Period to avoid the dangerously-effective pounding inflicted on us by the Prime Minister the previous day. And the Liberals disclosed, in fragments over the course of the day, that agreement had been reached with the television networks to broadcast statements by the Prime Minister and Mr. Dion to the Canadian people that night.

Neither Mr. Layton nor Mr. Duceppe would be included in these broadcasts, although the cable news outlets eventually agreed to carry them after Harper and Dion. We learned that both Harper and Dion would be preparing pre-recorded broadcasts. The Liberals let us know they didn't need any help to do theirs, and encouraged us to simply be supportive of Mr. Dion after he had spoken. They then hunkered down in their offices to prepare Question Period and their statement.

Our communications team talked about what to do. We didn't like being locked out of the main broadcast, but there was nothing we could do about it. We would just have to hope that Layton's statement would get clipped into the evening news that night (as it was - although by then it didn't matter). We agreed we weren't interested in pre-recording a statement since we wanted to know what Harper and Dion were going to say before responding.

Further, our team, fresh off an excellently staged election campaign, liked the idea of putting Layton in front of the doors of the House of Commons to emphasize that the prime minister was probably about to padlock them (those of us who dote on Saskatchewan political history recalled that Liberal leader Ross Thatcher did precisely the same thing to excellent effect during a dispute with the CCF government in the early 1960s. Famously, in Saskatchewan, Thatcher kicked the door to the legislative chamber to symbolize that the government had locked it). Finally, by making a statement in the lobby of the House of Commons, we could rely on the parliamentary press gallery to worry about the lights and the camera work, broadcasting seamlessly using the facilities available to them on Parliament Hill.

Had they asked us, we would have advised the Liberal team to do the same thing.

Question Period was noisy but irrelevant. Everyone was waiting to see what Harper and Dion would say to the public in their unmediated moments on national television that night.

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With our own arrangements made and not really much else to do, the NDP caucus and many of its staff assembled in the NDP caucus room with some snacks, and settled down in front of a set of big-screen televisions to watch the statements by Harper and Dion. Shortly after 7:00 p.m., the networks cut to a video of Prime Minister Harper. His waxy smile and rigid posture clearly conveyed his nervousness. But he delivered the points set out in the PMO memo as predicted, clearly warming up to his topic as he expressed his outrage - outrage! - that anyone would conspire with the Bloc Québécois to replace a sitting government - as he had done himself.

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