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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 ...

The atmosphere in the NDP caucus room was funereal.

For the most ridiculous of reasons - basic tradecraft issues of staging, lighting and videography - our candidate for prime minister had thrown away his chance to reframe the debate and to counter Mr. Harper and his force-amplifiers. We were not going to get to first base in the debate. And so Mr. Harper was going to be free to play hardball with parliamentary democracy the following morning.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pauses while speaking as sleet falls at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2008, following his meeting with Governor-General Michaelle Jean.

Thursday, December 4, 2008: The Liberal leader's office had taken responsibility for all the logistics of delivering letters signed by the majority in the House of Commons telling the Governor General they wanted a change of government. It was therefore strangely quiet once again in the NDP leader's office. We watched pictures of the door of Rideau Hall on CBC Newsworld. The Prime Minister entered.

We allowed our hopes to grow a little as his meeting with Her Excellency seemed to take a long time.

It started to snow.

And then the Prime Minister walked out, looked up at the sky to take in the Lord's judgment on his evil works, and announced that the Governor-General had done what she was told, and that Mr. Harper had been authorized to avoid a confidence vote by padlocking Parliament.

Speaking directly to Michael Ignatieff, Mr. Harper announced there would be a new budget at the end of January and invited opposition parties to help draft it.

The Governor-General's office later told us that the petitions signed by the parliamentary majority didn't arrive at Rideau Hall before the meeting with Mr. Harper. A Conservative friend told me that in their view, one way or another, the Governor-General is not authorized to "see" any correspondence from anyone but the prime minister, and in Canadian practice was barred from taking the views of the majority in the House into account in deciding whether or not to lock the doors of the people's house.

I wrote to Johanne Sénécal and asked her what she believed would happen now. "We continue the coalition and will put onus on government," she replied (12:21 p.m.). "So far we have not seen anything."

I didn't believe it. Given the response to Mr. Dion's video, it seemed likely to me that his party would quickly rid itself of him, and that the Liberals would take a much more skeptical approach to replacing the government.

We watched the statements by Dion, Layton and Duceppe.

I wrote to the key players in the NDP election planning committee (2:48 p.m.): "Seems more likely than not the Libs will now find a way to dismount. Hopefully in the process they'll give us the gift of an ugly dismount and votes to prop up Harper. We'll see what the Libs want to do to keep talking about coalition. Maybe a lot, maybe not much. So I guess our election prep discussion needs to resume."

Parliament collapsed like a balloon.

A few days later Stéphane Dion was ousted in a Liberal caucus coup.

Bob Rae was brushed aside in a murky secondary coup played out at the national Liberal executive.

And then the newly-appointed Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, announced that there might be a coalition "if necessary," but that if the Conservative government tweaked its budget his support was available.

In late January Mr. Ignatieff in effect led his caucus into the Conservative lobby, voting confidence in Stephen Harper's government, support for its fiscal measures, and an end to the new and better government his party had agreed with ours.

In return, Mr. Ignatieff negotiated an arrangement under which the Harper government could and would use public funds to publicize its measures every quarter.

That was a commitment Mr. Harper was happy to give Mr. Ignatieff, and to keep.

Tomorrow: Lessons learned

(Top photo: Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe shake hands as Stéphane Dion looks on Dec. 1, 2008. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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