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Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)
Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)

Rex Murphy

A decisive 'coalition crisis' lesson Add to ...

I'm one of the people having a great bit of fun reading NDP strategist Brian Topp's memoir of the coalition crisis at globeandmail.com over the past week or so. A little bit of history fresh enough to have the tang of gossip, not the least of its pleasures is the detail of the account. I don't suppose anyone with a political bone in their body needs to be reminded of that event. Perhaps curiously, in many ways it's still relevant, very much the driver of the political scene as we're experiencing it a year later.

The coalition was (to me) the very strange effort to hoist Stéphane Dion, who had already been informally ditched as leader of the Liberal Party (May was the appointed time for official removal), into the prime minister's chair. Part of the tackle needed for that singular hoist was the agreement with Jack Layton and the NDP. In fact, as Mr. Topp's engrossing story reminds us, it was very much an NDP scheme from the first.

Placing the already discounted Liberal leader in office as prime minister was quite the intellectual challenge. I remember thinking there was something of a logical problem associated with the Liberals telling us he wasn't good enough to be their leader, but he was good enough for the country. Not so much a petty discrepancy as a logical chasm.

The plan, of course, also needed the co-operation and complicity of the Bloc Québécois, and therein lay the ruin of the whole enterprise. If anything sank the project, it was a group photo of the three constitutional musketeers - Jack, Stéphane and Gilles - that iconically belied the often reiterated assertion that the Bloc was merely going to be a "help" to the new government being proposed, not an official constituent of it.

Common sense and your own damn eyes sent that rationalization out the window. Without Bloc backing, there was no deal. Without Gilles Duceppe signing on, the so-called accord between the Liberals and the NDP was clearly inadequate - they just didn't have the numbers.

From the moment the photograph of the three musketeers went out over the land, the constitutional experiment, ruse, gambit - call it what you will - was just a curiosity. A curiosity, but not one without extended consequences, consequences still very much with us a full year later.

It gave Stephen Harper a very real and deserved scare. It was, after all, his own folly that brought on the mess. Trying to scrap the opposition parties' public funding days after an election was hubris even on the alpine scale Mr. Harper sets for hubris. And I expect the intensity of the scare is what got him back on track, on the rehabilitation trail ever since.

It's not a bad bet that Mr. Harper wouldn't have been playing a Beatles song nearly a year later if his government hadn't suffered a few minutes wobbling on the edge of political calamity. Stark terror can be remedial. There was, you see, a tense interval when this gambit looked like it might actually work.

Ever since that big fright, Mr. Harper's been more reserved in his manner, less apt to search out opposition wounds merely for the pleasure of pouring buckets of sand into them. Likewise, he's playing the prime ministerial role, at home and abroad, with more dedication and care. The scare was, as I said, useful. Nothing more concentrated the intense but sometimes bristling mind of Mr. Harper than the threatened humiliation he went through last December.

On the Liberal side, it was equally pivotal. Once the coalition was known to be a dud, the Liberals went into high gear and virtually rammed Michael Ignatieff into the party's leadership - with poor Mr. Dion sent on with little fanfare and less regret. The speed of that shuffle probably endowed Mr. Ignatieff with a greater dose of self-confidence and optimism than was good for him.

The Liberals had a very sane wish to put the clumsy coalition (as it was soon perceived by most to be) behind them, rupture completely from the Dion tenure, start 2009 with a completely fresh deck. But they bypassed the nicety of a real leadership contest to do this - spread the palms in front of the crowned Mr. Ignatieff. He wasn't tested, and they didn't really have any chance to size him up.

Now, at the end of 2009, we see in their low fortunes, and his decaying hold on the public and possibly his party, the cost of that eagerness.

It is an irony-saturated tale that Mr. Topp has spun. The manoeuvres to knock Mr. Harper out of the prime minister's chair most likely schooled him into being more careful about holding on to it. They sent the Liberals into a dizzy rush to "get past" it all, to improvise their way to a new leader and stumble their way through the parliamentary year. The "coalition crisis" elected Mr. Ignatieff leader of the Liberal Party - and, one year later, that's not universally seen as the wisest of all possible choices.

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