Inside a crisis that shook the nation -

Inside a crisis that shook the nation

Secret meetings, shocking alliances, faulty strategies—and one wonky video camera


Inside a crisis that shook the nation

Hushed conversations about politics are nothing new at Toronto’s venerable Albany Club. The downtown redoubt of old-style partisan skulduggery even boasts John A. Macdonald as a founding member, back in 1882. The conversations that matter, typically among well-heeled Conservatives at this oak-panelled incubator of Tory ambitions, usually stay confidential. Occasionally they turn very public, though, like the time Dalton Camp chose the club for a speech launching the revolt that ultimately deposed John Diefenbaker as party leader. The latest chapter in the club’s lore came in the aftermath of the Oct. 14 federal election, and, for a change, there wasn’t a Tory at the table.

A week after Stephen Harper’s triumph, a post-election breakfast panel discussion was held in the club. It brought together two backroom veterans: Brian Topp, who had run Jack Layton’s New Democrat campaign, and Senator David Smith, the organizer of many Liberal campaigns who had worked this time on Stéphane Dion’s wobbly run. What Smith didn’t know was that Topp had served on secret NDP “scenario committees” during the past three federal campaigns that studied potential outcomes, including coalitions. After the most recent campaign, Layton assigned him to put out feelers to Liberals on the possibility of forming a coalition should Harper’s government ever look vulnerable.

That morning, Topp and Smith lingered beneath the stained glass windows of the club’s main dining room. They traded war stories, Smith’s going back to Lester B. Pearson, Topp’s from his days in Saskatchewan working for NDP premier Roy Romanow. Topp broached the idea of co-operation. Smith noted that the Liberals were presently preoccupied with their leadership race. But Topp was encouraged enough that he thought their conversation was worth picking up again after the new Liberal leader was chosen in a planned convention in Vancouver in early May.

And that was that, or so it seemed. Topp and Smith couldn’t have guessed, of course, that only a month or so later Harper would undertake such a risky move against their parties that the coalition concept they touched on so tentatively would crystallize in just three days of bargaining in Ottawa hotels. They would be back in contact, as part of a flurry of behind-closed-doors bargaining, all against a backdrop of parliamentary crisis. By trying to strip all federal parties of a public subsidy—an audacious frontal attack on his opponents—Harper drove the Liberals, NDP, and even the separatist Bloc Québécois into each others’ arms.

The sudden emergence of a united opposition front, bent on defeating his minority at its first chance, led Harper to make a series of desperate counter-thrusts. He revived the moribund national-unity debate by making the separatist Bloc’s support for the coalition his main grounds for attacking it, even accusing Dion on the floor of the House of Commons of plotting to “destroy the country.”

Harper then pushed the country to the brink of a full-blown constitutional crisis by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to suspend Parliament to prevent the coalition from felling his minority this month. By granting the request, she set a precedent that seems to hand future prime ministers heading besieged minority governments a powerful new tool for delaying being voted down in the House. Finally, after a blur of ploys and stratagems inside the Liberal party, the crisis hastened Dion’s exit, ended the race to succeed him, and assured Michael Ignatieff’s ascension to the party’s leadership.

It was a year’s worth of political headlines packed into less than two weeks of behind-closed-doors deal-making, parliamentary histrionics, and high-stakes leadership jockeying—plus one lousy video and a timely fall of hailstones. Not since the demise of the Meech Lake accord in June 1990 has the nation’s political playing board been given such a shake.


Apart from the Albany Club prelude, the saga began with rumours of nothing more worrisome than a government gambit to make parliamentary perks a focus of its fall economic update. All last month, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was sending signals that he wasn’t ready to announce significant new spending. The annual fall update usually serves as a report on the state of the economy, but sometimes gives governments a chance to push out new tax or spending measures before their next full budget, which typically comes in February.

Without a whole lot to say about steps to confront the world economic crisis, the Tories signalled that they would fill the vacuum with symbolic belt-tightening on Parliament Hill—freezing MPs’ salaries, perhaps, and curtailing their expenses.

In hindsight, almost everybody missed what should have been a clear hint that something more dramatic was in store. It came when Harper sent out his communications director, Kory Teneycke, who more often speaks off the record, to do a series of TV interviews laying the groundwork for the update. “There will be much bleating from political parties, but it will hit the government disproportionately,” Teneycke warned. “It will be deeper and broader than anyone expects.” Yet nobody guessed that he meant that Flaherty was about to announce a proposal to yank away the $1.95 per vote subsidy the federal parties are paid every year, a taxpayer underwriting of party costs that amounts to less than $30 million.

That subsidy was introduced in 2004, part of Jean Chrétien’s landmark reform of political financing. Chrétien eliminated corporate and union donations to parties, and limited personal contributions to $5,000 (Harper later cut the individual limit to $1,000). In return, the parties would gain taxpayer money, doled out in quarterly payments based on the number of votes they received in the last election. For the 12 months that ended last Sept. 30, the Conservatives collected about $10.5 million, the Liberals $8.75 million, the NDP $5 million, and the Bloc $3 million.

But the importance of that public money varies according to the parties’ capacity to raise their own funds—and therein lay the problem for Harper’s opponents. The Tories’ mighty fundraising machine pulled in $19.7 million in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the Liberals a paltry $5.7 million. Considering they have a much smaller voter base than the Liberals, the NDP did better, also raising $5.7 million. The Bloc’s backers contributed $861,000. So the Tories are the least reliant of any party on the taxpayer support, and what’s more, Harper has never liked the concept. And he calculated that Canadians wouldn’t like it much either—if they were prompted to think about it. That was a reasonable guess. But why would the government imagine that the opposition parties, who together control a solid majority of House seats, would go along with a brazen bid to cripple their operations?

A Conservative official told Maclean’s that a key assumption was that the NDP would side with the Tories, seeing a chance to bankrupt their shared historic adversary—the Grits. Although NDP fundraising is not as robust as the Tories’, it’s markedly healthier than the Liberals’. “We thought,” said the Tory insider, “the NDP would see that the Liberals would be hurt more than them.”

The Prime Minister’s Office also assumed that the Liberals, more than five months away from the convention where they would select a new leader, were in no position to bring down the government and force an election. As for banding together with the other opposition parties, Dion had ruled out a coalition with the NDP during the fall campaign, and as the bitter foe of separatists in his home province, few could imagine him coming to terms with the Bloc.

Left to sort out the situation themselves, the Liberals might never have pressed for a coalition. But they didn’t have to act first. On the evening of Nov. 26, the night before the economic update, the government leaked news of the plan to strip away the parties’ public subsidy, and the NDP quickly contacted Dion’s office to open up lines of communication. Layton’s schedule for the following morning was cleared.

By the morning of Thursday, Nov. 27, the unintended consequence of the Tory gambit was taking shape. Much of the action originated in Layton’s office. He called Dion at around 10 a.m. Topp got back in touch with David Smith. Ed Broadbent, the former NDP leader, reached out to his closest counterpart in the Liberal firmament, Jean Chrétien. NDP strategists expected Chrétien to see the issue in terms of his own legacy. “After all,” noted a senior New Democrat official, “he brought in public financing of parties in the first place.”

Still, Flaherty’s update, which he would deliver in the House at 4 p.m., might make it difficult, or even impossible, for the nascent coalition talks to proceed. Opposition officials expected Flaherty to unveil at least token economic stimulus proposals, spending ideas that might prove popular enough to make it hard for Liberals and New Democrats to reject the whole package. The opposition parties got their answer in a confidential briefing on the update—a “lock-up” in Ottawa parlance—organized for them by Flaherty’s officials in Parliament’s West Block.

As the NDP, Liberal, and Bloc advisers and MPs in the lock-up pored over the briefing papers, they found none of the sweeteners they had expected. Instead, along with the bombshell plan to remove party financing, they discovered two more incendiary proposals. Flaherty vowed to temporarily take away the right of public sector unions to strike, and remove the right of women claiming they were underpaid compared with men to take their pay-equity complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. A senior NDP official said those provisions left no chance the party could vote for the update.

In the House of Commons, Flaherty, the man charged with delivering this package concocted largely in the Prime Minister’s Office, stuck to the script. “We cannot ask Canadians to tighten their belts during tougher times without looking in the mirror,” he lectured. “There will be no free ride for political parties. There never was. The freight was being paid by the taxpayer. This is the last stop on the route.” He wrapped up by vowing he wouldn’t be lured into any costly short-term stimulus scheme. “We will address our immediate, external challenges the same way we will reach our longer-term goals,” Flaherty said, “by continuing to manage tax dollars wisely, investing strictly in the essentials and focusing on what ultimately matters, the longer-term prosperity of all Canadians.”

A veteran of Mike Harris’s ideologically charged Ontario Tory government, Flaherty arrived in Ottawa in 2006 with a reputation as a hard-liner, strict on spending, and fiercely partisan. But he quickly gained a reputation as one of the few reliably agreeable figures on Harper’s front bench. Unlike, say, attack dogs like Transport Minister John Baird and defensive specialists like Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, Flaherty seemed to enjoy the give and take, sometimes even laughing at a good round of heckling. He met conflict with a stereotypically Irish smile.

On Nov. 27, Flaherty apparently figured he’d put in a pretty fair day. He finished up a series of media interviews on his update before 7 p.m., early enough to drop in at Hy’s, a steak house and martini bar a short walk off the Hill, for a celebratory drink, just as he had after each of three budgets he’d delivered so far for Harper. “We had heard the coalition talk,” a Tory official recalls of the mood that evening, “and thought it was fantasy.”

But while Flaherty was following his post-game rituals, the scene he had left behind on Parliament Hill was anything but routine. Typically the opposition parties’ finance critics respond to an economic update speech. Dion did not yet see the need to speak for the party, so his finance critic, Scott Brison, responded for the Liberals. Layton, however, decided on the fly to take up half the time allotted to his finance critic, star Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair. And Gilles Duceppe would respond for his Bloc Québécois.

Brison offered a conventional attack on Flaherty, concentrating on economic issues. Duceppe raised the stakes, accusing Harper of “putting his own extreme partisanship before democracy.” Invoking a sovereigntist icon, he remembered that René Lévesque had introduced public financing of parties in Quebec. Layton upped the ante further. “We are standing,” he said with an air of man who knew more than he was telling, “at a historic moment in this chamber.”


Even before Layton had begun to speak, he had summoned Topp, whose job outside politics is as executive director of the Toronto-based ACTRA union of arts and media workers, to Ottawa. That evening, Layton spoke by phone with both Dion and Duceppe. All sides were serious about pushing ahead. Topp arrived in Ottawa late that evening ready to spearhead negotiations.

On Friday morning, the Liberal caucus met, and MPs emerged determined not to allow party financing to become the main point of debate. Fearful that Canadians would see them as self-serving, they agreed to highlight Flaherty’s failure to offer stimulative spending. MP Ken Dryden urged a cluster of reporters not to be “fooled” or “distracted” by the party subsidy issue. The Conservatives, however, were working flat out to make opposition greed the defining theme. Speaking to a business crowd of about 300 at a lunch speech to the Economic Club of Toronto, Flaherty vowed to press ahead with ending taxpayer payments to parties. As for economic action, he remained flinty. “I would hope the economy would be strong,” he said, “and we won’t need to have any additional stimulus into the Canadian economy.”

Back in Ottawa, though, the Tory brain trust was figuring out that the coalition was for real. Word that Chrétien and Broadbent were involved leaked out. The opposition parties could realistically hope to defeat Harper’s minority, and the Governor General might well decide not to grant him another election so soon after the Oct. 14 vote. Instead, she might ask Dion to try forming a coalition government.

Harper needed time. At a hastily arranged news conference in the House foyer, he called off Monday’s scheduled “opposition day,” which would have given the Liberals a chance to table a non-confidence motion. He cancelled the so-called ways-and-means motion, a routine follow-up to the economic update also scheduled for Monday, which would have given the opposition a second chance to defeat him. “While we have been working on the economy,” he said, “the opposition is working on a backroom deal to reverse the results of the election.”

Indeed, the crucial first round of backroom dealing was being conducted in secret at three hotels, each a short walk in a different directions from where Harper spoke. Just east of Parliament Hill, at the iconic Chateau Laurier hotel, the Liberals and Bloc were meeting to see if a deal was possible. Dion sent Johanne Senecal, his chief of staff, and Montreal MP Marlene Jennings, while the Bloc emissaries were Francois Leblanc, a senior aide to Duceppe, and prominent MP Pierre Paquette. Just west of the Hill, at the Marriott, the NDP and Bloc held parallel talks. These discussions had established a crucial starting point: the Bloc was not asking for full partnership in the coalition. In particular, Duceppe wasn’t demanding seats at the cabinet table, or insisting on explicit concessions to his sovereigntist agenda.

That cleared the way for the key bargaining to take place between the Liberals and New Democrats. They were meeting at the Sheraton, just south of the Hill. The Liberals sent Herb Metcalfe, a veteran Ottawa consultant and close adviser to Dion, and former finance minister Ralph Goodale. The NDP dispatched Topp and B.C. MP Dawn Black. Sources in both parties say those Friday afternoon talks went remarkably smoothly.

That evening, Topp called his old boss, Roy Romanow, for advice. The two had worked together in Saskatchewan to pull together a NDP coalition with the Liberals in 1989, an arrangement that lasted for four years. In fact, the NDP’s experience with provincial coalitions, combined with its slim chances of ever winning a federal election outright, had left the party’s insiders surprisingly well-versed in the concept of coalition rule.

A senior NDP official told Maclean’s that in each of the 2004, 2006 and 2008 campaigns, Layton set up a “scenarios committee,” which studied possible election outcomes—including the chance of forming a coalition. In the last two elections the committee was co-chaired by Topp and party president Anne McGrath, and included Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney. Among the cases they studied were the Romanow-led Saskatchewan coalition, and David Peterson’s 1985 Ontario Liberal government, which was kept in power through an accord with the Bob Rae-led provincial NDP. “A bunch of other coalition and accord arrangements were studied,” said an NDP offical. “The New Zealand arrangements were quite interesting and we looked at some of the European ones.”

Now, Topp, McGrath, Blakeney and Broadbent, who had spent long hours studying the mechanics of hypothetical coalitions, including scenarios in which they partnered the Liberals, were all gathered in Ottawa working on the real thing.

On Saturday they were back at the Sheraton, this time on the 17th floor. The Liberals sent Metcalfe, Senecal, Jennings, and Katie Telford, Dion’s deputy chief of staff. They were up to speed, bringing ideas drawn from New Zealand’s recent history of durable coalitions. Most of the key points were quickly worked out, using a laptop and a projector so all negotiators could follow the evolution of a text. A key stumbling block: how many seats each party would get in a coalition cabinet?

While the negotiations progressed in secret, Ottawa’s political and media circles were aflame with rumours. By now, Conservatives were clearly running scared. In an unprecedented move for the combative Harper, he dispatched Baird to tell the media the Tories would drop the legislation to strip the parties of public financing. “We just don’t think it’s worth getting into an election on that issue,” Baird said.

But by now the opposition parties weren’t thinking of forcing an election—they were preparing a coalition ready to step directly into power. “The political financing changes were never the issue,” Goodale fired back. “The economy has always been the issue.” Baird staked a claim to the democratic high ground: “This is all about trying to overturn the results of the last election campaign.”

A tone of stunned disbelief crept into Tory comments, both public and private. In its hunt for information, the Prime Minister’s Office even reached out to diehard Liberals. The extent of Tory efforts to get informed, by any means available, would become clear the following day.

Flaherty was back on the hot seat on Sunday. He started the day with a TV interview in which he offered a newly conciliatory tone. Reacting to Liberal, NDP and Bloc taunts about the lack of any real economic plan in his update, he announced that his budget would be tabled on Jan. 27, earlier than ever before. Conservatives also backed away from banning public-sector strikes, a retreat that looked designed to soften NDP determination to defeat them.

That afternoon, Flaherty sounded deflated in a hastily arranged conference call with reporters. After the about-faces on political financing and strikes by government workers, he now wearily added a strong hint that he would bend on fundamental economic policy. Long skeptical about an auto industry bailout, he now sounded resigned to having to deliver one. “We’re going to have to deal with the automotive issue,” he conceded. “Obviously.”

But if Flaherty sounded beaten down, the PMO displayed a bit of its customary no-holds-barred style. That same Sunday, Harper’s press secretary, Dimitri Soudas, distributed a recording of an NDP caucus conference call from the day before. It seemed that in circulating instructions for getting on the call, the NDP mistakenly emailed Tory Vancouver Island MP John Duncan, instead of their own Edmonton MP Linda Duncan. The Conservatives took the chance to covertly listen in. They then pounced on an allusion by Layton to “moves” the NDP made “a long time ago” to open up the possibility of co-operating with the Bloc. The Tories accused their rivals of planning to cozy up to the separatists long before the economic update. Outraged NDPers applied a new adjective to the Prime Minister’s methods: “Nixonian.”

As the eavesdropping affair raged, long strides were being made toward a final coalition pact. On Sunday morning, Topp and Metcalfe met at the restaurant of the Marriott for breakfast and a crucial discussion about cabinet. They agreed that to show restraint it should have only 24 members, plus the prime minister, down from Harper’s 38. Metcalfe started off suggesting five NDP portfolios, Topp asked for seven. An hour and a half later, they settled on six. A key point was that the NDP offered to let the finance minister be a Liberal. “The candidates for that office on the Liberal side are well known,” said an senior NDP official, “and we can work fine with whoever they ultimately pick.”

With cabinet quotas worked out by 10:30 a.m., the afternoon negotiations turned to the coalition’s core economic policies. Returning to the second floor of the Sheraton, the NDP and Liberals each brought teams of five. The NDP tabled their proposals, then left the Liberals for a couple of hours to work out their reaction. Then the two groups hashed over details together, with Goodale and Blakeney—two old Saskatchewan politicians who have known each other for decades—often taking the lead. By the time the NDP and Liberals had a deal, the darkness of an early winter’s evening had settled on Ottawa.

The Bloc wasn’t invited in until about 6 p.m. Duceppe’s negotiators agreed to support the coalition for 18 months, long enough to pass a Throne Speech and two budgets, even though the Liberals and NDP hoped to make their joint government last for 30 months. Duceppe said later that the Bloc signed on partly because it broadly favours the coalition’s policies to boost support to some industries, including forestry, and introduce new social spending, like help for older workers who lose their jobs.

Nailing down exactly which House votes the Bloc would be committed to supporting the coalition on was more difficult. The Bloc proposed complex terms, then left to let the NDP and Liberals simplify the wording. They looked at the 1985 Ontario accord between Peterson and Rae as a guide, but had to draft new clauses to take into account federal parliamentary rules. The final text wasn’t finished until about a half hour after midnight.

Even as the coalition was being born, debate raged inside the Liberal party about who should lead it. That evening, in Toronto’s Yorkville district, the party’s leadership contenders met for dinner at front-runner Michael Ignatieff’s condominium. A veteran Liberal strategist told Maclean’s that earlier in the day, Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc both seemed open to dropping out in favour of Ignatieff. Talks among the leadership camps were fuelled by a growing sentiment that Dion—a lame-duck leader who had sunk the party to its lowest popular vote share ever in the recent election—couldn’t be allowed to serve as prime minister of the coalition government until he handed off to a new Liberal leader in May. But by dinnertime, Rae had decided to stay in the leadership hunt. So the three decided only to make a united show of support for the coalition in Ottawa the following day.


By Monday, Dec. 1, the sense of impending crisis had spread beyond the parliamentary precinct. Both the Conservatives and the Liberals launched fundraising drives, stoking an atmosphere bordering on panic. A Tory plea asked for money so the party could “wage the fight of its life” against “socialists and separatists.” A Liberal canvassing email touted the party’s aim of putting “partisan politics aside and working with the other parties to form an alternative government to protect Canadian jobs.”

Some Tories admitted later that they were deeply demoralized that morning. Ever since he created the new Conservative party in 2003, by orchestrating the unification of the Canadian Alliance and the old Progressive Conservatives, Harper had been revered by his troops as a strategic mastermind. Now, with his provocative economic update in tatters, its main tenets abandoned, his aura of invincibility was gone. “By then it was sinking in that this coalition was a serious thing,” said one Tory operative, “and people were a little down.”

By 2:15 p.m., the appointed hour for question period, a nearly giddy mood had spread among opposition MPs. Harper entered the House, and his caucus stood to applaud as he walked to his front-bench seat—their salute mockingly joined by several Liberals. Not always a sharp House performer, Dion started off crushingly succinct. “Does the Prime Minister,” he asked, “still believe that he enjoys the confidence of this House?”

Harper usually hits back hard when he is pressed, but this day he sounded merely peevish. In one exchange he accused Dion of being “about to play the biggest political game in Canadian history”—almost complimentary coming from as bold a player as Harper. Overall, he was uncharacteristically passive. When Environment Minister Jim Prentice, sometimes touted as a potential successor to Harper, stood to take a question late in the session, the Liberals let loose with cries of “Leader! Leader!”

Yet this question period included one unsettling moment for the Liberals, too. After Bloc and NDP MPs stood with the Liberals to applaud Dion’s lead-off question, Liberals appeared confused about what to do when Duceppe’s turn came. When he rose, his own caucus gave him the expected standing ovation, as did NDP MPs. Liberals hesitated. Some got up, some didn’t. Some looked around nervously. Cheering the Bloc? These were strange days. And shrewder Tories took note.

The next critical act in the unfolding drama took place in the Railway Committee Room. It opens off the Hall of Honour that bisects the Centre Block of Parliament, running between the Peace Tower and the Library of Parliament. Its name derives from the old standing committee on railways, canals and telegraph lines, a powerful force in Ottawa from 1867 to 1965. The coalition partners announced they would hold a ceremonial signing of their pact there at 4:30 p.m., followed by a news conference.

As MPs, political staffers and reporters assembled, the optics of the event about to happen became clear. Under the gaze of the Fathers of Confederation, in the famous group portrait that hangs at the room’s south end, a signing table with chairs for three, and another with three microphones for the news conference, were being set up. Asked about how it was going to look to have Duceppe, the separatist, looking like an equal partner in the deal, a Liberal MP shrugged off the concern. Hadn’t the Bloc settled in as an accepted part of the federal scene since it rose out of the ashes of Meech Lake in 1990?

Few would have believed that Dion, who came to Ottawa to fight for federalism after the near miss of the 1995 referendum, would ever publicly sign a pact with Duceppe. But Dion cast the creation of the coalition as a matter of necessity, “given the critical situation facing our fellow citizens and the refusal and inability of the Harper government to deal with this crisis.” Layton theatrically addressed Harper directly through the TV cameras. “Prime Minister, your government has lost the confidence of the House and it is going to be defeated at the earliest opportunity,” he said. “I urge you to accept this gracefully.” The interstellar depth of the cold in Harper’s eyes, as he watched Layton say these words, can only be imagined.

The coalition agreement didn’t offer many openings for attacks on policy. The Liberal carbon tax proposal from the fall campaign was gone. So was the NDP vow to reverse the Tories’ corporate tax cuts. The Bloc won no concessions that could be construed as enhancing Quebec’s status. But Duceppe’s simple presence at the signing was enough to cheer up Tories. “As soon as we saw how it looked,” said one Conservative operative, “that put some wind in our sails.”

But attacking the coalition as a “deal with the devil,” as Flaherty called it, wouldn’t keep the Tories in power. Their only obvious opportunity to win time was to ask the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, essentially suspending its sitting, rather than facing certain defeat on a confidence vote. “The government will consider all steps that are reasonable to protect the interests of our country,” said Prentice when asked about the prorogation option. Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn was blunter about the prospect of the coalition asking Michaëlle Jean for a chance to govern: “It’s a kind of coup d’état.”

Calling the coalition an illegitimate deal with the separatists, however, raised a problematic bit of recent Tory history. It turned out that Harper had seriously discussed a possible coaliton with the NDP and Bloc back in 2004, when Paul Martin’s Liberal minority was in office.

Still, by Tuesday the Tories were pounding relentlessly against what they were now calling “the separatist coalition.” By question period, Harper was a changed man from the listless performer of a day before. Yelling and jabbing his finger in the air, he damned the Liberals for communing with separatists. He even threw the sainted Liberal names of Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau in Dion’s face. And, responding to a question from Layton, he claimed that the troika of coalition leaders had refused to appear with the “Canadian flag behind them” at their Monday signing ceremony.

That was untrue, as many photographs proved, and Dion was enraged. Although he normally only poses the first three questions in QP, the Liberal leader jumped back up after Harper’s accusation. “I love this country and I have dedicated my life to Canadian unity,” he shouted. Harper, refusing to ease off, shot back: “If the leader of the Liberal party believes in the country, he will walk away from this document and admit it is the worse mistake the Liberal party has ever made in its history.”

Government and opposition MPs traded insults. Treasury Board President Vic Toews singled out members of the Liberal front bench and loudly called them “traitors.” The cacophony was almost frightening.

After QP, MPs leave the House through their lobbies, narrow rooms that stretch the length of the Commons chamber of either side. They are usually crowded with political staff and MPs who have drifted out of their seats. When Harper walked into the government lobby on Dec. 2, the Tories first cheered, then chanted his name, and finally burst into a raucous rendition of O Canada. The real Harper, who had slipped away from them for a day, was back. Speaking to reporters afterwards, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said it was “a fine day to be a parliamentarian.”


By the following afternoon the opposition, which had been so sure Harper’s days were numbered, looked far less sure-footed. Conflicts were creeping into the Liberal and NDP communications strategy regarding their deal with the Bloc. Liberals stressed that the Bloc was merely supporting a coalition of the Liberals and New Democrats, so it was wrong to call Duceppe a coalition partner. Yet NDP strategists had taken to countering the Tory slur “separatist coalition” with the phrase “majority coalition.” And to claim a House majority for the coalition, they had to count the Bloc’s 49 MPs in with the Liberals’ 77 and the NDP’s 37, which made it sound a lot like they were coalition partners. (The Tories hold 143 seats.)

Fearful that Harper would move soon to ask Jean to suspend the House, opposition MPs began circulating petition letters declaring to her that they had lost confidence in the Tory government. Ignatieff’s signature showed up as the very last one on the Liberal letter, which many took as confirmation of reports that he was at best lukewarm about the coalition.

If he or any other Liberals feared the whole thing might fall apart, their worries only deepened on Wednesday evening. Harper asked for time on the main TV networks to address the nation on the parliamentary crisis. He was widely expected to declare that he would request prorogation from the Governor General, and explain his reasoning. Instead, he merely summed up his allegations against the coalition, repeatedly slamming its “separatist” link, although he used the softer “souverainiste” in the French version.

Harper’s performance was solid. Yet his failure to frankly explain why he should be allowed to postpone facing a confidence vote in the House—the bedrock source of a government’s democratic legitimacy in the British parliamentary system—seemed evasive. News that he planned to visit Jean the next morning was delivered by officials rather than from the Prime Minister’s own mouth. But Harper would not have to face much criticism. Dion’s video rebuttal saw to that.

The Liberal leader had promised to deliver taped messages in French and English to the networks by 6:30 p.m. By the time his tape was dropped off, more than 30 minutes late, CTV’s main network had returned to regular programming. It would have been far better for the Liberals if all the networks had lost their patience.

On the tape, Dion’s face loomed up out-of-focus and strangely framed. Observers variously speculated on whether the Liberals shot it with a cellphone camera or the webcam on Dion’s laptop. Liberals familiar with the fiasco said Dion and his staff agonized so long over his text that their video technicians had little time to set up a proper shot and no time to fix mistakes. It might have been nothing more than a technical botch-up, but the debacle reinforced Dion’s image as a bungler. It prompted some Liberals to recall how Dion’s speech at the Montreal convention where he won the party leadership ran over the allowed time, and organizers cut off his microphone. Versions of what went wrong this time vary, but blame fell squarely on Dion. “He permits and insists on unwieldy processes,” said one exasperated Liberal organizer.


The next morning, the Prime Minister arrived promptly at 9:30 a.m. for his historic meeting with the Governor General. Stepping out of his car, he waved to reporters, assembled 70 metres away, before entering Rideau Hall through a side door. Down the driveway, at the entrance to the estate, a cluster of demonstrators gathered to show their support for Harper waved handmade placards. It looked spontaneous enough, but reporters identified several paid Tory staffers in the group.

The meeting lasted 2½ hours. Harper and Jean talked with only two other officials present: Kevin Lynch, the country’s top bureaucrat as clerk of the Privy Council, and Jean’s closest aide, Sheila-Marie Cook, whose title is secretary to the Governor General and herald chancellor. The Globe and Mail reported that Jean left the room once to confer with constitutional lawyer Peter Hogg. Maclean’s has learned the Hogg, author of the definitive Constitutional Law of Canada and professor emeritus of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, was called in by Rideau Hall to serve as Jean’s adviser several days earlier, as soon as the first speculation began swirling that Harper would try to avoid facing a confidence vote.

Hogg’s expertise, and Jean’s poise under pressure, would be severely tested. The situation was unprecedented. The closest thing to it was the so-called King-Byng Affair of 1926, when governor general Lord Byng refused prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s request to dissolve Parliament for an election when his own minority, which had relied on support from the Progressives, couldn’t govern on. Byng instead allowed Conservative leader Arthur Meighen a chance to form a government. It was short-lived, and King won the ensuing election. According to University of Toronto law professor Ed Morgan, the lesson of the King-Byng Affair is mixed: Byng was right to give Meighen his chance, but King’s subsequent election win proved voters didn’t appreciate having a government foisted on them by an appointed governor general’s decision.

Jean chose not to be another Byng: she granted Harper’s request. Parliament would be shut down until Jan. 26, the day before the Conservatives promised to table their budget. Harper emerged, walking down the steps of Rideau Hall in a long, black coat and maroon scarf. It had begun to snow just before he arrived at the podium. As he spoke, the flakes gave way to pellets of hail, which bounced off his shoulders and collected in his hair. Gusts of wind rumbled over his microphone. “Obviously,” he said, “we have to do some trust-building here on both sides.” The previous day he had accused Dion of planning “to destroy this country.”

Dion responded by saying only a “monumental change” in Tory economic policy would stop the coalition from felling the government in late January. “Warm sentiments are not enough,” Dion said of Harper. “His behaviour must change.” Did this mean Liberals were no longer bent on voting down the Tories as soon as possible? NDP Leader Jack Layton darkly predicted Harper would unleash “seven weeks of propaganda” to try to build enough public support to survive. Even after Harper pledged to work with his opponents, Heritage Minister James Moore told Maclean’s the Tories had no intention of scaling back their barrage of rallies, radio call-in show blitzes, and Internet agitation. “It allows a lot of Canadians who are frustrated to express themselves,” he said.

After Jean gave Harper his prorogation, Liberals held a tense caucus meeting on Parliament Hill. Reports filtered out that Rae spoke as the main champion of the coalition, while Ignatieff silenced the assembled MPs and senators by grimly warning them that the party is in no condition to risk forcing an election early in 2009. What if the opposition parties vote down the Tories in late January, but Jean passes over their coalition in favour of an election? Rae was more uplifting, said one MP, but Ignatieff had a point.

After the caucus meeting, Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis hammered Dion. “Unfortunately, Mr. Dion didn’t do so good in the last election. We bombed,” Karygiannis said. “And he didn’t do so good last night. And we bombed again.” Rae saved his attack for Harper, labelling him “a man who is afraid to show up for work.” Ignatieff, Dion’s most likely successor, wouldn’t be lured into any criticism of the leader. “The questions of leadership,” he said, “are not of the hour.”

The hour arrived the very next day. In a Friday television interview, Ignatieff admitted what Liberal MPs had been saying privately since Dion’s Wednesday video embarrassment. “What the party is discussing,” he said, “is whether there are ways in which the leadership race can be accelerated in such a way that we can present clear alternatives to the country.” The next morning’s Globe and Mail carried a stinging guest column by John Manley calling for Dion’s early exit. “His weakness probably fuelled the Conservative hubris that led to this fiasco in the first place,” the former Liberal deputy prime minister wrote.

Tories staged 21 rallies across Canada against the coalition that day. “We have a right to protest,” said Moore. “And the reality is that what Stéphane Dion did this past week has angered a lot of Canadians.” A spate of polls showed the Tories getting a solid bounce out of the crisis, and scant public appetite for the coalition. A Harris-Decima poll this week found that nearly 70 per cent wanted Harper’s Conservatives to stay in power, nearly double the 37.7 per cent of the popular vote the Tories won in the Oct. 14 election.


Back at work in Ottawa on Monday, even with the House silenced, Liberals braced for what would be a head-spinning day of leadership developments. After a weekend of intense pressure, Dion announced by email that he would resign whenever the party chose a new leader. Dominic LeBlanc quit to clear the way for Ignatieff to immediately succeed Dion. “The Liberal party owes itself and the Canadian people a new leader, a permanent leader, a leader able to make the necessary decisions and needed judgments leading to the budget vote and beyond,” said LeBlanc.

That left Bob Rae, one of Ignatieff’s oldest friends, as his last standing rival. Rae agreed on Sunday that the party shouldn’t wait until May to choose a leader, but he insisted the party members should be allowed to vote before, perhaps through some sort of Internet balloting. It was Rae’s last chance: Ignatieff dominated among the party’s elite, making Rae’s only hope an appeal to the rank-and-file. The party executive rejected his pleas for a wide-open vote, announcing on Tuesday this week that only MPs, senators, defeated candidates and party officials would be consulted.

Rae gave up a few hours later, gracefully offering Ignatieff his full support. His bowing out capped a two-week swirl that even the most seasoned political veterans couldn’t have foreseen. What comes next is no more obvious. The coalition forged in those hotel rooms might yet resist centrifugal forces, and cling together long enough to defeat Harper at the end of January. But Liberal sources said Ignatieff is deeply suspicious of the arrangement. Even if he sticks tentatively with the coalition, Harper might craft a budget by late next month that’s too appealing to vote down.

Whatever the outcome, the parties and their leaders all look different now. Harper survived into 2009 only through improvisation, occasional demagoguery, and constitutional brinksmanship. His reputation for strategic savvy is permanently damaged, as might be his party’s prospects among Quebecers who don’t view the Bloc as fair game for demonization. He still has only a minority, and now faces opposition leaders who distrust and dislike him, and long to humble him, more than ever. His advantage in facing Dion, a lame duck, is suddenly lost. Ignatieff might be tougher.

Layton’s long-standing behind-the-scenes interest in coalitions and co-operation with other parties is now out in the open. That will make it hard for him to claim in any future campaign, as he did in the last one, that he’s really “running for prime minister.” The distinction between New Democrat and Liberal aims is clouded, perhaps diluting the NDP brand.

As for Ignatieff, he now takes over the Liberal helm, not after a bracing victory in a conventional leadership race, but through a rushed process that didn’t allow normal democratic input from his party’s members. He will have to struggle to validate his claim on the party’s heart.

If much is left to be sorted out about what just transpired, it’s clear that there was no winner. Any political advantage flowing from the crisis of late November 2008 will be measured only in terms of who manages to recover fastest.


Inside a crisis that shook the nation

  1. Really excellent analysis and reporting. This is what I love about Macleans.

  2. Thank you Team Macleans. Awesome work.

  3. Great insight.

    “The interstellar depth of the cold in Harper’s eyes, as he watched Layton say these words, can only be imagined” – favourite line by far

  4. Few would have believed that Dion, who came to Ottawa to fight for federalism after the near miss of the 1995 referendum, would ever publicly sign a pact with Duceppe

    This sad piece of history has cast doubt on Stephan Dion as well as Jean Chretien, who approved the coalition. It makes the two of them appear soft on separatism and brings into question how committed they were to the values of Canada vs. the values of Quebec. Toss into this mix that Jack Layton who is a native Quebecer and one truly must wonder if partisan politics is reflecting the two solitudes.

    Perhaps the time has come to give serious thought to reorganizing Canada into a looser gathering of states better known as a confederacy or as an economic union.

  5. A-1 reporting & analysis, and an enjoyable read. Thanks.

  6. “… question how committed [Dion and Chretien] were to the values of Canada vs. the values of Quebec. Toss into this mix that Jack Layton who is a native Quebecer and one truly must wonder if partisan politics is reflecting the two solitudes” – are you for real? Dion is reviled in his “native” province for railing against what most of the people who live there think is in their national interest, as is Chretien for many of the same reasons.

    The only person who made this at all about national unity was Stephen Harper (a “native” Ontarian who should have known better) while he was trying to save his own skin (I’m sure he felt national unity was a fair price for us to pay for his continued tenure).

    These are political parties showing a united front against a common threat and is not a manifestation of the two solitudes unless the place where one was born trumps their intellect.

    For all the people involved in this (don’t forget Broadbent – an architect as much as Chretien and not a Quebecer) it was about defeating the Parliamentary bully, not about subordinating one region of the country to another.

    The idea that where someone was born, rather than where and how they choose to live, determines their values is creepy, and is often the source for racism and xenophobia. Give your head a shake.

  7. I forgot to mention that I thoroughly enjoyed the article and emailed it around to all my friends who have been asking me questions about what was going on.

  8. Great piece but, saddly there was really thin gruel on the pivotal 2 1/2 hours at Rideau Hall.

    While the personalities and the interplay of tactics and strategy, good, bad and ugly, are fascinating – it is hard to know how the game is going when one doesn’t know what the rules are.

    What was said, and not said, by the Governor General and her advisors would go a long way to telling us whether this whole issue is truly concluded or whether the Coalition question has, like Parliament, been merely deferred to the new year.

    Either the Governor General has fundamentally “re-written” the unwritten portions of our Constitution vis a vis her role in accepting the advice of a PM who may, or may not, hold the confidence of Parliament. Or she has taken a very small ‘c conservative approach to the request for prorogation and merely given her Prime Minister a brief time-out. to let cooler heads prevail, such that when we return in January the Constitutional dilema is exactly where we were when Parliament was prorogued.

    If the former, a vote of non-confidence would still have the GG granting the PM’s (presumend) request to disolve Parliament and call an election If the later, then the 40th Parliament may still be viable, even if this PM is not, and the Coalition could be offered an opportunity to demonstrate that it can hold the confidence of the House.

    Great job John and Aaron, I look forward to an expanded look at those pivotal 2 and 1/2 hours. They may reveal the roadmap out of here.

  9. This saga would actually make for the best Canadian movie ever made. [Please don’t let Paul Gross make it.]

  10. GRPID :
    “Perhaps the time has come to give serious thought to reorganizing Canada into a looser gathering of states better known as a confederacy or as an economic union.”

    That is the most uncanadian statement I have ever read. It was that ‘balkanization’ mentality that Trudeau fought so hard against throughout his political life. I invite you to read ‘Say good-bye to the dream’ of one Canada, an article he wrote in the Toronto Star back in May 1987, where he denounced the whole Meech Lake thing.

  11. Within your report, John, I really question why you did not mention that the LPC, has as much, if not more, in common with the Conservatives than they do with the NDP.

    If you take, for instance, the 50 billion tax cuts which Layton so loudly opposed (I would even claim that the 50 billion un-cut was THE issue on which Jack could claim his election results) and those cuts are suddenly supported by the forming of a coalition, than what stand does Layton have for speaking for his portion of the popular support? In essence, when Jack gave away that particular election promise over to the forming of a coalition, he supported the Conservative government, because the Conservative government is in favour of the tax cuts. Indeed, it is their in-house proposal and the LIberals are in favour of that also.

    Those questions need to be answered as well. How can Layton say that he doesn’t trust Harper if Layton himself reverses that which he mostly and very loudly stood for during the elections. HOw can he now argue that the coalition is the better option if the 50 billion tax cuts are a Conservative initiative to begin with? And do those 50 billion tax cuts not amount to being part of a stimulus package? Or how must those cuts be seen?

    I am really surprised that you have not picked up on such strange twist and turns in all of this.

    I think Harper flushed out a lot of things, and one of the things is that Layton does not stand very solid on his election platform. In fact, he is against Harper when Layton talked about the 50 billion tax cuts, yet accepts them instantly when forming a coalition with the Liberals. Some things just don’t smell right and this is one of them. It should have been clearly reported on.

  12. Wow! This is some fantastic reporting. Congratulations to John Geddes and Aaron Wherry for getting to the truth. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such excellent journalism.

  13. “I look forward to an expanded look at those pivotal 2 and 1/2 hours. They may reveal the roadmap out of here.”

    I think we can all agree that learning what happened in that time would be vital information. Unfortunately, only four people were in the room at that time, and I’m sure none of them will be granting interviews on the subject (at least for, say, 20 years). I was really hoping that the GG would put out some sort of official decision, along the lines of a Supreme Court decision, explaining the arguments and rationale, but there doesn’t seem to be any precedent for that.

    Anyways, great job on the article.

  14. “This saga would actually make for the best Canadian movie ever made. [Please don’t let Paul Gross make it.]”

    Indeed. Something along the lines of “Thirteen Days.”

  15. I’m an American who loves politics and was trying to get more information about the political crisis up north in Canada. Thank you for this wonderful article. It was insightful, impartial and a good read. I think that they should just call early elections up there and let the people decide who governs them. It seems like the opposition parties are just banding together to get rid of Harper because they don’t like him and disagree with this politics. This is obvious when we see that the Bloc is part of the coalition when there were no real concessions toward their platform and no moves toward independence for Quebec. All parties should make their case to the people and let Canadians decide.

  16. Layton’s long-standing behind-the-scenes interest in coalitions and co-operation with other parties is now out in the open. That will make it hard for him to claim in any future campaign, as he did in the last one, that he’s really “running for prime minister.” The distinction between New Democrat and Liberal aims is clouded, perhaps diluting the NDP brand.

    I don’t believe Layton’s interest in working with other parties was ever a secret. He said it as frequently as possible to anyone listening. He has said that this is how they had to work on Toronto City Council, and that in every minority Parliament, he has tried to come up with ideas and get others to work on them with him and the NDP.

    Why does this make it hard for him to say he’s running for Prime Minister? Because a true Prime Minister would never work with other parties in a minority parliament? Good grief, isn’t that what we’ve just been criticizing Stephen Harper for not doing? Wasn’t that what the national media, in its infinite wisdom, was heralding when the Conservatives and Liberals “worked together” to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan?

    “Possibly diluting the NDP brand” … pish tosh … you never thought that through for more than a second, you just threw it in to sound like you’d covered all the bases. The NDP sought to propose a list of items they believed the Liberals and Bloc could agree with them on … and it’s a pretty good policy programme that’s probably pretty close to where most Canadians are today. If Ignatieff does what the national media and the right-wing of his own party want him to do, and turns his back on the signatures of all 77 members of his caucus, he can bloody well wear everything Stephen Harper does after that. And the NDP are well positioned to remind people of that. They were ready to work together with other parties, while Ignatieff was only ready to work together with Harper. Does he really believe that in caving to Stephen Harper, he won’t be inviting Harper to try and get away with more and more down the road?

    If on the other hand, Ignatieff’s people think he can vote non-confidence in the government, but turn around and disavow the coalition agreement with the NDP, then he’ll have an early election on his hands that he cannot wage effectively, thus giving Stephen Harper exactly what he wants. The NDP would do better in this situation than the Liberals, given they’re in a better financial position, and also know how to do things frugally.

    Or, Ignatieff could live up to his signature, and get at least 18 months running a government and implementing a progressive set of policies designed to clean up the economic mess and the environment. Public opinion will not take long to turn around once that transpires. And the NDP will have had some valuable experience in cabinet, learning the discipline that goes with it. It’s a win-win-win for the Liberals, NDP and the country. The two parties are not going to agree on everything, but they did not promise they would. The next election would no doubt then revolve around the points of disagreement. In which case the ballot question would focus on how the parties differed.

  17. Is it possible to dilute the NDP brand??
    Anyone out there who can a successful socialist government anywhere in the world anytime?

  18. Excellent reporting – this is the kind of political journalism we all so hunger for here in the U.S. – You Canadians have a fine source if this is what Macleans puts out out regularly.

    My fellow American Paul says there should be another election – but Canada just had one, it makes no sense to be throwing together impromptu elections every time there is political discord. Why would any party work with another if all they had to do schedule another election to put their public relations weapons to the test? What is happening in Canada right now, and which will climax at the end of January is great political theater. One can see the political machinations of a countless ancient politicians rising from the mists of historical memory to replay the war for power. These actors on the stage today may not be wearing togas or stand with daggers tucked firmly into their sashes, but it’s a well worn script they’re reading from.

    So let us choose sides, declare the villain and defend the patriot, and pray that Canadians should find themselves a people more free than when their leaders drew their ideological swords!

  19. Geddes and Wherry have provided an excellent synthesis of the political crisis that engulf Parliament and Canadians this past week.

    Yet, their explanation remains unconvincing. There is much more to this story that Canadians need to know.

    Why would Harper have miscalculated so badly? One might argue that he did not miscalculate. His political explosive fiscal update just might have been quite deliberate to smoke out the opposite’s plans. Would they come together as a coalition not only to defeat his government but to be prepared to form a government.

    If it was simply to defeat the Conservative government, Harper would then get his election and a third try at a majority before the recession set in too deep and his government would be blamed for rising unemployment, home foreclosures etc etc.

    If the coalition intended to ask the GG to allow it to form a government then Harper would have to find a way to blow it up, discredit it in the eyes of Canadians as well as in the eyes of the GG. Harper would have to put off the non-confidence vote until he could get to the GG to convince her that the coalition was a threat to national security since it involved separatists Bloc MPs would would gain access to important government confidential material.

    The coalition did, indeed, intend to form a government and stood a good chance of getting the go ahead from the GG.

    Harper blew it up with his charge that all the opposition MPs were treasonous and then sold this line of propaganda to the broader Canadian public using the CP’s immense financial resources.

    Harper also put the GG in a box because if she refused him prorogation he would “unleash the dogs” on her. He would appeal to the unwashed masses to force the Queen to send the GG packing and give him his election forthwith.

    The article needed to enlighten Canadians about the full nature of the 2 hour conversation between Harper and the GG. Usually a PM’s demand for prorogation is granted in five minutes after a few pleasantries. Obviously, PM Harper had to do a lot of convincing the GG to get her to consent. What were his clinching arguments and how much did these have to do with the threat of the Bloc separatists and their potential role in any coalition government?

    I urge the media to dig much deeper. How much did PM Harper know about the earlier negotiations between the Duceppe and Layton. Surely Harper knew much more than he has let on? How did he get this information and what is its full scope and nature?

    I realize that the convention is that conversations or correspondence between the PM and the GG are never made public. But surely, if PM Harper is the democrat he purports to be, he should release the notes of the exchanges between himself and the GG that were taken by Kevin Lynch, the head of the Privy Council.

    PM Harper claims that the opposition parties conspired against his government.

    One could also make a reasonably strong argument that PM Harper conspired against them and their democratic and constitutional right to form a government in waiting. Only access to all the documentation will confirm which of these two conspiracy theories is valid. Perhaps both are valid to some degree!

  20. Before the election the #1 concern ,from every poll showed that Canadians’ biggest concern was the ENVIRONMENT. In the second last week of the election period, the US initiated financial crisis began.
    This sent voters over to the Conservatives, who are supposed to be masters of economics and conservative.
    The Green Shift plan, not very well explained by the Liberal team, was sounding threatening. We got a pocket book vote.No carbon tax for me. Look at the price at the pumps!
    The media let CTV get away with a nasty trick on Dion, who showed in that interview, better command of the Queen’s English than that interviewer.
    Harper pounced. The subtle, unspoken ,Western Canadian prejudice to Quebecers was stirred up.They can’t speak in Western English.
    Then, once the Coalition was accorded, Harper and company played on that so loud and profanely that some of us couldnot believe our ears. Bad people: Bad for Canada.: Separatists and…. Socialists.
    Rally for Canada.
    Same thing happened with the witches of Salem.
    Separatists and Socialists. Drop them in the tarsands.
    Quebec was still not sure if they were separatists, and have been unsure for awhile.
    Tommy Douglas was named : our GREATEST CANADIAN…. a Socialist! Mon Dieu!

  21. to paul the american,

    With all due respect, here in Canada our government is based on the British parliamentary system.
    We do things differently, i.e. we do not elect presidents (supreme leaders), we elect members of parliament, who in turn choose their leader to represent them. The notion of ‘confidence” in the House of Commons is a fundamental element of the BPI. If the governing minority loses confidence, the governor general can either ask the opposition whether they think they can govern, OR she can call an election. As for calling an election, we just had one in mid-October. My thought is that the GG must draw the line somewhere, if not, the Canadian electorate could potentially be facing elections way too often, resulting in that no work gets done in Ottawa.

  22. I want to add my thanks for an excellent article – much of it I already knew but the method of getting to yes on the coalition was illuminating. It gives me great hope to think that some of our political leaders will find ways to put aside their differences in order to find common ground on issues of importance to Canadians.
    The idea of compromise is fundamental to good democracy. We all cannot have our own way on any given issue and so compromise is needed to get to the best policy for the majority. When I read the economic plan of the coalition I was encouraged that the plan seemed sound and based on what many Canadians were asking for.
    The PM has asked for input to the budget and the coalition has already supplied a good number of options. It will be interesting to see how many of the points the Conservative budget includes at the end of January.

  23. There is one thing that all seem to miss when comparing this event with the King-Byng affair.

    The Conservatives (under Meighen) won 119 seats, King won 99. King decided to count on another party (without a coalition agreement in place) and not resign as PM but instead to continue to govern. When he was soon defeated THAT is why Meighan was given the opportunity to govern. Because his party had won a larger percentage of the seats than King.

    Taking both the Libs and the NDP (the formal coalition partners) their combined seat totals do not equal let alone surpass the CPC. In 1926, Meighans Tories had a reasonable arguement that the population had given them a mandate to try to govern as the Tories, not King’s Liberals had won the largest percentage of the seats and the only reason they were not given the opportunity to begin with is because King refused to relinquish his power.

    Saying that these two events require the GG to facilitate the same outcome, handing over the reigns to the opposition, is disingenious at best when the situations are nothing alike.

  24. Some of the above posts ^ are too windy. You know who you are.

    The only nation this crisis shook was Stephen Harper’s belly. Whatever happened to the famous strategic political brilliance?

  25. Polpundit,

    “Obviously, PM Harper had to do a lot of convincing the GG to get her to consent.”

    Or, it could equally be true, while we’re in speculation territory anyways, that the GG, upon hearing what Harper had to tell her, could not believe her ears and needed to hear some more of the tapes or hear some more of what Harper is trying to point to.

    Perhaps organisations such as involvement during the federal elections had come under discussion. We could speculate about all them things. We could take everything seriously, because we should. Or be one-sided, that’s a choice going in always, of course.

    Many, many aspects of the formed coaltion have not been answered, certainly not within John Geddes’ report. When will Layton be asked how the NDP’s MAIN election stand (to not grant the 50 billion tax cuts to businesse) could all of a sudden be thrown overboard so readily?

    I think Mr.Geddes won’t answer because he can see the writing, of where it may lead, on the wall.

    Winning a certain percentage of election outcome must rest on some principles. Throwing them all overboard right after having been elected smacks of pure disregard for the voter’s participation. The 50 billion tax cuts NOT to be granted was Layton’s major policy platform during the election, and is now abondonned in favour of the forming of a coalition. It is pure none-sense, this cobbled together coalition. They have nothing to stand on.

  26. “When I read the economic plan of the coalition I was encouraged that the plan seemed sound and based on what many Canadians were asking for.”


    18.2 % of Canadians had voted for NOT implementing the 50 billion business tax cuts so proposed by the Conservatives. And they had done so by voting for the NDP!!!!! Now Layton has reversed postition in that regard 180 degrees. How can you say what you’ve just stated. It is impossible to say what you have just said! Think about what you have just said!

  27. It really REALLY bugs that the NDP was willing to change its position on corporate income taxes in order to form the coalition doesn’t it Francien?

    The following expression comes to mind: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”

  28. Didn’t 37.6% of voters vote for “No deficit” Steve?

  29. I suggest that it is about time we moved the seat of government to a more central location in Canada, perhaps Saskatchewan, and then get rid of the Albany Club! We will have solved all our political problems. All the leaders seem more intent on political games and power grabs and not on the the job of governing the country for the good of all Canadians.

  30. “The coalition did, indeed, intend to form a government and stood a good chance of getting the go ahead from the GG.”

    I wonder. She was appointed by Liberals, and there was the question of her husband having separatist ties. Remember that so-called veteran (with his two medals) turning his back on her? I wonder what the public would be saying right now if she approved a coalition led by Liberals and supported by The Bloc. Heck, I wonder what the media would be saying!

  31. Truly outstanding reporting in an age when I thought Maclean’s was no longer relevant. Kudos to the authors and researchers. What a great article.

  32. The daughter of Eugene Forsey wrote in The Citizen that if the Governor General granted the prorogue, “There should be an outcry from one end of this country to the other”.

    I agree with her.

    The prorogue was unconstitutional and indefensible. That is the crux of the matter.

    We now have a de facto dictator sitting in 24 Sussex Drive for the first time in our history. This is an appalling situation which cannot be allowed to continue.

    Mr. Ignatieff clearly is not prepared to do anything about it. Canadians should flood Liberal MPs with emails demanding that he be replaced by Mr. Rae or they will never vote Liberal again.

    When Mr. Ignatieff steps aside, when Mr. Rae becomes the Liberal leader, when Parliament is recalled, when Mr. Harper is defeated in the House, and when the Coalition forms a government, then – and only then – will we be back on the road to democracy in Canada.

  33. I think we spend too much time trying to analyze why the coalition parties agreed to this, that or the other. It’s quite simple actually. The opposition parties were fed up with being trampled on by Harper, fed up with his attack ads, fed up with his lies and distortions, fed up with his policies and unwilling to allow him to destroy opposition. They quite simply no longer trusted the man to do anything other than, that which served his own interests. They agreed to put aside their differences, to take Harper down. Some people (Conservatives, media and pundits) have distorted the reasons for their own gain but have failed to point out that co-operation is required in a minority government. Too bad Harper didn’t understand that.

  34. Great stuff, your: “Government and opposition MPs traded insults. Treasury Board President Vic Toews singled out members of the Liberal front bench and loudly called them “traitors.” “The cacophony was almost frightening.”

    “The cacophony was almost frightening.” is terrific, emotion-generating writing.

    It’s almost as good as being there and taking part.

    Thanks, Mcleans!

  35. “Too bad Harper didn’t understand that.”


    I’m afraid you no longer understand the meaning of democracy.

    During election time, Layton said: ” We must NEVER implement the 50billion tax cuts to businesses (it was THE major plank in the NDP’s party policy proposals)

    A percentage of voters elect NDP seats

    During election time, Harper said: “We must implement the 50 billion tax cuts to businesses because it lends support to businesses across this country.”

    After the election, Layton says:” We must now reverse completely: the 50 billion tax cuts must be implemented.” (Layton in fact supports the Conservatives now! but Layton pretends he supports the Liberals)

    How does the NDP supporter feel about their leader? And how do they feel about democracy? Why would Layton not answer any of these questions? Oh, that’s right: he’s never been asked!

  36. Francien, stop already. I’m quite sure the NDP supporters can look after themselves. They don’t need a Conservative telling them they should feel outraged. They don’t need a Conservative to tell them what to ask their leader (particularly amusing coming from a Conservative, since they apparently never ask their leader anything–its against their leader’s rules.)

    If the NDP has a problem with their leader, I’m sure the NDP membership will work it out. Personally, the only person I’ve heard suggesting there is a problem has been you. Don’t expect the NDP supporters to fall for your plainly insincere call to arms. Even though you’ve put it on every single Maclean’s thread.

  37. mynalee johnstone Tommy Douglas was named : our GREATEST CANADIAN…. a Socialist! Mon Dieu!

    He was also a deeply religious man. How can he be a Socialist if he rejected Marxist rhetoric about the “opiate of the masses”?

  38. I really had to wonder about the authors conclusion that Harper’s reputation as a strategist was tarnished. Maybe I’m just being paranoid but I think that the “crisis” was intentionally manufactured by Harper to increase the balkanization that – to this point at least – is benfitting his cause. I say this because the two points added to the “party funding” issue were so obviously inflamatory. Was this a “High Stakes Gamble” – probably. But that fits right in with the Harper we’ve observed in the past. I guess we’ll see how it all plays out when parliament resumes. I recently read a comment in the international press that Canadian politics is a giant yawn – I guess we can excuse them since the comment was made before this all happened. Stay tuned for more fun in 2009….

  39. Difficult to involve myself out of the Country in Pharr,Texas where the temperatures are as hot as Canadian Politics at the moment. Appreciate McLeans insight into the political turmoil. Was turned off by the Conservative p;etition and there approach to other Canadians. They have driven a wedge in East-West relations and people of Quebec. Mr Harper’s political slandering was unbecoming of our Leader and it is imperitive that he use the intellect that made him Prime Minister and restore his personal image with Canadians. To use his powers available with the Governor General was a terrible precedent to set but shows how his arragonce caused it to come about.
    This has taken the Liberals back to square one and unfortunately they have chosen poorly in Michael who has only shown up recently to take the limelight as [proven in their leadership convention. The Liberals are now without backbone and I am not optomistic of their immediate future’.
    There should be another election soon to allowing the people to bring in a majority Conservative government who hopefully have learned from this arrogant approach to governing the country, especially at a time of economic crisis in the world. in cluding Canada.

  40. re: the political subsidies: this — “So the Tories are the least reliant of any party on the taxpayer support” — is untrue, because it ignores the fact that there’s a 75% tax credit for political donations. That is, for every $100 you donate (& claim on your income tax return), you pay $75 less in taxes than you otherwise would. Which means that $19.7 million in Cons. donations may have resulted in 14.8-M in foregone income taxes (if everyone claimed them) which’d have to be made up for in other ways (e.g., gas taxes), compared to $4.3-million in tax dollars foregone by dint of the $5.7-M in Liberal donations. If the Con’s were really serious about wanting to let the taxpayers off the hook, they’d do away with this at the same time.


    I’ve had a belly-full of the Harper dictatorship (it’s Day 12) and Iggy’s efforts to scuttle the Coalition.

    Every time we sing “O Canada”, we pledge to “stand on guard for thee”. Well, let’s start doing it !

    Let’s start taking back our democracy now !

    Here’s the plan: Let’s flood Liberal MPs with emails saying we’ll never vote Liberal again unless they replace Mr. Ignatieff with Mr. Rae IMMEDIATELY.

    At the same time, let’s flood the Governor General ( with emails saying that we believe the prorogue was constitutionally indefensible, and that once Mr. Rae is the Liberal leader, we expect her to recall Parliament IMMEDIATELY, allow a vote of non-confidence and, when Mr. Harper loses that vote, to call on the Coalition to form a government. NO MORE UNNECESSARY ELECTIONS !

    This will be our Christmas present to Canada – the restoration of democracy in our fair land.

    The Christmas revolution of 2008 has begun ! See you at and !

    Vive le Canada !

  42. “If the NDP has a problem with their leader, I’m sure the NDP membership will work it out. Personally, the only person I’ve heard suggesting there is a problem has been you. Don’t expect the NDP supporters to fall for your plainly insincere call to arms.”


    Has anyone dared to ask Layton? I haven’t heard Layton’s answer on that one yet! Why not. During the election campaign he talked about it every hour of every day! It had been THE issue for Jack to campaign on.

    I thought perhaps someone would have an answer to Layton’s complete reversal of plans, that’s why I’ve put it on every single Maclean’s thread.

    I was thinking perhaps someone could answer the question?

  43. francien
    wow!! Jack isn’t gonna do what he said he would do. You’ll be discovering steam next! If the ndp faithful doesn’t like it, i’m sure they will let him know. Give it up

  44. kc

    this is not just a matter for the NDP. This issue concerns all of us. You see, when Layton reversed position when being part of the coaltion, he suddenly AGREED to the business tax cuts, in effect supporting the Conservative government. We shouldn’t let the wool being pulled over our eyes without puttin up some kind of struggle.

    • Are you really surprised Layton would sell out his platform to get a seat in cabinet? Are you really surprised Ducceppe agreed to keep Dion and Layton in power to get money funneled to Quebec?
      Are you surprised the Liberals joined in a back room deal after facing the worst defeat since confederation? This coalition deal hinges on not going back to the people. Why does not bother grassroots members of the NDP/LIBS/BLOC? When did you become terrified in asking for a mandate?

      Why did you sign an agreement to avoid asking for a mandate for 18 months? What are you hiding?

      We have 3 party leaders who were able to defeat an elected government by combining their seats and avoiding going to the polls for 18 months.

      If this was a coalition why are the Bloc refusing to join the NDP and LIBS inside cabinet? The Bloc have more seats than the NDP?
      Why are the members of the coalition not meeting to discuss the Economic Update, Budget as a coherent group? Where are the details of this NEW government on January 26, 2009?

      Harper is a bully, meanie, fatty, we get it. He is 12 seats short of a majority and can not pass a single bill without your support so why are we here?

  45. Do you know what is missing in both the analysis and most of the comments? Any acknowledgment of the democratic rights of the Canadian people.

    You see, in this focus on the isolate political machinations of the Ottawa Bubble, what is lost is that our government represents the Will of the People. This representation is acquired via democratic elections. This government must always be, essentially, the property of the people. Not of the political parties and their various plans for power and control.

    Not one single Canadian voted for a coalition government. Not one. Indeed, during the election, both Dion and Layton rejected such considerations. The coalition’s current statements that 62% of Canadians want a coalition government is pure rubbish. We Canadians did not for for the NDP AND the Liberals AND the Bloc AND the Greens AND the Marxist-Leninist AND the Communist AND the Marijuana Party..which are all included in that 62%. We voted for the separate and specific policies of each party. Furthermore, in contrast to the Coalition’s rhetoric, our votes were NOT votes against Mr. Harper; they were votes FOR a particular party.

    The Coalition, both in its formation and its programme was/is the most outrageous attack on our democracy in our history. Think about it. Their agenda was to take power without an election. AND to prevent going to the electorate for a period of almost two years. How? By setting up the Bloc, a party out of the electoral reach of over 80% of Canadians, as the PowerBroker in the situation.

    The Bloc, violating its taxpayer funded duties to represent the electorate – and not just a political party – agreed to vote in favour of any and all confidence votes of this coalition for almost two years. Without even reading, without even knowing – the content of those Motions. That’s a violation of their taxpayer funded duty to us, the citizens.
    As a set of MPs out of the electoral reach of over 80% of Canadians, this effectively set up the Bloc as the SOLE Voting agent in the House. The other MPs might as well stay home; their votes are irrelevant. All that counts – is those Bloc Votes.
    This is a violation of our democratic rights – because it set up a situation of Taxation Without Representation.

    And please note that my analysis has nothing to do with the Bloc’s nature as a party representing Quebec separatists; My conclusion would be the same for any isolate party whose electorate was confined to one region – be it PEI, the Yukon or BC.

    The coalition’s refusal to take their governing agenda and actions to the electorate by this two-pronged strategy of taking out the current elected government and insisting on no election – and then – using the Bloc to prevent elections violates our democratic rights to both elect our government, and hold that government electorally accountable.

  46. Right now the only person I see trying to pull the wool over peoples eyes is Francien.

  47. I want to thank MacLean’s for running what must be two of the most inadvertently hilarious photographs of Canadian politicians in recent memory — and God knows there has been ample opportunity for hilarity.

    On page 18 of your engrossing lead article on the Parliamentary crisis, you print a photo of Liberal leader by appointment, Michael Ignatieff, grinning like Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat having just swallowed the proverbial canary. More hilarious still are his unnamed companions. To Ignatieff’s right stands a gentleman whose expression of suspicion could not be duplicated by the most severe U.S. Secret Service agent. To his left, a woman whose stunned expression can only come from being caught in the headlights.

    On the following page you print a picture of former Liberal leadership hopeful Bob Rae. We see Mr. Rae descend the stairs looking somewhat sheepish and dejected, his jacket sleeve a little too long, carrying what appears to be a pair of boots of all things. Talk about being given the boot. To his right a young woman is hurrying past him in what could be interpreted as a failed attempt at disassociation.

    Together the images caused me to laugh out loud. In light of the antics in Parliament, that provided a welcome relief.

  48. An excellent reporting. As a frequent CBC reader, I applaud such an indepth and unbiased article. From now on I will be reading Macleans, not the CBC which only enjoys the advantage of providing quick news stories so we know when things happen.

  49. As soon as Brian Topp took over ACTRA Toronto Performers, as well as continuing to be Jack Layton’s NDP ‘Karl Rove’-type strategist, film producers have abandoned Toronto in droves to work out of British Columba. Topp has managed to turn Toronto film actors into NDP-drones, offering the same lame excuses as to why Toronto has gone from the Number One Film Centre in Canada to zero. As FIlmport remains empty, he dares to come up with the same, lame excuses, year after year to the rank and file… “SARS, strikes, loonie dealuation”, ad nauseum…the fact is no producer in his right mind would invest his money in Toronto as long as the NDP are calling the shots…

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