In the penultimate installment of his very useful contribution to the public memory of the pivotal 2008 coalition crisis/ missed opportunity (pick one), Brian Topp tells about the very bad days at the end of the adventure.
I’m struck by Topp’s references to “ubiquitous Tory pundits,” Stephen Harper’s “force multipliers” in the Gallery who — along with Stéphane Dion’s ineptitude — made it impossible for the plucky band of rebels to get their message out. He says in other circumstances, these knuckle-dragging Conservative scribes would have been transformed into a brigade of Eugene Forseys:
If the shoe had been on the other foot, and it had been Stephen Harper’s Conservatives at the head of a parliamentary majority moving in the first days of a new Parliament to unseat an isolated minority government (as Mr. Harper had been planning to do when he was an opposition leader), English-speaking Canadians on December 2 and 3, 2008, would have heard a very different song from their television networks, open-mouth radio, newspapers and magazines. They would have been listening to lectures about parliamentary history, parliamentary democracy, responsible government, the need for the executive to be democratically accountable – and the need for the executive to find its legitimacy from a majority of the House of Commons each and every day of its existence, failing which the House had both the power and the duty to install a new ministry that could command that support.
But in this case, it was an isolated minority Conservative government that had lost its parliamentary support. And so it was the Tory Prime Minister’s themes that English Canadians heard.
Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions about the plausibility of this part of Topp’s narrative.
I’m struck by a few other things, too. One is how Topp keeps referring to “the better, smarter, progressive government that 62 per cent of [Canadians] had voted for.” Now, call me a Tory force multiplier, but I didn’t see that specific option on my ballot in 2008. I saw a Liberal party that had publicly (and, Topp confirms, privately and repeatedly) spurned any talk of a coalition with the NDP. And I didn’t see a Bloc option, because I didn’t vote in Quebec. And yet Topp cannot get to his “clear majority” of “62%” without the Bloc, even though in his epic’s first installment, he called the coalition’s too-close association with the Bloc “probably our fundamental strategic mistake.”
But of course the association with the Bloc was both a fundamental mistake and fundamental to the strategy. I’m just another force-multiplying Tory, but what I wrote at the time was that Topp and his plucky compatriots simply never had the math. If he gets to dump his Blackberry archive, I can quote myself at length from that same crazy time:
Canadians are legitimists. They get, or can grasp once reminded, the idea that governments are creatures of Parliaments, not directly of elections. I believe a coalition alternative to Harper would have broad appeal, and would be accepted by voters even without an election, if it met a few criteria — if, at a glance, it looked better than the one Harper leads.
So if the Liberals had nearly as many seats as the Conservatives; or if Liberals-plus-NDP outnumbered the Conservatives; or, again, if Liberals-plus-NDP were close to the number of Conservatives, so that only a few Bloc MPs (ideally lured into quitting the Bloc for one of the other parties) were needed to make a majority, the coalition would be a lot more persuasive. As it is, Harper’s crew would still outnumber Dion’s and Layton’s put together, and nearly all of Duceppe’s would be needed to tilt the balance, so that Liberals would not only be a minority in the House but in their own government. Does that ruin the project’s credibility? Perhaps for some, and for the rest, there’s more.
If the putative replacement prime minister looked and acted prime ministerial, if his judgement was sound, perhaps we’d be off to the races. The one on offer vanished for six days after the election; failed to produce a useable video of himself in a timely manner for a crucial address to the nation; and this morning was, by more than an hour, the last leader in Parliament to comment on the prorogation of that parliament. He is — this is seriously not trivial, folks — an opponent of Quebec separatists of 20 years’ standing who could not govern without the support of separatists in confidence votes.
How would a Prime Minister Stephane Dion react if an Opposition Leader Stephen Harper challenged him with a coalition that depended on the entire Bloc caucus for its viability? Do you doubt for two seconds he’d scream blue murder? Would Dion’s defenders on this website rush to Harper’s defence then? Yes, yes, the Bloc has been here forever and we can’t shoo it away and they’ve earned their pension cheques and blah blah blah, but let’s just say it out loud: A coalition government that depends on Bloc support at every confidence vote is a really crappy coalition. It is fair to wish for a better one, or to discard the idea altogether.
Topp comes pretty close to admitting all this himself in his first installment when he refers to “a draft letter, never sent, which we had planned to present to Stéphane Dion on election night had the numbers justified it, proposing a coalition government.” [My emphasis.]
So much for strategy, and constitutional legitimacy. One less important, but I think still non-trivial, point about tactics. Much of Topp’s yarn today is about that first Question Period when Dion and Harper faced off on the Monday after that astonishing weekend of coalition deal-making. I’ve never understood why there was a Question Period. Question Period is for members of the opposition to ask questions of a Prime Minister and his ministry about the policies their government intends to pursue. Its structure inherently puts the opposition in a subordinate, supplicant position. But as of an hour before that QP, the coalition had declared its belief that the Harper ministry would be pursuing no more policies. By their own logic, they should not have bothered to put questions to Harper an hour later. If you’re going to play out an incredibly shaky hand, at least act like you believe it.