What was Stephen Harper thinking in 2004?

by Aaron Wherry

On September 9, 2004—two and a half months after that year’s federal election—Stephen Harper appeared at a news conference alongside Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP leader Jack Layton to announce what Mr. Harper would describe as a “co-opposition” agreement. The three presented a series of reforms intended to give the opposition parties more power in Parliament as Paul Martin prepared to lead Canada’s first minority government in more than two decades.

Mr. Harper, Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton had also sent a letter to the Governor General—Adrienne Clarkson at the time—to suggest that, should Mr. Martin seek to dissolve Parliament, she should “consult” with the three opposition leaders and consider her “options” before exercising her authority.

Below you will find an audio recording of that September 2004 news conference in its entirety.

[audio http://www.macleans.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/npt_sept-09_harper-duceppe-layton_re_joint-news-conferenc.mp3]

At the 11:20 mark, the three opposition leaders are first asked to explain their request that the Governor General consult with them—specifically whether they are prepared to form a government.

Mr. Harper dismisses the question as “extremely hypothetical.” Mr. Duceppe says the three parties are not presently a coalition and will not form a coalition in the future. Mr. Layton, while suggesting it was unlikely such a thing would happen here, raises the Liberal-NDP accord that brought about a Liberal minority government in Ontario in the mid-1980s.

None of which would seem to fully explain what “options” the Governor General was supposed to consider. If Paul Martin were to seek the dissolution of Parliament—either after losing a vote in the House or simply at Mr. Martin’s behest—what could the Governor General have done but call for an election? More specifically, what would Mr. Harper have wanted her to do? If a coalition was not possible, could Mr. Harper have governed with some other kind of arrangement? Did he hope she might send Mr. Martin back to the House under some sort of order that he cooperate with the opposition parties?

It is perhaps academic now, six years later, but in light of the current rhetoric and debate, it seems worth exploring all the same.

What was Stephen Harper thinking in 2004?

  1. Why, if Stephen Harper and the Conservatives tried to run the government after they lost the election, why, that would be a coup! And, if he had to rely on the socialists and separatists to get anything done, that's disgusting! Canadians from coast to coast would rise up and denounce such a blatant and illegitimate grab for power!

    Oh, political rhetoric and hyperbole… where would we be without you.

    Cue up the 'it was completely different then' and 'it wasn't the same thing' and 'stop dredging up ancient history, Wherry' comments.

  2. I note that this conference and the letter to the GG were done before the opening of the new parliament.

    I also note that none of the 'nouvelles façons de gouverner' (Duceppe, at 6 min.) were discussed openly with voters during the campaign. No rational explanation is given for their reminding the GG by letter that she should consult the opposition before accepting a request for dissolution (no time-frame given). If Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe were to write such a letter today, Prime Minister Harper would find it unacceptable and unconstitutional.

  3. Emphasis on word "today"

  4. It was completely different then because it was us and now it's them

    That clear it up?

  5. Funny how often that excuse is used in politics.

    And we wonder why people just tune out.

  6. "It is perhaps academic now, six years later, but in light of the current rhetoric and debate, it seems worth exploring all the same."

    get real weary – we know why you are dredging it up!
    No doubt next you'll be showing us Liberal Attack ads, right?
    It's pollitics and and 'unbiased press' now taking the place of the opposition parties.

  7. Aaron, I really don't understand why you keep blogging about this. Unless I'm missing something you seem to be making the point that Harper's publicly stated opinions about coalitions are not really statements of principle and are said just to improve the chances of the Conservatives at the next election. At least as far as I'm concerned this is not really a surprise and not much different from how any of the other leaders behave (and have been behaving for a long time now). Please don't take that as a defense of Harper, it's just I really don't see why you keep mentioning this.

  8. I think that there is a lot more talk of the potential for a coalition government originating from the CPC headquarters than is being generated by the parliamentary press corps.

    I have absolutely no problem with media trying to keep our politicians honest and accountable.

  9. At the 44 minute mark of the tape Harper talks about the fact that the three opp. parties are agreeing on a system of process as opposition parties but at the same time he acknowledges that the 3 parties will have fundamental differences of philosophy.

    Thanks to Wherry we can now see the contrast between this group agreeing to have a unified process of opposition as opposed to the 3 stooges in 2008 who were organizing a process for a power-grab.

    It`s also interesting to see how Harper showed himself to be the undisputed leader of the group in contrast to the flopping about of the then leader of the Liberals as well as the 2 subsequent leaders of the LPC.

    Harper had the patience and confidence to know he would be PM after the next election—-he had no interest in anything but an agreement of process between the opp. parties.

  10. My guess is that Wherry has not yet succumbed to cynicism, and refuses to follow your lead in dismissing this kind of behaviour as "business as usual."

  11. Parallax view.

  12. Nah….. I think he is constantly digging through the archives in that never-ending effort to attempt to prove that Harper and the CPC are just as bad as the Liberals.

  13. This another of those posts no reasonable human could ever write.

  14. I think a lot of Canadians wish that Harper were merely as "bad" as the Liberals.

  15. Slow day Aaron? How many times have you brought this 2004 "agreement" up before? There is nothing new here…

    The other possibility…Martin had momentum in the last week of the 2004 campaign and he might have considered going back to the polls immediately to try and turn his minority into a majority.

    The target for the message they were trying to send in 2004 wasn't Clarkson. It was Martin.

  16. Fair enough, but if you are right I think he is ignoring a lot of evidence from politicians from all parties …

    One minor point, I do see this as "business as usual", but that's not a defense, I find it very disheartening and utterly reprehensible. Where I may differ from some posters is that I don't see the Conservatives being any worse than the other parties*.

    *They are right now, but that's because unlike 2004 they are the one trying to cling to power in a minority. I'd maintain that anyone who wasn't blinded by partisanship wouldn't be very impressed by the Liberals behaviour in 2005 and 2006.

    Please note I'm not saying "It's OK for the Conservative to do it because the Liberals do (or did)". What I am saying is that if you want to change what I see as a culture of self-serving dishonesty then blaming it all on the Conservatives (or even Harper himself) is not going to help.

  17. Because Harper is Prme Minister now so he must held accountable by (the public/the press/the opposition) for what he has stated in the past and whether he (still believes in them/no longer believes in them/was just blowing smoke then/is blowing smoke now).

  18. When the historians poke through the remains of the LPC I think they will find that the one massive blunder that was their downfall was the attempted coalition of 2008.
    That was such an incredibly stupid strategic move—a lot of liberals were cringing in Dec. 2008—I remember reading Kinsella at that time. He was hoping Dion and Rae and Iggy would just go away like a bad dream.

    The thought that a slumping political party with only one-quarter of the representation in Parliament would attempt a power grab only 2 months after a losing election, because the governing party were proposing a reduction in political subsidies to all parties, is so is so unbelievable that Canadians will choose to punish such arrogance for a long time.

    Liberals like Kinsella are right to try to make Canadians forget about this sorry episode of Liberal history.
    Liberals like Wherry are wrong to try to justify these times by dredging up unrelated situations—-it only acts as a contrasting reminder of how disastrous was that move the Libs made in Dec. 2008.

  19. …………morning Mikey

  20. ……..morning Fido

  21. If the Conservatives keep flogging the "Threat of Coalition", as they continue to do on an almost daily basis, I hardly think it fair that the media should not continue reporting the blatant hypocrisy of Mr. Harper.

    Personally, the response by the Conservatives to this whole coalition controversy is about the most reprehensible thing they have done since forming Government. The rhetoric they used, including language suggesting that the opposition was attempting a coup, was in my book, disgusting. When, in fact, all it was that the Government had gotten itself in trouble related to having continued 'confidence' in the House.

    Maybe, if the Conservatives dropped their inane approach to how they think a democracy should work in a minority parliament, then the media wouldn't point out the sheer and utter hypocrisy being demonstrated.

  22. I thought it was interesting that a coalition was specifically ruled out in that press conference, not just at present (2004) but also in the future. It's almost as if the party leaders wanted to make it crystal clear that a coalition was not on the table, and that by asking the GG to consider options in the event of a dissolution, they were sending a message to Prime Minister Paul Martin that things were going to be different now that the Liberals had been reduced to a minority government.

  23. No, it most certainly not all Stephen Harper's fault.

    Still, there is this to consider.

    Mr Harper rode into town on a righteous wave that promised to "replace the culture of entitlement with a culture of accountability."

    I guess we've grown to expect the same old, same old from our governments, but am I wrong to think these words should actually mean something?

  24. Please note I'm not saying "It's OK for the Conservative to do it because the Liberals do (or did)". What I am saying is that if you want to change what I see as a culture of self-serving dishonesty then blaming it all on the Conservatives (or even Harper himself) is not going to help.

    Bravo. A point I've been trying to make here for a long long time.

  25. At around the thirty three minute mark when the PPG person is stating that they are running out of time but will the three Leaders takes the questions from the six remaining jounalists, they all agree but Steve throws in, "Should I ask who they are first?" A reporter jests, "We're coming to get you Harper!"

    If only we knew that Steve wasn't really joking and that the reporter (and most of the PPG) was just talk.

  26. Fair enough, but if the threat of a coalition wasn't one of the options the GG should consider in the event of the dissolution of parliament, what other options did she have? Further, if the threat of a coalition wasn't on the table, it seems like a pretty toothless message to Martin on the part of the three opposition leaders, doesn't it?

  27. I know Danby's just said it, but I want to emphasize the point. Generally speaking, "business as usual" for a politician means saying whatever it takes today, even if it means spinning in the opposite direction from yesterday.

    But when you campaign on the premise that this business as usual is wrong and needn't be so, yes, it is worse–MORE disheartening and MORE reprehensible, and more likely to result in an electorate tuning out. And, when a tuned out electorate is actually what you are aiming for, there is no match to this Conservative party for disheartening, reprehensible behaviour.

  28. Well, yeah, but what options? What was the message? No matter who the target of the message was, what options did this united-but-not-a-coalition opposition present?

  29. It was a toothless gesture: the party leaders wanted to be consulted by the GG in the event of a dissolution, even though there weren't other options given that the coalition was ruled out as a possibility. It was symbolic, more than anything else. They just wanted to be asked, in recognition of the fact that the opposition parties had more seats than the governing party for the first time in decades.

    In the context of the press conference as a whole, it was clearly intended as a reminder to the governing party that things were going to be different now, and that the opposition parties were prepared to maximize their new heft in a minority government by cooperating to make some changes.

  30. No, you're not wrong but most incoming governments have complained about the ethics of the outgoing government, and then (sadly) go on to do the same sort of thing that they complain about.

    For anyone who has time (not me I'm afraid) did Chretien campaign on running a cleaner government than Mulroney in the 1993 election? If so then he was doing just what Harper was doing.

    Again, I'm not defending any of this behaviour. But my rather naive feeling is that if you are a member of a political party (I'm not) you should be demanding better behaviour from *your MPs* rather than just adding to the partisan shrieking about how awful the other guy is.

  31. So why don't the Liberals stop cowering in fear and attack Harper on some of this stuff?

  32. There were no other options. By saying they expected to be consulted by the GG in the event of dissolution, while simultaneously ruling out the only option available to them, they were making a symbolic statement that the opposition parties had real power now, and that eleven years of unfettered Liberal majority government were over.

  33. Well again, the target of the message was Martin, who might have been considering going back to the polls right away to capitalize on the fact that Harper had seemed to have run out of gas in the last election and try to get his majority.

    The message to Martin was "don't assume that the GG will automatically grant you a dissolution just because you ask for one". I for one believe the message was a bluff that was never called.

  34. I think you'll find once you get beyond the obvious partisanship that a demand for better behaviour is exactly what many of the posters here are demanding – they're just principally angry with Harper at this moment – unless you wish to dimiss all opinion here as partisansan hackery [ which i'm sure you don't]
    In any case you're awfully close to saying " what can we do! They're all at it!" Not true. Right now it's Sh who is the target of a lot of anger. I can clearly see you don't intend it but in effect you feed the libs did it too bonfire that con partisans like to keep smouldering in their backyards.

  35. And the letter was for…

  36. Wherry are wrong to try to justify these times by dredging up unrelated situations—-it only acts as a contrasting reminder of how disastrous was that move the Libs made in Dec. 2008

    cognitively dissonant conclusion of the day award goes to Mr Blue.

  37. since when did our canine-king ever do toothless?

  38. The target for the message they were trying to send in 2004 wasn't Clarkson. It was Martin

    " I wasn't serious GG, don't you get it, the letter was merely a tactical move to prevent the PM from calling an election…no, no…i don't want to form a coalition…don't you see….[" I knew Clarkson was thick, but not this thick"]

    - LoO Mr H.

    Nice post JG…would work even better if it had a logical premise.

  39. I think that's a fair point. But your post raises one of the issues I have with a lot of the criticism of Harper, which is that people are *angry* with him. This is the part I don't get. I'm disappointed with a lot of his decisions which seem to be done for narrow political reasons, or in some cases (census) for no reason I can decipher at all.

    But a lot of what appears to get people angry (in many cases in a really visceral way) seems to be the same sort of behaviour that most modern politicians indulge in, and which for some posters (not all by any means) is perfectly acceptable if "their guy" is doing it.

  40. There were no other options. By saying they expected to be consulted by the GG in the event of dissolution, while simultaneously ruling out the only option available to them, they were making a symbolic statement that the opposition parties had real power now, and that eleven years of unfettered Liberal majority government were over.

    Do you cite a particular authority for this opinion? Why hasn't the CPC simply stated this was the case – particularly when Dion was waving that letter around in Parliament – at that moment of crisis some critical reasoning [heh] would have helped. You have laid out a clever argument, but considering all the water that has gone under that bridge [not to mention a prorogation or two] i find this hypothesis too convenient, too implausible and too late.. All this too keep Martin from going to the polls – a thing he could do in any event.

  41. However, the question remains, if you make a bluff that you're going to do something, isn't it a bit hypocritical to decry someone for actually attempting it, whether you really meant to or not?

  42. Why do you assume they would have blithely gone on to an election? Mr. Harper said the question was "extremely hypothetical" which is not, you'll notice, an answer, it's a comment on the question. The only one who said he wouldn't be in a coalition was Duceppe. And Duceppe maintained that position, even through the 2008 Liberal-NDP threat.

  43. What would the GG consult them about?

    Seriously, I think you believe something here that I just don't understand. So please explain–slowly, and from the top–how it could be not a threat of a coalition, and yet give GG something to consult on?

  44. And if it wer emerely that, many would concede the point. But Harper promised better than the low bar of Chretien, then was much worse much quicker – almost to the point where he delights in lying and doing things previous politicians would have thought too low to contemplate.

  45. If Paul Martin were to seek the dissolution of Parliament—either after losing a vote in the House or simply at Mr. Martin's behest—what could the Governor General have done but call for an election? More specifically, what would Mr. Harper have wanted her to do?

    If I were the GG, and confidence was lost early on, I would certainly have the Prime Minister over for a chat. Then the Leader of the Opposition. To the former, I would say, "Thanks for letting me know you've lost confidence, have a nice day." To the latter, "We just went through an election, so please tell me whether you wish to seek to win confidence of the House yourself, and if so, explain to me how you think you will achieve that."

    Not that I would have needed a letter from anybody. But an immediate election call without even an attempt at studying alternatives would have been a failure of the GG to carry out one of her most important duties.

  46. i'm fairly sure the posters here who are demanding better behaviour and are also angry with Harper have at some point been incensed with the liberal party[ i have] for the same reasons. I realise cognitive dissonance is wide spread, and we've all been a victim of it at one time or another; but i really don't see being angry at this kind of behaviour from any party at any time as being dissonant.

  47. Hey is it two for one blogging day over at BTories? Cus it almost seems kind of orcherated…just saying.

    Ok lads i'll handle the negative onslaught. Got your back ladies and gents. Damn the buggers are coming out of the sun…need backup…repeat…need…

  48. Maybe they sent a blank page to the GG and filed the letter for reference.

  49. Jenn, I agree with john_g below that it was an empty bluff. Nobody seriously thought that a Con/NDP coalition was a realistic possibility. I don't think it even rises to the level of "threat", because none of the leaders would even acknowledge the possibility of a coalition. That's why the language was deliberately vague, including the reference to "options".

  50. Who's "Nobody"?

    What's the difference between "an emplty bluff" and a lie?

    I take it that the point of lying/bluffing is to make people question, at the very least, what you will do. So, okay, today (as of 2008) he says he didn't mean it. Perhaps tomorrow he'll say that was a "bluff" too.

    In other words, do you guys have some kind of secret hand signal or facial tick that tells you when he is speaking with integrity, and when he is "bluffing"? If you do, could you give the rest of us a heads up the next time? Take this F35 sole-sourced contract, for example. Is this something we can safely ignore as him kidding around?

    It does explain what happened with the UAE, though.

  51. Brian Topp author, ex-NDP strategist explained how this secret deal was in place months ago and was not the same as alleged by coalition leaders.

    Read the book

  52. Moreover, though a draft of the book was read by members of Mr. Topp's “tribe,” the final product is not completely scrubbed of material unhelpful to coalition proponents. We learn, for example, that Stephen Harper had not discussed formation of a coalition government with the opposition parties in 2004, as many claim; their letter to the Governor-General was about “sending the minority Liberal government [of Paul Martin] a message that it was going to have to govern in consultation with the Opposition parties.” Later on, when Mr. Duceppe explained that Mr. Harper would be prime minister of a coalition government, Mr. Layton “withdrew from the three-party group.”
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/bye-

  53. Yeah. It wasn't like Martin had crafted a law about set election dates, passed it and then waltzed up to the GG to break it ala carte. That dastard budget balancer!

  54. What on earth is an agreement of process, please?

  55. If it was a bluff that everyone knew was toothless [ including Martin] what was the point of the whole exercise? A Buff that has no options and everyone knows is a bluff is no bluff. I can not get my head around Cr's reasoning – it makes no sense whatsoever.

  56. Interesting. I am definately going to read it. Perhaps it'll affect some of my current views?

  57. ….yeah, I also have noticed you seem to have trouble getting your head around logical conclusions.

  58. Good one.

    let me just say i have no idea how you would be in any sort of position to be a judge of that my friend.

    Actually it's become clear CR was probably drawing his conclusions based on Topps book. Guess i'll have to read it too.

  59. Yes, I've read Topp's book and I recommend it.

  60. If Conservatives get a majority in this country and enjoy conservative Government across Canada as we now do, Canada is basically over! Harper was on CBC telling the world he will change Canada so even the Liberals won't recognize it. The NWT is is going for Devolution and has plans to hook into the Alberta Water pipelines south.

    Here is the link to the nuts and bolts of it: http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2010/12/can… target="_blank"&gt; <a href="http:// <a href="http://;http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2010/12/can“” target=”_blank”>;http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2010/12/can“ target=”_blank”> <a href="http://;http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2010/12/can” target=”_blank”>;http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2010/12/can.

    And, here is the link to the probable results of it <a href="http:// :http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2011/01/conservatives-on-course-of-sedition-you.html“ target=”_blank”> <a href="http://:http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2011/01/conservatives-on-course-of-sedition-you.html” target=”_blank”>:http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2011/01/conservatives-on-course-of-sedition-you.html

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