The second draft of history


With great candour, former NDP campaign manager Brian Topp is recounting last year’s flirtation with coalition government from his well-informed perspective. Entirely fascinating stuff.

For selfish reasons, I’ll also mention here the lengthy account of those heady days that John Geddes and I put together 12 months ago.


The second draft of history

  1. It was an interesting read indeed. The reasons why the coalition failed though are contained in these two paragraphs:

    "On the other hand, I just didn't believe we had an interested partner. I had never heard any Liberal in any forum ever say that they supported “our earlier proposition.” I didn't believe they were interested or would ever be interested."
    "…It seemed to me that talking to Ralph Goodale (Stéphane Dion‘s House leader) or to Johanne Sénécal (his chief of staff) would attract the inevitable Liberal brush-off more quickly."

    Topp had already decided ahead of time that it was "inevitable" the Liberals would back out of the agreement. There was just not enough trust between the two sides. I think, in particular many Ontario-based Liberals had memories of the David Peterson-Bob Rae coalition govt in that province. Also just a few moths earlier Harper and Layton had barely bothered concealing a plan to cooperate together to try permanently marginalizing the LPC.

  2. That is a great piece by Mr. Topp, I'm looking forward to the series. Tabarnacle! indeed.

  3. This is terrific.

    Stikes me that it's not good for either democracy or history that the last word on the coalition has been Stephen Harper's. Afterall, it was he who tried to forge a similar pact among Conservatives, New Democrats and the Bloc after the 2004 election. That fact was conveniently missing from last year's Conservative Party talking points.

    Also, to improve, our current politics needs the strength that comes from the knowledge that coalitions are always a possibility after an election – an intelligence that Stephen Harper succeeded in exploiting to keep a job he didn't deserve.

    Further, our politics also benefits from a clearer record of the fact that Jack Layton was the one leader ready to work with others, while Stephen Harper plotted and schemed to divide.

  4. The coalition fell apart when it ignored the Conservative's decision to take out the most contentious parts of the November update. After that point, depsite their rhetoric, the Tories were the ones who had offered an olive branch of sorts to the Opposition.

    While hindsight is 20/20, the Opposition should have then agreed to pass said November update (essentially now a blank piece of paper with some made up numbers on it), continue to build trust and dialogue, in advance of the January budget. This would have allowed them time to work together more, look more concilitory and allow to develop a narrative about what exactly they were propsing (re:coalition)

    People sometimes forget that for a 24-48 hour period, Canadians were pretty miffed with the Conservatives. After stepping back from giving the Conservatives a majority for a few reaons (one of them being the Conservatives overt partisanship and seeming disdain for those that dared disagreed with them – arts and culture in Quebec for instance) the government re-inforced all these feelings by trying to kneecap the Opposition and ignoring the crumbling economy that was front page news around the world.

    If the Opposition had read the Canadian public better, they would have stepped back themselves, and continue to discuss a potential coalition in the future. Their narrative after the government removed the contentious issues and promised an early budget became mangled, and the Conservatives were quick to beat the drums about it.

    Not only did this misstep kill their chances of forming said coalition, it may have poisoned the well entirely for the prospect of a coalition government in this country, which is too bad frankly.

  5. That should tell him, and others, something…

    …that the CPC is better than the NDP at marketing itself like toothpaste? Yeah, that's a shame.

  6. "The reasons why the coalition failed though"

    I think the key reason was highlighted by Topp:

    "He knew what that meant (5:59 p.m.): “You're gonna run the government with separatists?”

    In hindsight, I should have thought more carefully about the implications of that question."

    Topp is master of understatement, I will give him that.

  7. I can't think of anything that would have been healthier for the country than letting the BQ help run it. The ROC needs to understand that nationalist Quebecers (even out-and-out separatists) are not some alien species out to get Canada. And I think it would be healthy for the BQ (and the NDP) to actually have some responsibility, instead of being permanent critics. Might give them a different perspective on Canada.

    Too bad the BQ wasn't really a member (they just agreed not to vote against the coalition govt on confidence matters for 18 months).

  8. I read this last night, and enjoyed the read considerably.

    While what you say about the BQ is true (their MP's are constantly re-elected, so they must be doing something right for their constituents), and is something I've felt for some time, the coalition really should have better prepared themselves for being attacked on these grounds. Way too easy to exploit the fears and distrust that many Canadians have towards the BQ….

  9. Dion never really seemed to grasp the importance of communications and spin…the same way he could never bring himself to be a true partisan. I think he just trusted Canadians to "get it" the same way he got it.

    It's pretty extraordinary that a guy like him ever became leader. Would have been really interesting to see how he would have done as PM.

  10. Most importantly, it relays one of the primary reasons the coalition came together in the first place – survival.
    I've found it so sad that the die hard Conservative partisans here (looking at you s_c_f) live in this bizarre fictional bubble where they present the coalition as this undemocratic power grab motivated by some Macbeth-like lust for power.

    Seriously – How can you not take into account the political party fund-raising issue when you look at the coalition?

  11. Never mind the trust issues between the NDP and the Liberals…
    It is the factions within the Liberal party itself that prevent it from effectively doing anything.
    Until that is resolved, their solidarity weaknesses are far too easy to exploit….

  12. "I can't think of anything that would have been healthier for the country than letting the BQ help run it."

    And you are master of overstatement because I can think of many things that would be healthier for the country than let BQ help run it. You know how some liberals say 'conservatives don't believe government works and then take office and prove it'. I think we could expect similar phenomenon but increased exponentially.

  13. Ha, perhaps. Would have been an interesting experiment in any event.

  14. As I've mentioned before – Dion is the Edward Blake of our times.
    Of course, both are former leaders of the Liberal party that never got elected.
    Both with a nasty reputation for rambling on….

    Like Dion, Blake stood up for what he believed in, and couldn't bring himself to play the game called politics.

    Hard to figure out – do you respect someone whose spin is as slick as oil, or prefer someone who stands by their convictions?

    Everyone praises Laurier for strengthening the Liberals (ie with Quebec), and thus nationalizing what would become the "natural governing party" of Canada, while they disregard the early seeds that Blake planted.

    What I love most about Blake and his values is that he actually had a chance to become PM (after Sir John A. went down with the Pacific Scandal), but actually passed on it, giving the reigns to Alexander Mackenzie. Can you ever see that happening in this day and age?

  15. Thanks for the link, Wherry, that was a good read. Wish there was more insider account type reporting.

    Interesting that Topp assumes NDP would go bankrupt if forced to rely on it's supporters. That should tell him, and others, something but I am sure it won't.

  16. "Hard to figure out – do you respect someone whose spin is as slick as oil, or prefer someone who stands by their convictions?"

    Seriously, you have a problem with this question? While I'm afraid a majority of Canadians did not see the answer as clearly as I do, is this honestly a hard question to answer? I'm asking sincerely here.

  17. Agreed, WDM. Nicely put.

  18. Just to clarify, what you quoted was a philosophical stab at politics in general.
    And yeah – I guess I have a hard time with the question.
    Personally, I think it is difficult to answer.

    From what I've read of Blake, I've always respected how he stood up for what he believed in, no matter what the popular and political repercussions turned out to be. He was strong in his convictions and beliefs. He would fight passionately for the things he believed in. With that said, as a leader, he pretty much was a dud, as he was unable to defeat the ever so slick and loved Sir John A.

  19. It's an intriguing piece, though perhaps heavily “redacted” (and, yes, perhaps Harper's paranoid response to l'affaire Colvin has made me overly suspicious of everyone in that regard).

    Topp's account confirms for me the reality that successful coalitions require the energy and charisma of a leader; they need an undisputed senior partner, who can formulate a solid agenda, quickly, onto which the junior partner can sign. When the crisis hits, there's no time for negotiation between peers, especially when they're hobbled by a serious trust deficit, as obtained between the NDP and the Liberals.

  20. Okay, so you base your answers on the result. Well, I guess its one way to do it. For me, I think it isn't the fault of Blake (or Dion) so much as its the fault of the voters, who would prefer slick soundbytes than what is best for the country. Not everyone, mind you, because one can honestly disagree with what a leader believes in.

    But I guess this really is the backgrounder to the phrase "you get the government you deserve"

  21. At the end of the day, it is the voters who make the call, so blame 4sure falls on them.
    Think of how many people there are that are completely loyal to their party, no matter what.
    The thing is – throughout all of history, voters haven't necessarily been the brightest.
    And now, we live in such a confusing and complicated society, with so much information coming from all directions, where a large chunk of people just play lotto 649 when election time comes, if indeed they can even be bothered to hit up the polls.

    Specifically with Dion, I blame the various divided fractions within the Liberal party. Bad enough that Dion had to face off against a strong opponent in Harper, but even worse that his claim to the throne was internally in doubt from the get go. Had these various people been able to get over themselves, and thus given Dion their 100% support, who knows how different things would have been.

  22. Yes, that Liberal faction thing is a good point. Very vexing.

    • Don't know if you have been following along, but here is a quote from the 3rd post.

      "At which point Marlene Jennings exploded. “I want to say a few things,” she said.

      She informed us, emphatically, that the coalition proposal was not selling well with her Liberal colleagues because it implied that NDP Members of Parliament might gain access to cabinet jobs. Liberal MPs had been waiting for many years for those positions, she explained, and they did not accept that people from some other party might take their places in line."

      Critics of the Liberals have mocked their sense of entitlement, which made me believe it was overdrawn. Reading this made me feel YIKES!!!

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