What was Stephen Harper up to in 2004?

Coalitions haven’t always seemed like a bad idea to the PM

In response to the charge yesterday during Question Period that the Harper government had shown contempt for democracy, John Baird offered the following.

Mr. Speaker, it is the leader of the Liberal Party who is showing contempt for Canadian voters. He does not accept the fundamental democratic principle that the person with the most votes wins elections. He wanted to establish a coalition government with the Bloc Québécois and the NDP and now the coalition is back again. That shows utter contempt for Canadians.

Mr. Baird’s invoking of fundamental democratic principles was particularly noteworthy in light of what Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe had said two hours earlier in their respective news conferences.

First, to Mr. Layton, who responded as follows to a question about whether he would disavow any possibility that he might take part in a coalition in the event the Conservative’s were returned with a minority after the next election.

If I held that attitude, then I wouldn’t have attended a meeting to which I was invited by Mr. Harper when he was the leader of the opposition and Mr. Martin had been recently elected. The House hadn’t even begun to sit and he said, “Come and have a meeting with me and Mr. Duceppe and let’s make sure the Governor General understands that Mr. Martin doesn’t necessarily get to be the Prime Minister just because he has the most seats. And I’d like you to join with me in making sure that the Governor General understands that there are other alternatives here.” I attended that meeting, I signed that letter as a matter of fact, in good faith, perhaps others weren’t signing it in good faith, I don’t know. But you can be sure that that letter will be available for all Canadians to see if we start running into hypocritical positions from certain corners or certain political leaders.

Mr. Layton refers here to events that followed the 2004 election. In September of that year (See: What was Stephen Harper thinking in 2004?), Mr. Harper, Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton held a joint news conference and announced, in part, that they had written a letter to the Governor General—presumably the same one Mr. Layton refers to here—asking her to “consult” with them and consider her “options” in the event that Mr. Martin sought to dissolve Parliament.

When Mr. Harper was asked at the time whether he was prepared to form a government, he dismissed the possibility as “extremely hypothetical.” Seven years earlier though (See: What was Stephen Harper thinking in 1997?), Mr. Harper predicted in a television interview that the Liberal government of the day would be in danger of losing power when the opposition parties in a minority parliament united to replace it.

Now to Mr. Duceppe’s comments about his recollection of events in 2004.

In August 2004, he called me, he called Jack Layton, saying that if Paul Martin was to lose confidence in the House, we’ll write to the then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson to tell her that instead of launching an election she should consult the opposition leaders and the one who finished second, it was him, was to be Prime Minister.

Mr. Duceppe previously claimed that Mr. Harper discussed a potential Speech from the Throne with him.

Since his government survived an attempt to defeat it in December 2008, the Prime Minister, while regularly complaining of cooperation between the three opposition parties, has asserted various principles (See: The guardian of our democracy and How late is too late?) that he claims to be fundamental to our democracy, including an insistence that “losers” don’t get to form government.

In 1997, as a private citizen, Mr. Harper predicted such a scenario. In 2004, as leader of the opposition, he dismissed it as hypothetical. Now, with Mr. Harper as prime minister, it is apparently undemocratic. But here Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe seem to have described a situation in which the “losers” of the 2004 election entertained the possibility of defeating the “winner” and allowing at least one of the “losers” to form government.