Liberals, NDP firm up deal to topple Tories
- Liberals, NDP firm up deal to topple Tories
Parties agree to form coalition that would last 2½ years with NDP taking six cabinet seats; Liberal leadership of alliance undecided
CAMPBELL CLARK AND BRIAN LAGHI
Globe and Mail Update and Canadian Press
December 1, 2008 at 9:26 AM EST
OTTAWA - The Liberals and NDP have reached a deal to bring down the federal Conservative government and form an unprecedented coalition to take its place that would last 30 months and include cabinet seats for both parties.
Sources confirmed Sunday night that the two sides have ironed out an agreement that would see a cabinet of 24 members - 18 Liberals and six NDP.
The two parties called emergency caucus meetings Monday to lay out the plan under which the Tories would lose power to Canada's first coalition government in 91 years.
The Harper government, meanwhile, scrambled over the weekend to save itself from a historic parliamentary defeat, backtracking on two contentious measures even as the opposition moved forward with plans to forge a coalition government.
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Such a coalition would put the Canadian government into uncharted waters. The only true coalition cabinet to have ruled Canada was Conservative prime minister Robert Borden's Union government during the First World War, which included Liberal members.
The key question of who would lead the first coalition government of modern times remained unsettled Sunday night, as Liberals differed over whether Stéphane Dion should take over as interim prime minister, or a new leader be chosen - and leadership contenders Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc met to discuss how to proceed.
That meeting took place against the backdrop of frantic efforts to avert the downfall of the Conservatives, who announced they will withdraw measures that would have banned civil-service strikes for three years and eliminated the $1.95-a-vote subsidy for political parties, which the opposition relies on.
The Tories also unveiled a surreptitiously recorded tape of a New Democratic Party caucus meeting, alleging it showed a long-existing cabal with the Bloc Québécois to defeat the government - and there were rumours that as a last resort, Mr. Harper might seek to prorogue Parliament, ending the session to avoid defeat in the Commons.
On Sunday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who did not unveil an economic stimulus plan in his economic update Thursday, announced he will deliver a "comprehensive" budget earlier than usual, on Jan. 27, and that it will contain measures to stimulate the economy, probably including one-time spending to help ailing industrial sectors.
"There will be further stimulus to the Canadian economy. [It's] inevitable given the continuing challenges that we're facing in the Canadian economy," he told reporters.
"Too little, too late," NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair replied later. "We saw the real face of the Conservatives this week: doctrinaire, ideological, trying to please their Reform base. That's the game."
Liberal finance critic Scott Brison said the promise of economic stimulus will not change coalition plans. "Mr. Flaherty is still only providing words, but no plan for the Canadian economy," he said.
Meanwhile, teams of opposition negotiators were holding three sets of talks involving the Liberals, NDP and Bloc on a deal that would see a Liberal-led coalition government that would include NDP ministers.
The Liberal-NDP coalition would be supported by the Bloc on confidence votes in the Commons through an accord that would guarantee its survival for at least a year, Liberal and NDP sources said.
Liberal sources said the party is planning to unveil a team of high-profile economic advisers, possibly including such figures as former deputy prime minister John Manley and former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, to provide a Barack Obama-style heavyweight team to offer advice on the economic crisis.
Mr. Mulcair said the coalition talks are well advanced, and include discussion on both the government's structure - how key posts will be divided - and on the main elements of its political program. He said the talks have gone extremely well with both parties and are "arriving at their final culmination point."
The talks have been conducted on the assumption that Mr. Dion would take power as prime minister until May, when he would be replaced by the winner of the Liberal leadership race.
But while some Liberals insist Mr. Dion is the only option during a leadership race, others argue the coalition would lack credibility if the just-defeated leader took power as a short-term caretaker in the midst of an economic crisis.
Another option would be for Liberal MPs to choose a new leader. Mr. Ignatieff is seen as having the strongest caucus support, but it is unclear if he wants to take power as an unelected prime minister not chosen by a party convention.
One source said Mr. Rae was to argue at Sunday night's meeting in favour of retaining Mr. Dion until the leadership convention in May.
Mr. Rae, who met with Mr. Ignatieff over the weekend, said reports that Mr. Ignatieff had agreed to lead the coalition were inaccurate.
"There was no discussion of that, that was not at all decided and that was never sort of asked for, nobody was being asked to do that," Mr Rae said in an interview on CTV Monday.
"That just happens to be untrue. I suspect this is an example of people spinning and overspinning."
Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale suggested the coalition would be led by Mr. Dion.
"It will be headed by the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada because that is obviously the party that is the biggest player," Mr. Goodale told The Canadian Press on Monday.
"Mr. Dion is the leader of the Liberal party and he is the one that has been co-ordinating the discussions up to now with the other leaders."
Mr. Rae said internal Liberal party issues could be resolved to ensure a workable coalition that would focus initially on providing the economy with much-needed stimulus as the country moves into recession.
On Friday, Mr. Harper went before television cameras to slam a potential Stéphane Dion-led government as illegitimate because he lost the Oct. 14 election, and should face the public.
But the Liberals and NDP argued that those arguments were undercut by Mr. Harper's 2004 letter to then-Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, which requested that she turn to him if Paul Martin's newly elected government were defeated in the Commons.
"We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority," the letter stated.
The Conservatives engaged the opposition in a no-holds-barred battle for public opinion, with Mr. Flaherty appealing for a stable government in the face of economic crisis.
The Prime Minister's Office released a secretly taped recording of a conference call of the NDP caucus in which Leader Jack Layton refers to having "locked in" the support of the Bloc early.
Mr. Harper's aides argued it showed a pre-existing NDP-Bloc agreement to look for an excuse to defeat the Tories that had nothing to do with last week's economic statement.
In the recording, Mr. Layton is heard telling his MPs they have plans to cope if the Bloc goes "offside" during the coalition.
"I actually believe they're the least of our problems, but in case I'm wrong, let's just say we have strategies. This whole thing would not have happened if the moves hadn't have been made with the Bloc to lock them in early, because you couldn't put three people together in one, in three hours. The first part was done a long time ago, I won't go into details .," Mr. Layton said.
Mr. Mulcair insisted that while the two parties have spoken about co-operation on issues like employment insurance, the first NDP-Bloc talks about a coalition took place only after elements of the government's economic update were revealed last week.
He said the party mistakenly sent the conference-call number to a Conservative MP, who dialled in and recorded the meeting. He said the NDP plans to raise the action as a violation of parliamentary ethics and will consider pressing charges.
Mr. Mulcair said the Tories "illegally" recorded a private meeting, and called it "scandalous."
"It shows the desperation of the Conservatives," he said.
There were also rumours that Mr. Harper might prorogue Parliament, ending the current session so he cannot be defeated in the Commons - although some said that was a last-resort option that would look desperate.
Even if he escapes defeat, Mr. Harper's reputation as a cunning tactician appears to have been scarred by what many Conservatives consider a major miscalculation.
Several Conservatives grumbled over the weekend that his decision to use the economic update to announce measures that galvanized the opposition, like slashing their funding, was a fiasco. One MP told The Globe and Mail that his constituents were upset with the party for playing politics under the cover of the economic crisis.
The opposition's coalition efforts are being spurred by a poisoned atmosphere of distrust - and the argument that if they do not unseat Mr. Harper, he will try similar moves again, when his position is stronger, daring them to face an election.
Mr. Flaherty told reporters on Sunday that the Conservatives will campaign on eliminating the $1.95-per-vote subsidy in the next election campaign.
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