Another trip down minority government memory lane – this time, with Jack Layton

Remember that letter that the three then-opposition leaders sent to the Governor General in 2005? Well, here’s what happened next, according to one of the “Three Amigos” himself:

The “Three Amigos,” as the media dubbed us, worked on other reforms as well. Gilles Duceppe wanted all the changes we had agreed upon to be put forward in an amendment to the Speech from the Throne. As the most experienced Opposition leader, he clearly wanted to move into the driver’s seat, and successfully did so for the first couple of meetings. Forcing the Liberals to accept our recommendations as an amendment to the speech from the throne amounted to a game of parliamentary “chicken.” If the government refused, Mr. Duceppe pointed out, the three parties had enough votes to ensure its defeat. Waiting outside Mr. Harper’s office for our meeting to begin, I asked Mr. Duceppe what he thought would happen if the prime minister refused to accept such an ultimatum. He replied that a government defeat so soon after a general election meant the Governor General would then have to turn “to one of us” to form a government. We both knew that meant Stephen Harper and his Conservatives. I asked Mr. Duceppe if he could accept such an eventuality. He was not only clear that he could, but he would.

Stephen Harper, while less inclined to brinksmanship, nevertheless warmed to the seduction of Mr. Duceppe’s strategy. Under this scenario, Mr. Harper would become prime minister in an informal alliance with the Bloc. Unthinkable? Not to either Mr. Harper or Mr. Duceppe. The Bloc leader was willing to strategize for Stephen Harper to become prime minister, despite the Conservatives’ many negative policies – policies completely contrary to the desires and values of most Quebecers. While shocked, I could not say I was surprised.

Mr. Duceppe and the Bloc would have been key players in any Harper coalition, demanding significant dismantling of our collective capacities as Canadians as the price for his support. That dismantling was something that would coincide nicely with Mr. Harper’s ideological and visceral distaste for any federal government oversight or ability to intervene in any social or economic programs administered by the provinces but utilizing federal tax dollars.

Realizing immediately the full magnitude of what was at stake, I knew I had to walk away. I was not about to participate in any scheme cooked up by the Bloc and the Conservatives that would put the country in the hands of Stephen Harper. It was clear from the election results just three months earlier that Canadians were not ready to elect Mr. Harper as prime minister. In fact, judging from the results, Canadians were not particularly keen on any one of us being in control. None of the four parties in the House had succeeded in receiving the support of even two of every five voters. My decision made, I informed the other Opposition party leaders that I was withdrawing from the talks. The Three Amigos were down to two.

The other two Opposition parties made it clear that, with my withdrawal, the NDP had lost any bargaining leverage. But, as it turned out, the NDP proposals were included in the package of amendments. It’s just that we didn’t secure any credit for the effort. So be it.

In my judgement, shared by the NDP caucus, it was far more important to respect the wishes of Canadians. Namely, that the minority House constructed by the voters in that peculiar collective wisdom that unfolded on election day be respected and given a chance to show what it could do. And it was even more important that my party not participate in any plot to turn over the country to a difficult and potentially devastating marriage of the Conservatives and the Bloc.

-“Speaking out louder” by Jack Layton (p. 340)

Back then, Stephen Harper wasn’t just willing to work with the Bloc Quebecois to bring down the Liberals. According to Layton, he was also prepared to take over as Prime Minister, and was likely to support the Bloc in its longtime push to limit federal spending powers — which seems plausible, given that the Harper-led Conservative government would eventually promise to do just that in the 2007 Speech from the Throne:

Our government believes that the constitutional jurisdiction of each order of government should be respected. To this end, guided by our federalism of openness, our Government will introduce legislation to place formal limits on the use of the federal spending power for new shared-cost programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. This legislation will allow provinces and territories to opt out with reasonable compensation if they offer compatible programs.

In contrast, the agreement signed by the three leaders on Monday states only that a coalition government “would put in place a permanent consultation mechanism with the Bloc Quebecois”, in return for the following:

The Government will not request a dissolution of Parliament during the term of this agreement, except following defeat on an explicitly-framed motion of non-confidence presented by the Opposition; or any vote pertaining to the speech from the throne; or on a budget vote at any stage in the House; or on any bill to implement a budget at any stage in the House; or on any motion in the House to concur in, restore or reinstate any Estimates; or on a supply bill at any stage in the House.

The Bloc Quebecois will neither move nor will it support any motions of non-confidence in the Government during the term of its support for this agreement, and will vote in favour of the Government’s position with respect to all matters referred to in the immediately preceding paragraph.

So — which theoretical minority PM would be more at the mercy of the Bloc Quebecois on issues related to jurisdictional powers, federal-provincial relations and the creation of national programs? Actually, forget mercy – which would seem to be more likely to go along willingly?


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