Gilles Duceppe and the coalition

How much influence did the Bloc Québécois leader really have?

A new book-length interview with Gilles Duceppe, published in French, has sparked discussion about the Bloc Québécois leader’s influence in shaping the opposition coalition that tried to unseat Stephen Harper’s government in late 2008.

Chantal Hébert writes that Duceppe “casts himself as the driving force behind the Liberal-NDP coalition agreement.” I don’t doubt that’s an accurate characterization of his posture in the book (which I haven’t read), but it doesn’t reflect the way Duceppe described the coalition moment to me a few months back.

I interviewed him last spring for a story on the 20th anniversary of the Bloc. His account of his role in shaping the 2008 coalition did not, frankly, seem all that noteworthy to me at the time. As I heard him, he didn’t claim to have been in the driver’s seat.

We need to cast our minds back to Nov. 26, 2008. That evening, explosive details of the economic update statement Finance Minister Jim Flaherty would be tabling the next day were leaked. Among other things, the government was planning to eliminate the federal subsidy to political parties.

Duceppe told me that he was driving back to Ottawa that evening from Montréal, where he had attended a Parti Québécois campaign event in that fall’s provincial election. He remembered thinking through his options:

“What were the possibilities? Support Flaherty’s statement? That was a dead end for me, and the Bloc, and sovereigntists, and Quebec. Call an election, during a Quebec election? There was no future in that.  So, tragically, the best thing was certainly to support the coalition.”

That sounds to me as if he’s resigned to backing a likely coalition as the best among bad alternatives, rather than thinking about actively forging one.

Talks among the opposition parties toward creating the coalition began the next morning. Here’s how Duceppe recalled his part in the flurry of phone calls that set the coalition negotiations between the Liberals and NDP in motion:

“So I called Dion and said I’m ready to support a coalition if you’re ready. I said the same thing to Layton and to Elizabeth May. And Dion and Layton said we don’t want Elizabeth May to be there. So I called back Elizabeth May and said I was open [to your participation], but they were not; I’ll still support that coalition.”

Nothing here about, say, Duceppe coaxing Dion and Layton together. If Duceppe found that he had to play matchmaker, he didn’t mention it to me.

Then there’s the matter of coalition policy. What would it stand for? It couldn’t just be preserving their parties’ subsidies. They’d need an economic package. Hébert has Duceppe “placing the Bloc’s recession-fighting prescriptions on the agenda of the future coalition government.” Here’s how Duceppe described that influence to me:

“The problem is [the Liberals and NDP] had no proposals to face the [economic] crisis. So we said, ‘We made public our proposals three days ago, if you want to use them, use them.’ So they took 85 per cent of that. When they came back with my proposals, I said yes.”

That strikes me as something less than boasting about having driven the coalition policy agenda.

If Duceppe did not, at least in my interview with him, suggest he spearheaded the 2008 coalition, he was more assertive about his catalyst role back in 2004. That was when he, Layton, and Stephen Harper, then leading the Tories in opposition, discussed a forming a coalition if they defeated Paul Martin’s Liberal minority in the House:

I called Stephen Harper and Jack Layton to meet me then, and we signed a letter, the three of us. We sent that letter to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, saying that if Paul Martin was to lose a confidence vote in September, don’t call an election, call us, okay?”

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