Bruce Campion-Smith, Tonda MacCharles, Richard J. Brennan and Les Whittington, Toronto Star
December 2, 2008
Parties aim to form coalition, topple Conservatives and install Dion as PM
OTTAWA-Governor General Michaelle Jean is cutting short a European tour and returning to Canada, where she could be called on to decide the fate of the embattled Conservative government.
Jean will be back in Ottawa tomorrow afternoon, Sheila-Marie Cook, the secretary to the Governor General, said this morning.
Jean had been on a state visit to four countries in central Europe since Nov. 24, and wasn’t due back until the weekend. However, she decided to return “in light of the current political situation in Canada.”
Jean could be forced to decide the fate of the minority Parliament in the coming days. Prime Minister Stephen Harper could seek her permission to discontinue the current session of parliament, thus avoiding defeat at the hands of an NDP-Liberal coalition.
Or she could elect to hand power to the NDP-Liberal coalition, formally sealed yesterday, if they defeat Conservatives as threatened next week.
Yesterday, the Liberals and the NDP signed a formal, unprecedented pact to replace the minority Conservatives, who were re-elected just seven weeks ago, with a coalition government.
With guaranteed support from the separatist Bloc QuÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©bÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cois for at least 18 months, the Liberal-led coalition wrote to Jean to offer a governing alternative, claiming the Conservatives have lost the confidence of the majority of the House of Commons.
“We are ready to form a new government that will address the best interests of the people,” said Liberal leader StÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©phane Dion, who would lead the coalition government as Prime Minister. “It’s all about the economy . . . it’s why we are together, to fight this economic crisis.”
But Harper and his Conservatives say they will fight to hang on to power in the face of an extraordinary opposition move to force them from office. Two senior cabinet ministers emerged after huddling with Harper last night to declare the coalition “undemocratic.”
The Conservatives could decide to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament and come back with a new throne speech and budget in January.
The three parties, with a combined total of 163 seats in the Commons, pledged to defeat the Conservatives, who have 143, at the earliest chance – perhaps next Monday. “There is no turning back,” Liberal MP Bob Rae said.
Dion, who led Liberals to their worst election showing in a generation on Oct. 14, is now poised to become prime minister under the deal, until he is replaced by the winner of the Liberal leadership convention in May.
The new government would act quickly to deliver a stimulus package, Dion said, aimed at helping Canadians hit by the economic storm. It would include money for Canada’s battered auto sector, faster access to employment insurance and aid for older workers who lose their jobs.
Last night, it was clear Harper was considering the option of asking the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call an election – a request she is entitled to refuse.
Jim Prentice, Harper’s de facto deputy prime minister, said the government will consider all “steps that are reasonable to protect the interests of our country and the interests of Canadians, particularly in these uncertain economic times.”
Harper told Conservative MPs and staff gathered at an Ottawa hotel for a Christmas party that: “We will use all legal means to resist this undemocratic seizure of power.
“Such an illegimate government would be a catastrophe for our democracy, our unity and our economy,” Harper said last night, according to his aide Dimitri Soudas.
The coalition came together last week over the three opposition parties’ collective rejection of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s economic policy statement.
That provocative statement contained little in the way of economic stimulus but did propose to take away the rights of federal workers to strike, clamp down on pay equity and, critically, eliminate public subsidies for political parties.
While the Conservatives have been forced to backpedal on some of the measures, it hasn’t been enough to placate opposition MPs, who caught the government off guard with their united front.
“Since the recent federal election, it has become clear that the government headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no plan, no competence and no will to effectively address this crisis,” the opposition parties wrote to Jean.
“Therefore, the majority of Parliament has lost confidence in Mr. Harper’s government, and is resolved to form a new government that will effectively, prudently, promptly and competently address these critical economic times.”
One Tory source suggested support for Harper in Monday’s caucus meeting was unanimous, but several admit there is rage within Conservative ranks that, mere weeks after winning a strengthened mandate, the party is teetering on the edge of defeat. And much of that fury is directed at Harper himself.
Sources told the Star Harper ignored advice against including provocative partisan measures in his economic and fiscal update that contributed to triggering the opposition’s rejection of it.
Now the focus is on what steps Harper, who led the longest surviving minority (937 days) government before seeking dissolution in September to call the Oct. 14 election, could take to save his second minority government.
Prentice, who is environment minister said everyone should “take a breath and pause,” charging that the coalition is a “serious situation that is irresponsible, and it is undemocratic.”
“There is a need for calm, there is a need to step back, appraise the situation . . . and consider what is in the best interests of our country at this point in time and that clearly does not involve a government that was not placed before Canadians, propped up by separatists who do not support our country governing Canada for the next year or more.”
In the Commons, a wan-looking Harper tried to rescue his government by appealing to opposition MPs to wait to see the government’s budget on Jan. 27.
Harper dismissed Dion’s shot about playing partisan games in his economic statement. Harper shot back that the Liberal leader was “about to play the biggest political game in Canadian history.”
An NDP source said the talk of a coalition “picked up steam right away” after the economic update was tabled, and went mostly smoothly. But Sunday morning, tensions rose over the number of cabinet seats allocated to each party. Dion and the other leaders nailed their pact Sunday night.
Yesterday, the three Liberal leadership candidates – Rae, Michael Ignatieff and Dominic LeBlanc – got a full briefing, just before Dion and Layton met with their MPs to get their endorsement of the power-sharing agreement hammered out over four days.
Under the deal, the NDP will get six positions in the 24-member cabinet, and six parliamentary secretary positions. The finance minister will be chosen by the Liberals.
Bloc QuÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©bÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cois Leader Gilles Duceppe has agreed to support the NDP-Liberal coalition until June, 2010, and left open the possibility of extending his support. He didn’t in this deal because the other parties refused to recognize Quebec as a nation.
A big hurdle was whether Liberals would agree to let Dion lead the coalition. Those questions were put to rest during the caucus meeting when the three leadership candidates all voiced support for Dion staying on as leader and possibly serving as prime minister.
Yesterday, Dion said he would step down as planned on May 2 and he pledged to turn over “a strong government and a strong Canada” to his successor.
1. Partners: Liberal-NDP government led by StÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©phane Dion. 24-member cabinet, six from NDP. Liberal finance minister. Deal runs until July 2011.
2. The Bloc: Government to be backed by Bloc QuÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©bÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cois on confidence motions until July 2010. No Bloc role in cabinet.
3. Deficits: Measures to aid economy provided over two years; budget deficits likely. Surpluses return within four years.
4. Economic stimulus: Accelerated spending on infrastructure; money for cities and provinces; aid for auto, forestry and manufacturing; incentives to build and retrofit housing. Corporate tax cuts go ahead.
5. Economic policy: Better skills training; income support for older workers; improved Employment Insurance; mandatory RRIF withdrawal cut by 50 per cent this year; bankruptcy law reform to protect pensions.
6. Other: Reverse Tory cuts to arts; pursue North American `cap-and-trade’ market on greenhouse-gas emissions.
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