As the economic crisis emerged and deepened over the period of the election, it became clear that addressing that crisis would have to be the first and key issue on the agenda of Parliament and the new government.
The Prime Minister did not have a blank cheque to proceed as only he wished. To be successful and ensure the continuance of his party as government, he needed to find support among opposition parties and members. He needed to maintain the confidence of the House. Recognizing that necessity, Jack Layton, as leader of the NDP, sought a meeting with Mr. Harper to outline the concerns and suggestions of New Democrats. New Democrats also made our ideas clear in a number of public settings and in speeches in the House during the debate on the Speech from the Throne. Other parties and their leaders took similar steps.
Unfortunately, the Conservatives chose to ignore suggestions by the opposition parties. They only needed to get one party on board, or just over a dozen individual members, to ensure they could survive a confidence vote. Worse still, Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty ignored the unanimous call by opposition parties for measures that would address the economic crisis and stimulate the economy. In itself, the failure to take stimulus measures was reason enough for all the opposition parties to express lack of confidence in the Prime Minister and the Conservatives. Using terms such as ďtechnical recessionĒ to diminish the seriousness of what is happening and insisting that Canada was still in a surplus position when deficits are very likely, also caused many to question the Conservativesí economic direction.
But the Conservatives went further. They included measures in the economic statement that were obviously intended to ensure other parties could not accept the statement. Mr. Harper knew that New Democrats could not vote for a plan that included limits on workersí right to strike or limitations on pay equity settlements for women. He also knew that the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois could not vote in favour of a statement that ended public financing of political parties. These measures had nothing to do with addressing the economic crisis.
These were not the actions of a Prime Minister or government that appreciated its minority status. They were not the actions of a leader who sought to find common ground or the support he needed to continue in government.
By these actions, Mr. Harper made a coalition of opposition parties possible. Given the direct challenge he initiated, opposition parties decided to cooperate and look for areas of agreement. There are serious differences between New Democrats, Liberals, and members of the Bloc. But given the failure of the Conservatives to address the economic crisis, and the clear signal that the Conservatives were not prepared to work with any opposition party, the opposition parties decided to look for where they could agree and to set their differences aside for a defined period of time. Please make no mistake-some important positions taken by the NDP will not become positions of the coalition government in just the same way that not all Liberal policies will be adopted by a coalition government. Coalition government is about compromise. Please also rest assured that the NDP is not being absorbed by the Liberal Party, or vice versa. Our caucuses will continue to meet separately.
The opposition partiesí search for common ground resulted in two agreements.
The first agreement was between the Liberal Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party of Canada to form a coalition government.
(You can find the full text of this agreement at this link: http://action.web.ca/home/billsiksay/en_issues.shtml?x=122788 )
The terms of this agreement are outlined in this public document. It must be stated clearly that the coalition government involves only the Liberals and the New Democrats. The Prime Minister and Minister of Finance will come from the Liberals; 18 cabinet ministers of 24 will be Liberals; 6 cabinet ministers will be from the NDP. The Bloc is not part of the coalition. It has no cabinet seats. It will not control any aspect of the government, nor will be represent Canada in any international setting.
The second agreement was between the leaders of the Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc.
(You can find the full text of this agreement at this link: http://action.web.ca/home/billsiksay/en_issues.shtml?x=122789 )
This signed and public document outlines the economic programme of the coalition. This economic programme is a stimulus programme-exactly the kind of programme rejected by Mr. Flaherty but supported by almost every other western industrial country as the appropriate approach to dealing with the economic crisis. This document also stipulates that the Liberals and the New Democrats will continue the coalition until June 2011. For its part, the Bloc agreed that it would not defeat the coalition on economic or budgetary confidence issues until at least June 2010 (with the possibility of a further renewal). This part of the agreement would ensure a stable government through at least two budget cycles.
In our Parliamentary system and in a minority Parliament, should the government be defeated early in the life of a Parliament, it is entirely possible and appropriate for the Governor General to test the ability of the opposition to form a government. This is not anti-democratic. This is not a coup. Itís one way our system works. And now a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP is a tangible possibility that would have to be considered should the Conservatives be defeated on a confidence issue. It is a route that Mr. Harper and Stockwell Day have themselves considered in the past.
Some folks who have contacted me have said that I never campaigned on forming a coalition. I beg to differ. I was often asked about electoral reform, and my consistent answer was that I thought Canada would be better off with reforms that ensure Parliament was representative of the popular vote and of all political ideas in Canada-reforms such as proportional representation. This usually led to a discussion of the likelihood of more minority parliaments. I have always said that I thought changing the way we do politics to ensure that political parties and political leaders had to work together to form coalitions and make compromises would be far better for Canada in the long run. Iím clearly on the record as supporting coalition building as making for better government in Canada. Compromise and cooperation is hard work in politics. It involves skills that have not often been exhibited by our leaders. But it seems to me that Canadians have called for their elected officials to learn how to work together. From where I sit, that is exactly what the opposition parties have done after the Conservative government clearly and dramatically signaled that it was not interested in working with any other party to ensure stability or to maintain the confidence of the House.
Others have been concerned about the Blocís involvement. Given the make-up of this Parliament, the Bloc has influence. That will not change. The Bloc has exercised its power in recent minority governments, most directly in its support for Conservative budgets in the last Parliament-support that kept the Conservatives in power. The coalition government however does not include the Bloc as a government partner. They have only agreed not to defeat the coalition government on confidence votes related to the budget or the economy. They do not have a veto. They do not have cabinet positions. Whether we agree with the goal of Bloc members to see an independent Quebec, we must recognize that they also represent Canadians-Canadians who are also looking for governments that will deal with the economic crisis in a way that protects their jobs, pensions, and savings. I would not agree to any coalition arrangement if for a second I thought that it would empower anyone to destroy Canada. I must, however, say that in the week following the announcement of the coalition, I believe that the Prime Minister has done more to re-awaken the movement for Quebec independence than any current political leader. Like no other Prime Minister in our history, he has deliberately burnt his bridges in Quebec, setting back the cause of national unity.
I am also aware that many people have concerns about Mr. Dionís ability to lead a government. New Democrats had to work with the leadership of the Liberal Party that is currently in place. While many people question Mr. Dionís leadership abilities, there are few who would deny that he is a decent man and dedicated public servant. And his time as Liberal leader is limited by his partyís plan for a leadership convention-plans that as I write may in fact be advanced.
I do not deny that the issue of party financing was a significant issue in the background of this situation. I can agree to a review of public financing of political parties. But that review should be done fairly and justly. Mr. Harper included this idea in the economic statement out of the blue. He had never campaigned on it. Making his proposed changes effective in April 2009 was utterly unfair to political parties that had, in good faith, based their recent campaign budgets on the system that is currently in place. Sure, letís discuss the system and changes that might be needed. But letís not do it in a way that will result in bankrupting oneís political opponents.
What will happen in the coming weeks? It is often said that a week is a long time in politics-let alone six or seven weeks. The challenge for the Prime Minister is to re-establish trust with the House of Commons. That will be a very significant challenge given his recent actions. The challenge for the Liberal-New Democrat coalition is to build the confidence of Canadians that a coalition government will work, will offer stability, and will pursue policies that will effectively address the current economic crisis and Canadian unity.
Whether we agree or not, I do appreciate hearing from my constituents on this important issue.