The 2004 letter vs 2008 coalition agreement

Now that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has fallen and we are into another federal election, I would like to propose that Conservative supporters putting a “coalition myth” to bed immediately. Why?  So we can  move away from the past and press forward with current and future issues that are important to ALL Canadians. In other words, lets not get into the trap of re-running the 2004 and 2008 campaigns or getting too sure of ourselves.

My prediction is that the results of Election 2011 will see a paradigm shift either right or left — a reality we won’t know until the last ballots are counted.  For example, when we wake up the day after the election, what will our country’s government look like?  

  • Will it be a Conservative majority?
  • Will it be a Liberal majority? 
  • Or, will it be a Liberal/NDP coalition majority? 

Because, one thing it will NOT be is another Conservative or Liberal minority– at least not for long. Meaning, CPC candidates and supporters had better deal with the myths surrounding a coalition option sooner rather than later because remember, the Liberal/NDP/Blog agreement was valid until June 2011.

So, what about that letter in 2004? The reality is that while it did not mention a possible coalition agreement specifically, it does imply intent to do so. Signed by Stephen Harper, then Conservative Opposition Leader, Jack Layton, Leader of the NDP and Gilles Duceppe, Leader of the Bloc Quebecois, here is what it states: (My italics and underlining.)

“As leaders of the opposition parties, we are well aware that, given the Liberal minority government, you could be asked by the Prime Minister to dissolve the 38th Parliament at any time should the House of Commons fail to support some part of the government’s program.

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.”

So, while the 2004 letter did not propose a coalition per se, it did imply that intention when it highlighted the fact that the “opposition parties together constitute a majority.”  Just what was up Mr. Harper’s sleeve in September of 2004, we will never know but it is not enough to say it wasn’t about some kind of power sharing, a coalition by any other name. 

Sources: CBC on the details of the 2008 Liberal/NDP coalition. (Link) (Link) The 2004 Harper letter. (Link) (Link to Google search page.)

Update Saturday, March 26, 2011: When Prime Minister Harper spoke at Rideau Hall this morning, he made it VERY clear that the 2004 letter was not signaling his intent for a coalition government — just some kind of working arrangement. As such, it is no longer an issue . What is an issue, however, is the fact the Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff supposedly said he did not plan to put a coalition in place if the Liberals won a minority. What he didn’t clarify, however, was: (1) under what “other” conditions might he might agree to a multi-party coalition; and (2) that if his stated position today is a Liberal Party of Canada position — important because all Liberal MPs elected in 2008 signed the Liberal/NDP/Bloc agreement (e.g., Bob Rae).

Further update Sunday, March 27th, 2011 — Lorrie Goldstein of the Toronto Sun has a very good column on this topic today. It’s about how the essence of politics is about deal making and there is nothing wrong with that unless the negotiating party is willing to allow: (1) the party with the fewest seats (the NPD) to have members in Cabinet; and (2)  allow the party whose sole purpose was the breakup of the country (the Bloc Quebecois) to have veto power over most, if not all, government decisions. Which is precisely what Liberal Leader Stephane Dion was obviously willing to do in 2008. And, therein lies the major difference between the 2004 letter of intent and the 2008 coalition formal agreement. Prime Minister Stephen Harper would never have allowed either to happen.

23 thoughts on “The 2004 letter vs 2008 coalition agreement

  1. Ignatiaff still has no policy about the economy.At least nothing that is different than the PC’s.
    He’s opposed to the F35 contract upgrade for our military.
    He’s opposed to almost anything the PC’s table in Parliament.
    He expects motions proposed by the Lib/Bloc/NDP to be accepted by the PC’s without question.
    Now on the flipside, sure a coalition can work. But after the last 5 years of seeing our govt function do you as Canadian citizen believe that?Yes I’m talking to you reader.

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    • Joshua, I find your comments interesting. But, I don’t intend to respond to your final question. I have already stated my position. If there was a coalition, it would not behave as the last five years because they would have the equivalent to a majority.

      Ward, I agree but question exactly what would have happened had the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc been asked to step into the vacuum — it would have been a coalition whatever way you look at it.

      That is precisely my point. Why are we Conservatives denying that? It would have been a good result. If the only reason we are denying the 2004 situation is because we don’t want to give the Libs/NDP the confirmation, then that simply won’t cut it in the long run. It is what it is. Time to move on and concentrate on a majority.

      But I agree with DL — I can see the ads now.

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  2. This will be very hard to do as the coalition will be in the CPC talking points and in many attack ads.

    I commend you on your desire but doubt its’ practicality.

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  3. If you watched the Ignatieff quip with all his bobble-heads behind him this afternoon, he was asked point blank by 3 different journalists if he lost the election would he form a coalition government – Yes or No!
    But being the flip-flopper that he is, never answered the question directly. This guy could skim under a door with a top hat on.
    The man is doom reincarnated.

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  4. The 2004 coalition is a red herring.
    The opposition likes to muddy the water with that one because it chews up bandwidth and distracts people from pondering the Point.
    The Point is the liberals and the ndp both campaigned on no coalition and then sprung one as soon as they could under cover of protesting the vote subsidy.
    That coalition was illegitimate.
    Especially when they were trying to install a lame duck prime minister.
    Whatever people say about Dion fighting separatists and for Canada, he sure didn’t have Canada’s best interests at heart when he figured he was about to move into the PMO.

    They can’t deny they lied before.
    They can’t expect us to believe them if they say coalition is not an option.

    This election is Conservatives or Coalition.
    There are no other outcomes.

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      • Well, IMO, there is just way too much denying of what transpired in 2004 — parsing words because the word “coalition” wasn’t in the letter. Of course, it wasn’t in the letter, but they were asking the GG for her to consider her constitutional options. Had she asked them to clarify how they could have worked together, there would have had to be something in the form of a working agreement, a coalition by another name. But, so what? It was a very different context from 2008.

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  5. Sandy: I believe that the letter was put together after the election that put Paul Martin in a minority position.

    Word was that Martin was going to call another election immediately, which given that the Libs were still incredibly strong and well financed, and the Conservatives just a fledgling party, the Libs would likely have won a majority. The opposition parties just would not have been able to fight two elections in quick succession (a couple of months).

    So the letter was to ask the GG to not allow Paul Martin to dissolve Parliament to run another election, and to consider allowing the opposition to step in and govern if Martin and the Libs wanted to abdicate their role as government.

    Harper offered to step into a vacuum that the Libs were going to create, the Opposition now wants to step in and take power where no vacuum exists – indeed they want to create that vacuum.

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  6. What I would like to know is how can we accept the Bloc as the official opposition if they win more seats than the Liberals. Are we going to continue to accept the Liberal precedent of letting the Bloc be accepted as the official opposition even though they can never be ready to replace (by themselves) the government.

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    • Nicola — we’ve already had the Bloc as Official Opposition when Lucien Bouchard was Bloc leader. I believe it was during the first Chretien mandate. In the second mandate, the Reform became the OP.

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  7. All I can do is repeat Gille Dupceppe’s own words in 2004 where he denied himself that it was a coalition – as did Stephen Harper.

    But you’re right that this will not go away. And neither will the threat of a coalition after this election unless one of the two main parties wins a majority.

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  8. The other thing here is that we need a working definition of “Coalition”.

    My interpretation would involve a formal agreement whereby two or more parties would have seats in the Cabinet and the decision-making would be shared.

    It would also involve an end-date as part of the contact as in the 2008 coalition.

    All relevant MPs would have to sign off on it.

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  9. While I agree that the real battle is about who has the “best vision for canada”,
    one can’t ignore the gaffs and stupid mistakes of Mr Ignatieff.
    It’s no different than Hedy Fry and “crosses are burning in Prince George”,
    or perhaps Trudeau being opposed to wage and price controls and his finger salute to a public critic.
    I suggest we all need to take a large breath and understand whats at stake and that is the future of this nation for our children. Leave the nitpicking to the opposition..they will get there, you can be sure.
    In the mean time..thank You Prime Minister Steven Harper, your Cabinet and Caucus for eighteen hundred and seventy three days of good Government.

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  10. Ignatieff has not ruled out a coalition with separatists and socialists.

    Door 1. The Coalition door, you can vote NDP, Liberal or Bloc.

    Door 2. The Conservative door, you vote Conservative.

    The choice is that simple Canada.

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  11. * 24 members of cabinet and Stéphane Dion as prime minister
    * 18 Liberal cabinet ministers
    * 6 NDP cabinet ministers
    * 6 NDP parliamentary secretaries
    * The 2 caucuses would sit side by side in the House of Commons
    * The agreement between the NDP and Liberals would expire on June 30, 2011, unless renewed, and the Bloc committed for 18 months.

    This is a little more detailed then the simple letter in 2004.

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  12. Sandy,

    All we need is a scenario where the Conservatives win,but miss by say 2 seats.Then the coalition steps in and the West steps out.So please don,t compare 2004 to what the opposition tried in 2008.2008 was more or less like a third world country takeover by a bunch of radicaljunkies needing a power fix.Nothing points this out more clearly than the fact the PQ was going to be in a position of power.I think that is the main difference from 2004.

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  13. We don’t need to get into semantics about what the 2004 letter meant. All we need are the other leaders own words at the time:

    Gilles Duccepe: “In no way we are a coalition and we won’t be a coalition.”∙

    Jack Layton: “It’s impossible to imagine that these three parties with their completely different platforms could form a coalition as we find in other countries.”

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  14. Joanne:
    We can all agree with your definition of a coalition, it involves more than 2 parties in cabinet decisions. Clearly the 2008 agreement would have resulted in a coalition with 18 Liberal and 6 NDP cabinet positions.
    What is unclear, is when an agreement actually becomes a coalition; surely it is when sworn in by the GG. Otherwise, what legal standing would any agreement signed by the party leaders have? I would say not very much. If the Liberal/NDP coalition had formed a government in 2009, and the Bloc reneged on their promise a few months later, what authority could hold them to the agreement? Is the 2008 agreement legally binding now; Iggy never signed it as leader.
    I think that faced with unforseen circumstances, any coalition could dissolve rapidly, and the country would be faced with another election.

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  15. All Michael Ignatieff has to do is categorically state he would never enter into a coalition where the Bloc was involved as a supporting partner, and I think this whole thing would go away.

    Until that happens, the media will hound him relentlessly on it.

    And the more he dodges the question, the more suspicious the Canadian public will become.

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  16. Joanne,Remember the RED BOOK..Please tell me one promise the Liberals have ever kept.Why do you think they got the well deserved name LIEBERAL.They cannot be trusted,so why do you think we should trust Iggy if he says he won,t.Who or what can keep him from keeping his promise??Power at all cost,gotta get back to the money,more taxes,now those are promises he will keep.

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    • I just updated my post and added this statement:

      When Prime Minister Harper spoke at Rideau Hall this morning, he made it VERY clear that the 2004 letter was not signaling his intent for a coalition government — just some kind of working arrangement. As such, it is no longer an issue for me. What is an issue, however, is the fact the Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff supposedly said he did not plan to put a coalition in place if the Liberals won a minority. What he didn’t clarify, however, was: (1) under what “other” conditions might he agree to a multi-party coalition; and (2) whether or not his stated position today is a Liberal Party of Canada position (important because all Liberal MPs elected in 2008 signed the Liberal/NDP/Bloc agreement, including Bob Rae).”

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