By REX MURPHY
Commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Just 12 days ago, on Monday of the past week, there stumbled into life what all of us now remember as the coalition.
Three men - two leaders of national parties, one leader of a Quebec separatist party - held an official "signing ceremony" for the coalition.
The coalition was all ready to become the government. Stéphane Dion would be its prime minister. Jack Layton's NDP would have six of its cabinet ministers. The Bloc was guaranteed something called a "formal consulting mechanism" during the promised 18 months of the agreement between all three. Only the delay of an imminent confidence vote, and the subsequent prorogation of Parliament, stayed the coalition's swift and lofty ascent to power.
I'm summarizing what everyone already knows, because in the hectic, stormy politics of the last two weeks, events of 12 whole days ago feel like something you might catch only on The History Channel. It really does seem like years have passed since those two or three days when Mr. Dion really looked like he was going to become prime minister after all. But it was only just last week. As T. S. Eliot once sagely observed, "History has many cunning corridors," and as if by way of illustration of this maxim, last week's PM-to-be is this week's backbencher. The Governor-General had barely finished sipping tea with an imploring Stephen Harper before the Liberals jettisoned Mr. Dion and placed Michael Ignatieff in his job.
Where are we now? Last week, the coalition had everyone in the country mesmerized. There was talk of nothing else. Open-line shows, comments on web pages, editorials - there was a wave of popular and media response of a volume unseen since the wrangles of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord.
And where is this coalition now? What is it? Does it even still exist? Mr. Ignatieff hems and haws about "a coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition," which is what a really fancy mind comes up with when it wants to say yes and no to the same question. Equivocation in a tuxedo, but pure equivocation nonetheless.
One would think the brand new leader of the Liberals could give a direct answer on something as plain as whether his party still has an agreement with the NDP and the Bloc; that all three are, like the fabled musketeers, all for one and one for all. That, as per the agreement between them, and the signing ceremony that announced it, come Jan. 27, when Parliament returns, it's out with the Harper imperium. But on the few occasions that Mr. Ignatieff has been pushed to clarify the most central question in all of Canadian politics - is the agreement to bring down Stephen Harper still in force? - the most erudite washing machine in Canadian politics goes into full spin cycle.
And out tumbles yes, no, and maybe as if they were synonyms.
Even the NDP, which I think has the first claim to pride of authorship in this matter of a coalition, seems more than a little hazy on its current status. Its most dulcet-toned deputy leader, Thomas Mulcair, reminds Mr. Ignatieff that he was "one of 161 MPs who signed a letter to the Governor-General asking to form an alternative government with the NDP."
But when pressed on the matter of whether his party and the Liberals are still in concert, still determined to do what that coalition was set up to do - form that alternative government - out comes the tepid, "I have every reason to believe in his sincerity and in the sincerity of his Liberal colleagues."
Let's try that again: "I have every reason to believe in his sincerity and in the sincerity of his Liberal colleagues." There's a trumpet blast. More "let's do lunch" than "give me liberty or give me death."
Are the Bloc still in this thing? No idea. Do they still have that wonder, detailed in the signing ceremony, of a "formal consultation mechanism?" Is Michael consulting with them? Is Jack mechanizing? Haven't heard. This is all very strange. Just 12 days ago, we had the boldest, most dramatic parliamentary manoeuvre in a generation, a formal alliance between three opposition parties, a signing ceremony of their leaders giving birth to a new entity and an "alternative government." This week, the once explosive notion of a coalition is a shimmer in some phantom zone of yesterday's politics. No one who had anything to do with it wants to admit it's dead. They want it to fade away all on its own. If it wasn't for that signing ceremony and the wonderfully retentive powers of videotape, I'd almost bet some of its backers would deny it ever existed.
There won't be any more rallies for the coalition. It was the fevered product of a moment's opportunism, a political house of cards. Five years from now, it'll be a good question for Trivial Pursuit.