Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper's former campaign manager and chief of staff, has confirmed the prime minister himself had a plan to form what he now demonizes as "a coalition of losers" and take power without an election in September 2004.
Harper's "co-opposition accord" was "a perfectly legitimate exercise" to explore whether there was "common ground for the Conservatives to undertake a minority government," Flanagan told The National Post Monday.
Now that "the Conservative-socialist-separatist coalition" is on the official record, it should haunt the prime minister. It exposes to Canadians the man's disquieting traits: his intellectual dishonesty, his vindictiveness, his preference for personal destruction and the low blow and his disrespect for British parliamentary democracy whose tenets he uses when it suits him and abuses or tosses out when it doesn't.
The letter itself was unprecedented. It presumed to lecture then-Gov.-Gen. Adrienne Clarkson on her constitutional role and responsibilities in a minority situation before the duly-elected government had even met Parliament, let alone fallen on a confidence vote. The letter, signed by Harper, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton, had a mildly threatening tone:
"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 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. Your attention to this matter is appreciated."
Yet here was the same Harper in Brampton Sunday: "If we don't win a stable majority (Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff) believes he can get a mandate from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois even if he didn't win the election."
On Saturday, Duceppe flatly accused Harper of lying when he denied he had any intention of forming a coalition in 2004. The BQ leader said the Montreal meeting was Harper's idea, he issued the invites and he drove the agenda.
"We were called to that meeting by Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and myself," Duceppe said. "It was a very important meeting, one of the most important meetings I have had with respect to parliamentary democracy... We changed most of the rules of the house that day... We changed the way opposition days would work like the one that took place yesterday and allowed us to have that non-confidence vote... We decided as a majority that these were the new rules and (then-prime minister Paul) Martin agreed. He didn't have a choice. If there's no election, the other option is to have another prime minister. When (Harper) says that the person who does not win the election cannot become the PM, well, he wrote exactly the opposite on this paper. He lied this morning. He lied... If he says that's undemocratic, well, that's exactly what he was asking for. So let's not play games with history. He has to assume what he did in the past."
On Sunday, Layton confirmed Duceppe's comments. "What Mr. Harper was intending to do, it's absolutely crystal clear to me, was to attempt to become prime minister even though he had not received the most seats in the House," he said. "And that letter was designed to illustrate that such an option is legitimate in Canadian constitutional traditions and there was no question about it."
This country stands alone among parliamentary democracies in its antipathy to coalitions. Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand have coalition governments, as do most European democracies and Israel. Multi-party governments are more democratic as they share power more widely and equitably among a nation's citizens and regions.
Canadians' antipathy towards coalition governments may stem from the non-stop slop-over of American politics with its cut-and-dried separation of powers. But Canadian unity might be a lot less fragile if it had had more coalition governments. Certainly Canada's regional solitudes would not be nearly as impenetrable and divisive.
Harper knows the most likely election result is another Conservative minority. Will he finally work co-operatively and respectfully with Parliament? Or will he force Canada into its fifth election in seven years?
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.