Inside Queen's Park: Rae has been there before

The stories have yet to be written about the genesis of the opposition party deal in Ottawa.

But it is hard not to see at the centre of the spider’s web being woven for a federal coalition government the same man who engineered the overthrow of the Ontario Progressive Conservative dynasty in 1985: then New Democrat Bob Rae.

After all, unlike everyone else involved, Rae has been there before. He knows both the upsides and downsides of deal making.

In fact, Rae is now three out of three in dumping minority Conservative governments: two federal, Joe Clark in 1979 and Stephen Harper in the immediate future, and one provincial, Frank Miller in Ontario in 1985.
In every case, it was to the benefit of the Liberals.

Although he wanted NDP cabinet seats in the 1985 provincial Liberal government headed by David Peterson, Rae was stymied in his desire by several factors, including a sense in Liberal ranks that the NDP would support them regardless of whether a formal coalition was created or not.

A secondary problem was that the Neanderthal wing of the NDP didn’t want to be identified too closely with the Liberals or even make an agreement with them.

In the end, Rae signed with Peterson in what became known as the Accord. It promised to sustain a Liberal government for two years in exchange for a specified list of legislation to be implemented over that time span.
For the Liberals it was win-win.

They got the power, brought in policies they mainly would have endorsed anyway, and performed well enough so that in the next election they reduced the NDP to a rump.

For those of us who were at Queen’s Park in those days, it soon became clear that never again would leading New Democrats agree to a coalition without actually having cabinet seats.
They had done their share of the heavy lifting - yet got nothing out of it.

And while Rae is now a Liberal, his sensibilities on the issue appear not to have changed. More importantly, he knows leading NDP feeling on the matter.

True, many hardline New Democrats despise Rae from his days governing Ontario and his later move to the Liberal party. But the rest learned a lesson from 1985 and would deal with the devil himself in exchange for power.

And maybe they did. The infamous tape of Jack Layton speaking to the federal NDP caucus suggests the deal making, including with the separatist Bloc Québécois, has been going on for some time.

What gives that even more credence is that there were only four short days between the announcement by the federal Conservative government that it was moving to end taxpayer subsidies for political parties and the signing by the federal Liberals and NDP of what they also call an Accord.

In passing, it might be noted that however worthy the ending of slurping by political parties at the tax trough - and it is an admirable goal - the federal Tory timing and context has to win some kind of record for political stupidity.

But then, Joe Clark couldn’t count either. The Accord signed by the 1985 provincial Liberals and NDP took almost a month to negotiate, from May 3 to May 28, which is another reason many believe earlier backroom discussions took place among the anti-Tory federal parties.

The Accord of 1985 had tacked on to it a detailed and comprehensive four-page document signed by both Peterson and Rae that said the government was safe from defeat for two years in exchange for action on parliamentary reform and specific legislation.

The 2009 Liberal-NDP federal Accord, with its off-stage endorsement by the Bloc Québécois, deals with the longevity of the government and the division of spoils in matters like cabinet seats and Senate appointments.
Their policy add-ons are much more vague beyond repudiation of the Green Shift and a meaningless commitment to “fiscal stimulus.”

Rae’s recommendation that Stéphane Dion stay as Liberal leader not only solidified the deal but also neatly boxed in his leadership opponents.

If the deal comes to fruition, the remarkable part will be how Rae almost single-handedly changed the political culture of Canada to put it more in tune with other parliamentary democracies.
Everywhere else, and in Ontario as late as 1923, coalitions rule. That’s because coalition majorities make more sense than minority governments. They bring stability.

Nor is there anything illegitimate about them. The people elect individuals to Parliament to represent them. Those representatives then choose the executive council called cabinet. That’s the essence of responsible government. That’s what the opposition three announced they would do.

If Rae is as important to the ongoing process in Ottawa as I think he is, and if it works, this coalition-building process may just catapult him into a new role come the Liberal leadership convention in May: prime minister.

Editor’s Note: This is Derek Nelson’s last column for Law Times. Nelson, who spent 19 years at Queen’s Park, is retiring. Law Times thanks Derek for his great contribution to this newspaper.

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