That's one tough coalition monkey. Here we are, barely into the first week of the campaign and it's already been a wild ride. First, Michael Ignatieff hurls the battered monkey off his back, and it scampers onto Stephen Harper's. Harper throws him off and … and what?
Here's an easy prediction: the monkey will get no rest. Harper will try to re-attach him to Ignatieff, pronto.
Scanning the horizon from the Harper bus, it looks like the score is roughly even. Both leaders have stumbled when questioned about the issue, and both have belatedly recovered. First, the media pack howled that Michael Ignatieff could not remove the "coalition monkey" from his back without an unequivocal renunciation of any coalition plan. The best he could come up with was the "blue door, red door" answer — suggesting that there's only two choices but avoiding any repudiation of coalitions, now and forever.
"Gaffe!" screamed the National Post. And, the next day, even before Harper went to see the Governor General to call the election, the Liberals came up with the required renunciation. While coalitions are not the devil's work, it said, Ignatieff would not seek to form one and definitely not with the Bloc.
Thus began Harper's own trial-by-monkey. By focusing his campaign on the demonic spectre of a coalition, Harper inevitably drew the spotlight to his own flirtation with the Bloc and the NDP, back when he was the Opposition Leader in 2004. Hadn't he told the country that he was in "close consultation" with them and that no election was needed if Paul Martin's Liberal minority were defeated in Parliament by the opposition majority?
Why, yes, he had. Not only did he write the letter which the Bloc leader, Gilles Duceppe, now delights in reading, but he held a press conference telling us that he would not like the Governor General or Prime Minister Paul Martin to think a new election was needed. That's "not how our system works."
Like Ignatieff, Harper just didn't seem to have his answers worked out when he faced the inevitable questions. Wasn't there hypocrisy here? What were the "options" he wanted the GG to consider if not asking Harper to form a government — in a way which he now denounces as "illegitimate?"
It's been a long time since Harper has faced a media pack howling, "You didn't answer the question!" But it happened in Brampton. Thank God for the guy who asked about the Toronto Maple Leafs. It could have got ugly.
Of course, the leaders of the NDP and the Bloc were quite sure that Harper did, indeed, plot to replace Martin as prime minister. So the monkey seemed to have a pretty good grip on Harper. But, just like Ignatieff, he had an overnight conversion to clarity. The "option" he wanted the GG to consider was telling Paul Martin, no, he wouldn't get a new election, he would just have to go back and play nice with others.
"As opposition leader," said Harper in Saanich, B.C., "I was seeking to put pressure on the government to influence its agenda without bringing it down — without defeating it and replacing it."
Like it or not, this answer fits the facts: Harper, Duceppe and Layton did not, in fact, bring down the government and replace it. And all three denied at the time that this was a "coalition."
So that settles it, right?
Of course not. Harper immediately renewed his attacks on Ignatieff, insisting that the Liberal leader has laid out a plan to seize power, even if he loses the election, by forming a coalition with the Bloc and the NDP. "That's his position," Harper told his troops in Beaumont, Alberta.
Actually, no, it isn't. The Liberal leader has expressly ruled out a coalition with the Bloc.
Not only that, but Tom Flanagan, a former chief of staff to Harper, has now said that the 2004 arrangement was, indeed, aimed at installing Harper as prime minister.
"I can’t see what other point there would have been in writing the letter except to remind everybody that it was possible to change the government in that set of circumstances without an election," said Flanagan.
So this isn't over. The poor, banged-up coalition monkey rides on. Astride which back will he be next week? And, more to the point, will this go on for five whole weeks, or will voters beg them all to stop and talk about something else?