The coalition crisis and the lessons learned

In the pure adrenalin rush of the past week, it is easy to miss or forget what really happened between Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, but there are lessons that should be taken from those events.

In the pure adrenalin rush of the past week, it is easy to miss or forget what really happened in Ottawa between Nov. 27 and Dec. 4. And what lessons should be taken from those events.

What happened:  The Conservatives recklessly risked their minority government by acting as though they had a majority. The decision to load an economic update that was thin on policy proposals with enough partisan attacks and manoeuvres to tempt even an enfeebled opposition to try to unseat them was both reckless and careless.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, from left, in front of Canadian, provincial and territorial flags after their coalition signing ceremony in Ottawa on Dec. 1. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Lesson: Prime Minister Stephen Harper is apparently like someone with a drinking problem who can keep it under control much of the time, but just when it seems not to be a problem, falls off the wagon with damaging consequences.

Harper's problem isn't booze. He doesn't partake. His problem is excessive partisanship. Even when he was publicly calling for more political co-operation, he was attempting to cripple his political opponents financially.

Harper's falling off the co-operation wagon triggered all that followed for the next seven days. It led him to create the worst national unity tensions we have seen since 1995 and a humiliating trip to Rideau Hall to get the Governor General to save him from his folly. Harper should get into a 12-point program to control his partisanship.

What happened: Stéphane Dion saw the party funding changes as an opportunity to escape the ignominy of being only the second Liberal leader to never be prime minister. Changing the party funding rules hurt the NDP and the Bloc Québécois as well as the Liberals and created the possibility of a working arrangement to defeat the government.

Lesson learned: Almost too many to list. However, among them are: When a party leader says he is leaving, make him leave. An interim leader who is not running to replace the leader is essential. Members of Parliament running to be party leader should show leadership. The coalition plan concocted by Dion was tainted by the association with the Bloc Québécois and because Dion was at the head of it.

Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff and Dominic LeBlanc all knew this. So did most of the other MPs in the Liberal caucus. Instead, because they were calculating how it could impact on their leadership chances, none of them said anything publicly. Not much leadership there.

A lesson still to be learned is that if the Liberals don't move quickly now to replace Dion, any future efforts before the beginning of May to replace the Conservative minority will fall short. And in their worst dreams, Liberals could face another general election with Dion as the party leader.

What happened: NDP Leader Jack Layton thought he could protect the party's funding and gain credibility by being part of a coalition government.

Lesson learned: The coalition idea made the Conservatives back down on the party funding. But Layton and the NDP are tarnished outside Quebec with the tie to the Bloc and he and the party are clearly seen as juniors in the power-sharing deal.

What happened: Desperate to save himself and his government, Stephen Harper ratcheted up the rhetoric, exaggerating the role of the Bloc in the coalition agreement and attacking them, the Liberals and the NDP for putting Canada at risk.

Lesson learned: Separatists and the Bloc Québécois are the third rail in Canadian politics. Any arrangement with the Bloc is lethal outside Quebec. Its subsequent rejection is lethal inside Quebec. In the short term, Harper swayed public opinion in his favour outside Quebec and dug himself into a hole in that province. 

As prime minister, at some point Harper could come to regret his effort to exacerbate differences on the founding fault line of the country. Canadians are likely to regret his picking at the scabs over the wounds of national unity. Not only is it not something a prime minister should do. It wasn't even necessary. The issue of proroguing the House of Commons was constitutional and legal and not driven by public opinion.       

Much more happened. There are more lessons to be learned. But these are among the most important. The people involved should learn them. So should the rest of us.