Past ties may help bind par­ties to­gether

Toronto Star - - CANADA - Su­san Dela­court Twit­ter: @su­sandela­court

A small, eclec­tic crowd of jour­nal­ists and po­lit­i­cal types was on hand this week at a Sparks Street bar in Ot­tawa to see the de­but per­for­mance of the Low­er­town Riffraff, an East Coast party-mu­sic band, also made up of jour­nal­ists and politi­cos.

At one of the big ta­bles sat two women who have come to know each other well over a decade work­ing be­hind the scenes in fed­eral politics: Katie Telford, chief of staff to Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, and Anne McGrath, who is cur­rently in charge of tran­si­tion for New Demo­cratic Party Leader Jag­meet Singh.

It’s be­come far more rare over the past decade or so in Ot­tawa to see cross-party so­cial­iza­tion: Par­ti­sans are far more likely to hang out with their own teams in the po­lar­ized after-work cir­cuit. But this week wasn’t the first or last time that Telford and McGrath would find them­selves around the same ta­ble.

Eleven years ago, Telford and McGrath worked on the teams ne­go­ti­at­ing the 2008 Lib­eral-NDP-Bloc deal that al­most brought down Stephen Harper’s newly elected gov­ern­ment. Four years ago, the two were the cam­paign chiefs for their par­ties in the 2015 elec­tion.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, hours after tak­ing in some mu­sic to­gether, McGrath and Telford were re­united yet again — this time at the Trudeau-Singh meet­ing to ex­plore pos­si­ble har­mony be­tween the Lib­er­als and the NDP.

While it’s true that Trudeau may find other dance part­ners to sup­port the gov­ern­ment in this minority Par­lia­ment, the long his­tory be­tween Telford and McGrath may bode well for a work­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Lib­er­als and NDP. It’s worth not­ing that both of these women have been work­ing at co-op­er­a­tion be­tween the two par­ties much longer than ei­ther of their cur­rent lead­ers have.

Telford had been widely ru­moured to be the next Cana­dian am­bas­sador to the United States if Trudeau won a ma­jor­ity, but she’s stay­ing on as chief of staff and Trudeau’s in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory in this minority Par­lia­ment. So rather than prac­tise diplo­macy with the Don­ald Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, as she did dur­ing the marathon free-trade ne­go­ti­a­tions with the U.S., Telford will be work­ing out deals here in Canada with op­po­si­tion par­ties.

McGrath is only newly back in Ot­tawa. After the 2015 elec­tion, she headed out to Al­berta to serve as a top ad­viser to premier Rachel Not­ley and then, briefly, as a can­di­date in the pro­vin­cial elec­tion that knocked Not­ley’s NDP out of power after one term.

McGrath’s ex­pe­ri­ence in Al­berta dates back to the 1980s and is not in­con­se­quen­tial to the cur­rent gov­ern­ing dy­namic, given all the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Al­berta alien­ation. Singh, some may have no­ticed, has not in­cluded pipe­lines — which the Not­ley gov­ern­ment sup­ported — among his make-or­break con­di­tions for work­ing with the Lib­er­als.

Telford and McGrath, for all their party dif­fer­ences, have much in com­mon, as I wrote in a pre­vi­ous col­umn, four years ago, about their work­ing re­la­tion­ship. They both have ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in labour ne­go­ti­a­tions — McGrath worked for years with the Cana­dian Union of Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees, while Telford was a lead player in the On­tario gov­ern­ment’s deal with teach­ers unions and school boards in the 2000s.

They’re also best known in their re­spec­tive party cir­cles for their at­ten­tion to cam­paign or­ga­ni­za­tion and prac­ti­cal politics. Nei­ther is known for “spin” with the me­dia; they tend to be more low-pro­file. (It was, for in­stance, im­pos­si­ble to get them to speak to me for this col­umn.) Nei­ther is fond of court­ing con­tro­versy, though in their jobs, it’s hard to avoid.

The mere men­tion of the 2008 “coali­tion cri­sis,” as it’s called, can still en­rage Con­ser­va­tives and the party was stok­ing up the mem­o­ries of the deal dur­ing the most re­cent elec­tion, warn­ing that the Lib­er­als and NDP were work­ing on get­ting the band back to­gether. “A Coali­tion You Can’t Af­ford” was the tag line in a wave of late-cam­paign ad­ver­tis­ing by the Con­ser­va­tives last month.

We won’t know un­til early De­cem­ber what the Lib­er­als are will­ing to of­fer to the New Democrats to win some co­op­er­a­tion, but the av­enues of agree­ment will be much dif­fer­ent than the deal that Telford and McGrath helped ne­go­ti­ate 11 years ago.

In late 2008, the agree­ment in­cluded Lib­eral and NDP min­is­ters in gov­ern­ment and a range of pol­icy pro­pos­als to re­spond to the global eco­nomic cri­sis of the time, with a fo­cus on jobs and worker pro­tec­tion. (The Bloc Québé­cois agreed to time-lim­ited sup­port of the coali­tion, but not to par­tic­i­pa­tion in it.) Nei­ther cli­mate change nor In­dige­nous is­sues mer­ited any big men­tion in the agree­ment.

This week, Singh left his meet­ing with Trudeau pro­nounc­ing him­self “hope­ful” for progress on is­sues such as phar­ma­care, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with In­dige­nous peo­ple and con­crete mea­sures on cli­mate change.

Just as times have changed, in other words, so have the ar­eas of po­ten­tial pol­icy over­lap be­tween the Lib­er­als and the New Democrats.

But if Trudeau and Singh do man­age to get a work­ing re­la­tion­ship go­ing in this minority Par­lia­ment — one that lasts longer than the ill-fated coali­tion of 2008 — it could be be­cause two of the key play­ers be­hind the scenes have re­mained the same.


The NDP’s Anne McGrath, left, and the Lib­er­als’ Katie Telford have a his­tory of work­ing to­gether, which may bode well for co-op­er­a­tion be­tween their two par­ties.

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