Past ties may help bind parties together
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.