Politics with Don Newman

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Who doesn't feel queasy about federal politics these days? Add former CBC senior parliamentary editor and Newsworld Politics host Don Newman, who can finally speak his mind now that he's retired from the Mother Corp.

"If bankers talked about each other the way politicians talk, we would all keep our money in a sock under the mattress," he says. "We have to convince politicians to work together, to change the way they treat each other."

Right. We wish. But there's one big difference between him and the rest of us. He's got a clear and practical idea of how to do that.

I was expecting nothing like this when I went to hear Newman at a Canadian Club talk September 18. I was just fascinated to hear the unmuzzled Newman's take on the unfolding Ottawa soap. It was the day after the latest confidence vote, and with dry wit (which I did expect), Newman noted that they'd had to turn out all the lights on Parliament Hill the night before "because there was so much illumination from the red faces of the NDP and Bloc members."

But he doesn't only target the "socialists and separatists." Newman thinks Stephen Harper, with his good polling numbers and well-stocked war chest, still really wants an election, so he suggests that starting tomorrow, Harper will likely be referring to the NDP as "communists" and the Bloc as (pause) "terrorists."

Are we all cynical yet? Newman has seen every spin and every yarn told in the House over decades. He's been up close and personal with the deep political history of the last four decades, and he does a mean Jean Chretien.

But now that he's on the other side of the constraints that have ruled his life for so long, Newman is ready to do more than share the amusing highlights of a long and rich historic journey. He figures it's give-back time, or, as he puts it more humbly in a follow-up interview, "You've got to use it for something."

Last week's speech and another at the Rideau Club, where Ottawa's muckety-mucks hang out, were the first times Newman has publicly unwrapped his advocacy identity.

How does the new role feel so far? "Liberating," he tells me on the phone.

His idea started percolating last Christmas. Does the word "prorogue" ring a bell? The circumstances, with Stéphane Dion a rejected and temporary leader, were of course unacceptable, he notes. "But the concept of coalition is not illegitimate."

In a minority government situation, if the parties don't work together -- formally or informally, as in the current Conservative/NDP pairing over EI -- nothing gets done. "And not a lot is getting done," he says.

And besides, he says, exercising the precious right to vote "shouldn't be like a trip to the dentist."

The coalition idea fell victim to "the fantastic Tory spin machine, which is "way ahead of anybody else. A lot of it comes from the George Bush Republican machine that dominated American politics until Obama came along and broke the spell."

He's clear that change won't come unless enough people demand it. But the brilliance of his suggestion is its simplicity.

It all goes back to 2007 and the passage of the fixed election date law, which, he points out, the Harper government ignored a year later to bring on the 2008 election, followed by the aforementioned prorogue. It isn't that Newman is fiercely in favour of fixed election dates, but he does hold the peculiar belief that if Parliament passes a law it should be respected.

He proposes that, given the election date law, "the Governor General's mandate should be expanded to maintain a government between fixed election dates." So if the party with the most seats loses the confidence of the House, she or he would be charged with finding other willing partners to shoulder government between these dates.

So simple and reasonable. And of course, it would change everything, because the imminent threat of election wouldn't be the decisive issue in every confidence vote. Think of the spin we'd be spared. My jaw drops. What have we been waiting for?

Newman is convinced that this country is in for a long spell of minority government. The reason is structural: with a Quebec Bloc of 35 to 50 seats, it will be rare if not impossible for a federal party to win a majority.

To make the point, he easily reaches into his memory bank to an earlier time when a Quebec party -- the Créditistes -- held sway federally.

He recalls the string of minority governments they ushered in, starting in 62 and going all the way to Joe Clark's 1980 election failure, after which the Créditistes devolved into oblivion and the Liberals returned to majority.

By the way, in case you're itching for Newman's current election odds, he tells me he sees a Conservative majority as quite unlikely this time, too.

There is passion for change behind his words, but everything Newman says is informed by his distilled historical perspective and respect for the balancing power of process.

Going back to Pearson's day, just as Trudeau was gunning to be leader, he remembers when the minority government narrowly lost a money motion in the House while the Libs were distracted by the leadership race. Pearson, who had been absent during the vote, returned and put a confidence motion on the floor. It passed, and, voila -- crisis averted.

He suggests we call this the "Pearson Plan" and add that one extra process to the new fixed election mandate, so every time a non-confidence motion passes, the GG would give a last chance to the governing party to line up partners willing to play nice if given a good enough reason.

"Parliamentarians can change their own rules if they want. By and large, they're reluctant to do anything that rocks the boat very much, but when they realize that they wouldn't have to go through this kind of game of chicken all the time that we saw between the Bloc and the NDP this week," he says, they could end up coming on board.

Especially with a little nudge from some of us new and old Newman BFFs.

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