Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Here we go

Things are moving quite quickly. The opposition parties have come to an agreement on power-sharing, and are going ahead with plans to topple the Harper government. The NDP will have claim to 6 cabinet seats out of 25, while Dion would be PM temporarily until May, when the Liberals choose a new leader. For their part, the Bloc have pledged to support this government for 2 1/2 years (not unexpectedly, the Tories are attempting to paint the coalition as anti-Canada on account of Bloc support). Practically the only option open to Harper at this point for preserving his government is pro-roguing, which sets a dangerous precedent, and is no less drastic a move as what the opposition is currently doing.

Despite the sheer craziness of all this, the media seems to be placing the blame mostly on Mr. Harper. Here's Jeffrey Simpson, in today's Globe and Mail:

Mr. Harper, who bulldozed his way toward this cliff and who will be judged harshly and perhaps fatally by his party if the government goes over the cliff, has tried unsuccessfully to show belated flexibility by backing down (temporarily) from plans to eliminate party subsidies and ending the right to strike. But he had nothing new yesterday – not that any fresh concession would have derailed the coalition's drive for power.

His options now would seem to be a) persuade the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament only three weeks after a Speech from the Throne, hoping to gain time to manoeuvre; b) lose the confidence of the House but persuade the G-G to dissolve Parliament and call an election.
He could always offer a mea culpa and alter his economic statement. It would not likely impress the coalition partners.

Mr. Harper has either to get to another Speech from the Throne in January that might be a better platform than the rickety one of Thursday's economic statement, or get to the people and argue, as he and his MPs did yesterday, that the opposition parties are trying to take power through parliamentary intrigue, having been defeated in the election.

His fate depends, it would appear, on the Governor-General's decision to grant prorogation or an election. Otherwise, he will have done a Joe Clark, miscalculating his way out of office.

And the editorial board editor, John Geiger, is calling for Harper's resignation:

"Mr. Harper is ultimately responsible for this unhappy state of affairs. It is the byproduct of his machinations, and the product of a failure of his leadership.

"The opposition parties, especially with the Liberals busy licking their election wounds, were not out to pick a fight in the new Parliament.

"Mr. Harper gave them one anyway, turning his government's economic update into a partisan document aimed less at strengthening Canada's economic position than at undermining their ability to compete in the next election.

"In so doing, he sent the message that even if he backs down in this instance, he has no interest in making the current Parliament work.

"His conduct since then — epitomized by his blustery and provocative statement last Friday, and his party's disturbing act in eavesdropping on a private NDP conference call this past weekend — has only reinforced for the opposition the necessity of defeating him while it has the opportunity.

Regardless of where the blame lies, I have deep reservations about a coalition government.

First, it will be seen as illegitimate by many Canadians. The Conservatives may have only secured the support of 37% of Canadian voters, but they hold more seats in the House of Commons than the Liberals and NDP combined. And Liberal/NDP voters were voting for their preferred party, not a coalition. I'll be interested to see some polling, because I wonder how much support this action really has.

Second, it will grant the NDP legitimacy and a real role in government (though hopefully not any direct role in economic policy). Jack Layton will attempt to undercut Stephane Dion at every opportunity, and given their relative political talents, he'll probably succeed at promoting himself and his party at the expense of his coalition partner, causing a further deterioration of Liberal support.

Finally, this government would be coming in riding a wave of fear and uncertainty over the economy, and will be expected to take strong action to minimize the effects of a recession. Would this coalition be up to the task? Is $30 billion a realistic number for a stimulus package? One positive sign is that the NDP seem to have dropped their opposition to corporate tax cuts, showing that they will likely defer to the Liberals in most economic matters. Since I think the Liberals are generally better stewards of the economy than the Conservatives and definitely better than the NDP, that sits well with me.

To sum up, there are a lot of potential pitfalls. This could easily be a disaster for the Left that will ensure a Conservative majority in the next election. But given the way things have gone, I also don't see any other option for the opposition at this point, other than forcing some further concession out of Harper on economic stimulus. Given his current weakness, that might be possible. It would at least spare the country the trauma of leadership change so soon after an election, and it might also spare the Liberals the embarrassment of partnering with the NDP and Bloc, and governing with an unpopular leader in Stephane Dion.

(Photo: Chris Wattie, Reuters)

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