A political fiasco of their own making

This is a new low for Canada, and Harper’s Tories aren’t to blame

A political fiasco of their own making

Something in the Canadian political class, some primeval instinct, requires it to beach itself at regular intervals on the shores of some lunatic misadventure. The ingredients are always the same: immense self-absorption; total strategic blindness; a profound disconnect with, if not contempt for, how its machinations will play outside its own narrow circles; and, as the extent of its miscalculation starts to become clear, panicked, bovine unanimity in support of pressing on with the same strategy. Oh, and some sort of special status for Quebec.

Until now, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown cataclysms were the foremost examples of this seemingly bottomless appetite for self-destruction, this unwavering determination to learn nothing from past mistakes, except how to repeat them over and over again—especially where Quebec is concerned. But nothing in the long catalogue of elite folly quite matches the apparent fit of mass delusion that overcame the opposition parties last week. Never was there a more inept lunge for power, nor one with so little chances of success. As with any failed coup attempt, the long-term consequences are likely to be profound, and dreadful.

I know, I know: we are taught to believe the fault lies with Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. It was their miscalculation that kicked off the whole mess, in the official version—a fall economic statement that so enraged the opposition as to all but guarantee the government’s demise. At best, the media consensus ran, the proposal to reduce public funding for political parties was a reckless provocation, an existential threat to the opposition parties that Harper should have known could only invite one response. The Prime Minister had opted for petty partisanship at a time when the public wanted action on the economy. To his worst critics, it was an attack on democracy, a pathologically partisan attempt to starve the opposition parties of funds, in defiance of civilized democratic norms.

We can dispense with the last point first. While it is true that the opposition parties are more dependent on public funding than the Conservatives, that is only a statement of their relative lack of success in raising funds on their own. Yet absolutely nothing prevents them from doing so. The Tories enjoy no built-in structural advantage—as the Liberals did, in the days when corporations could and did donate unlimited amounts to stay on side with the “natural governing party.” The average Conservative contributor, by contrast, gives just $158. It’s just that there are more of them: five times as many, last year, as the Liberals. There’s nothing “unfair” in this, any more than it is unfair that a party should win an election because it got more votes. Is it so barbaric to suggest that political parties should rely less on the state, more on voluntary donations? Tell it to Sweden, where all party funding is private.

But leave aside the merits of the case: were the Tories motivated by crass partisanship? Of course. Did they misjudge the opposition response? Undoubtedly: the rapid withdrawal of the offending provisions in the days after makes that clear. But did they cause this response? That’s less clear. We have it from Jack Layton’s own mouth—the famous eavesdropped conference call—that the NDP and the Bloc, in particular, were determined to bring the government down, and had prepared plans for a coalition government far in advance. But it is probably true that the economic statement, and the widespread perception that the Conservatives had crossed some sort of line, furnished them with the needed pretext. If Harper did not foresee that, it is perhaps to his discredit. But he may not have imagined anyone could be quite so insane.

The opposition had other options, after all, between abject surrender, on the one hand, and taking the government down, on the other. They had won the initial skirmish over the economic statement: the preponderant media reaction was that the Tories were behaving like bullies. They could have exploited this. They could have moved amendments, proposed compromises, showing statesmanlike reasonableness in the face of Tory intransigence. When these failed, they could have tied up parliamentary business, filibustered, rang bells, all the roster of means an opposition has to register its displeasure. By dragging the debate out, they could have kept the issue in the public eye, allowing the impression of an overbearing and uncooperative government to sink in. They did not have to escalate to nuclear on the first day.

Even then, they had options. Having forced the government to climb down, in quite humiliating fashion, they could have backed off themselves. They would have proved their point, demonstrated resolve, shown unity. The government, and more particularly the Prime Minister, would have been left weakened. But they didn’t. Whether out of maddened ambition, or a desire for revenge, or sheer bloodlust, they pressed on. Almost immediately, media attention turned from Harper’s hubris to the coalition’s unseemly lust for power. And worse was to come. If Harper was guilty of overreaching, the opposition redoubled his error in the other direction. If Harper misjudged the opposition’s reaction, it is clear they misjudged his—and the public’s.

Could they have imagined the plot would succeed? Could they really have supposed the public would meekly accept the replacement of a duly elected government, just six weeks after its election, with a coalition of the parties it defeated—two of whom had explicitly campaigned against the idea? A coalition led by the Liberals, fresh from their worst election showing since Confederation—a party that, with just one quarter of the seats in Parliament, would not even be a majority within its own coalition? Backed by the NDP? And beholden for its very existence to the support of a separatist party? In what parallel universe would the public have swallowed any of this—to say nothing of Prime Minister Stéphane Dion? Did anyone think to ask how this would play in, say, the West? Did anyone care?

There’s no doubt of the legality of what was proposed. As coalition advocates patiently explained, ours is a system of parliamentary government. We elect parliaments, not governments; the ministry is composed of those who have the confidence of the 308 members of the House of Commons. In the wake of the Conservative defeat, the Governor General would have been perfectly within her rights, rather than plunge the country into yet another election, to call upon the coalition to form a government. And there was precedent, of a kind, notably Lord Byng’s decision to call upon Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives in 1926, rather than dissolve the House as Mackenzie King demanded. Apparently, the opposition persuaded themselves these sorts of arguments would impress the public.

It may be, as the historian Michael Bliss argues, that public expectations have changed, that we are no longer inclined to defer to our betters on such questions, but rather insist on deciding them ourselves. Or it may be that the present coalition was the problem: that changing governments without an intervening election might be acceptable in other circumstances, but could not be stretched to cover such an absurd set of facts. Whatever may be the case, the public’s revulsion at what was proposed was palpable, and overwhelming. Polls showed majorities of upwards of 60 per cent opposed to the coalition taking power. Could no one have predicted this? Did no one recall what the result was in 1926—a resounding defeat for the Conservatives at the next election?

It’s easy to see why the NDP was pushing for it. Had the coalition succeeded, they would have been given seats at the cabinet table, a half-dozen of them, for the first time in their history. No longer could they be marginalized as a protest party, without experience in government. Likewise, the Bloc’s interest was clear. Whatever Gilles Duceppe might have agreed to include in the text of their infamous “accord,” to the effect that the Bloc would not vote against the coalition government on a confidence motion for 18 months, the reality is that a Dion government would be entirely at the mercy of the Bloc for its survival. The “permanent consultative mechanism” envisaged in the accord would either deliver on the Bloc’s demands—effectively conferring veto power, on the Bloc if not Quebec—or would be denounced as a sham, a fraud upon the Quebec “nation.”

What is harder to fathom is why the Liberals would ever have signed on to this. At a stroke, Dion legitimized the NDP, even as he was marginalizing his own party, by association. Worse, by entering into a formal agreement with the Bloc, he threw away the Liberals’ most enduring political strength, their reputation as the party of national unity. It wasn’t that anyone feared that Dion, the passionate separatist-fighter, would conspire in the breakup of the country. But such an unpopular leader, at the head of such a weak party, would be peculiarly vulnerable to the demands of his coalition partners, NDP or Bloc. Indeed, one can only imagine that is how the whole thing got started: the NDP and the Bloc threatened to take down the government, and forced the Liberals to agree to a coalition rather than face an election.

In retrospect, many Grits must be thanking their lucky stars they were spared having to go through with it, the Governor General bowing instead to Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament. (Perhaps some were even counting on this: it seems hard to believe they would not have considered the possibility.) Had the coalition attempted to form a government, it would almost certainly have collapsed in short order: having extracted as much extra spending as they could, the NDP and the Bloc would most likely abandon it in the spring, rather than wait for Dion’s replacement to be elected. Indeed, it might very well have destroyed the Liberal party.

But the damage is considerable as it is. Just the prospect of a coalition takeover prompted a 10- to 15-point swing in public opinion in favour of the Conservatives—from 32 per cent in a Nanos poll just before the economic statement, to an average of 47 per cent in four polls (Ipsos, Strategic Counsel, Ekos and Compas) taken last week. In the West, in particular, where the Liberals desperately need to start building a base if they are to have any hope of winning future elections, the affair may well prove to be a second National Energy Program. But the cost may be even greater in Ontario, once a Liberal fortress, where the Conservatives are now polling in excess of 50 per cent.

Worse, by being seen to get too cozy with the Bloc, they may well have handed Harper a historic strategic opening—to make the Conservatives the Canada Party, replacing the Liberals as the guardians of national unity. To be sure, there were large dollops of humbug in Harper’s attacks on the “separatist coalition,” given his own past flirtations with the Bloc. Unhappily for the Liberals, they remain in the past: whatever Harper may have been willing to do with the Bloc, it never came to anything. Whereas the Liberals’ “accord” with the Bloc is on public display, in photos of Dion, Layton and Duceppe at that remarkably ill-advised signing ceremony that will live in Tory attack ads for years to come. And while his replacement by Michael Ignatieff, with his carefully telegraphed skepticism toward the coalition, may signal the Liberals’ attempts to disentangle themselves from what Dion has wrought, this may not prove so easy as all that. Not only the Conservatives, but the other members of the coalition, will be quick to remind people that Ignatieff’s signature is on that letter to the Governor General formally committing the Liberals to the coalition, along with that of every other member of his caucus. And even if he now renounces the coalition, he must somehow extinguish from public memory not only his own past statements in support of it, but the continuing and highly public enthusiasm of Bob Rae, his nearest rival.

Yet the reality is the coalition is dead. Much as Ignatieff might like to hold it in reserve—“coalition if necessary, but not necessarily coalition”—as a deterrent to future Conservative adventurism, the threat lacks credibility. The public’s reaction has seen to that. When, therefore, the Tories bring down their budget on Jan. 27, there can be only two possible outcomes. Either the budget will pass, or the House will be dissolved and an election called. And as the Liberals cannot possibly face an election at this time—Ignatieff has reportedly been brutally frank about this in caucus—the far greater likelihood is that the budget will pass.

Unless . . . Unless the Tories can find some way to make it impossible for the Liberals to accept it. They have to be careful: they don’t want to lose the public. But suppose they were to spend the next several weeks advertising their willingness to work with the opposition—especially the Liberals. And suppose they were to take on board many of the opposition demands: a massive bailout for the auto industry. Billions more in infrastructure spending, complete with “shovels in the ground” photo-ops. A feel-good meeting with the premiers in mid-January, ending in some sort of agreement to “work together” on the economy. All wrapped up in a budget whose every second word is “stimulus.” And now suppose, having given the Liberals just about everything they could ask for, they also include the party financing proposal.

Bundle up, Grits. It’s going to be a long winter.

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