The Big Mess of ’08


Must-reads: Chantal Hébert, Jeffrey Simpson and John Ivison on the insanity.

Bravo, Mr. Harper
What Canada’s politicians did this weekend instead of thinking about the financial crisis.

The Globe and Mail‘s Jeffrey Simpson believes the debacle over the government’s fiscal update finally reveals “the kind of Conservative Party that all but its core supporters suspected would eventually be outed: a group of ideologues, led by a Prime Minister who discarded his campaign sweater to reveal an economist with a tin heart and a politician who looks everywhere for political advantage.” The latter isn’t really ideological, is it? Mostly, this whole thing confirms to us that Stephen Harper sees Canadian governance primarily as a game more than it highlights any particular policy motivation. But either way, it is indeed “enormously revealing” that at a time of crisis, Harper “acted in this fashion. … And very sad.”

On the other hand, as the Toronto Star‘s Thomas Walkom notes, only one thing links cutting public funding for political parties, axing a pay equity program that doesn’t seem to be “either iniquitous or expensive” and suspending federal employees’ right to strike at a time when no strikes loom—i.e., the three most contentious measures in the fiscal update. The common factor is that the targets of the measures share a “place in the Conservative party pantheon of villains.” So perhaps it really is an ideology eruption. But whatever else it might mean, Walkom argues, it confirms that “the Conservatives are neither serious nor united about tackling the economy,” and it confirms Harper suffers from a very serious self-control deficit.

Harper reacted to the fracas he created “like the boy who pokes the dog with a stick and then complains about being bitten,” John Ivison writes in the National Post. We think this is a nice, pithy way to address the argument that since the opposition had plenty of other options but to freak out, they must share the blame for The Mess. We actually agree, but it hardly excuses Harper giving them an excuse. It’s not like uniting the left was a radical concept, after all. Harper’s gambit simply “led Jack Layton to ask former NDP leader Ed Broadbent to get in touch with former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien and see if there was any common ground between the parties,” writes Ivison. “It turns out there was—everyone wanted to get rid of Mr. Harper.”

The Globe‘s Lawrence Martin is deeply disappointed, as he always is with Canadian politicians, because he really thought Harper was “changing his ways.” The Prime Minister seemed “more relaxed and secure” since the election, and “he made some impressive personnel changes and seemed to be displaying a little more bipartisanship.” But alas, clearly his baser instincts are irrepressible. In fact, despite his erstwhile belief that Harper was mellowing, Martin believes “if there were more journalistic inquiry the extent of his attempts to put a stranglehold on the [political] system would be found to be startling.”

“This is not politics as usual, even if the cynicism is familiar,” writes the Star‘s James Travers. (That’s the best sentence about this thing yet, in our opinion. When The Big Mess is over, we’ll inscribe that—in the past tense—on its tombstone.) What we’re seeing here, Travers argues, is a downright historic prime ministerial error of judgment, one that could easily “eclipse Joe Clark’s.”

Another election would be the most “unwanted” and most “untimely” in our history, Don Martin stresses in the Calgary Herald, and a coalition, while perhaps preferable, would be its own kind of conceptual nightmare. What would the international community think of “a prime minister leading a government whose party has just hit a historic low in voter support?” he asks. “Finance Minister Jack Layton? Just watch the TSX react.” And, more fundamentally, he says “there is simply no way Michaelle Jean can endorse a separatist-controlled coalition without triggering a crisis on the monarchy, never mind the Constitution.” And, as this was Harper’s own idea, it’s all his fault. Bravo, sir.

The opposition might also miscalculate, Martin adds later in the weekend, such as if they bet that “voters [would] punish Mr. Harper in any premature election, finishing him off politically and permanently for the flaws of a fiscal update he has now corrected.” In that case, he believes, “there would be no way to sell their conniving behaviour except as the reawakening of the Liberals’ entitled to power mentality.” That would be a problem, we agree. But Harper has behaved absolutely poisonously, and downright weirdly, at a very touchy juncture in our economy’s history. Stéphane Dion might not be able to sell it otherwise, but we bet Bob Rae or Michael Ignatieff could.

And in fact, the Post‘s John Ivison reports as the weekend draws to a close, the Liberals have agreed internally to allow Ignatieff to lead the coalition. This despite Ivison’s earlier reporting that “he was unlikely to support the deal because of concerns that a coalition government led by Mr. Dion would be a ‘poisoned chalice’ for the next leader.” We’re not believing anything until we see it, and suggest y’all adopt a similar policy.

The Ottawa Citizen‘s Randall Denley isn’t even convinced the election financing gambit made sense on its own terms. “Ask yourself this. In tough economic times, does donating to a political party rise to the top of your list?” If not, the Tories might have bankrupted themselves as well as the Liberals. But there’s certainly no redeeming it at this point as a political ploy, Denley stresses. “Sure, an argument can be made that the parties shouldn’t get taxpayer support,” he concedes, “but to impose it and try to cloak it as a money-saving matter is really just deceitful. And not even skilful deceit, at that.”

Mere days after declaring The Mess “tactically brilliant,” L. Ian MacDonald resurfaces in the Montreal Gazette to call it “an incredibly reckless game of chicken … at a time that required high-minded and bi-partisan public policy to confront the economic situation.” And it’s completely Harper’s fault, he adds—an act of criticism that sources tell us killed a small portion of MacDonald’s soul. He also says it’s pretty much inconceivable that Gilles Duceppe would play ball in a coalition, which seems a bit off—why wouldn’t he sell his support to the highest bidder?—until you get to the end, where MacDonald reiterates his contention that Harper is a “brilliant tactician”; it’s just that “this isn’t a time for tactics.” At this point, “a bit off” loses all meaning.

Sun Media’s Greg Weston argues that Canadians cast votes on Oct. 14 against Stéphane Dion’s leadership, against the Green Shift, against a Conservative majority and for the idea that Jack Layton “and his socialist party were perfectly suited for a fourth-ranked opposition party.” Thus, while Weston concedes the Tories aren’t “blameless” in all this, he says the coalition talks amount to “a palace coup. … Voters be damned.” But Canadians didn’t vote for or against any of those things, but rather for their choice of local MP. We’re not at all pleased with the idea of the coalition taking power—it’s unprecedented for a reason. But it’s also constitutional for a reason.

“The Liberal coalitionists are claiming to be able to smooth out the coming economic bumps while sharing power with the New Democrats, a party that never met a recession it couldn’t prolong,” Colby Cosh writes in the Post. “Hell, let’s see them try it! What have we got to lose but our jobs?” When it’s all over and the coalition separates back into its component parts, Cosh suspects the Grits will have a hell of a time explaining their economic record, not to mention all the concessions they’ll have handed Quebec in the meantime. Ultimately, he suggests, it could all be to the Tories’ benefit, and Harper might just call their bluff. We think that’s… unlikely.

The Globe‘s Jeffrey Simpson also pleads for Liberal caution, but in a way that doesn’t involve accusing them of plotting a coup d’état. To the extent anyone was “elected Prime Minister”—impossible to know, but many Canadians do vote on that basis—that person wasn’t Dion, Simpson notes. If he was at the helm of a coalition, the party could conceivably inherit the PMO and a nasty leadership battle between Rae and Ignatieff at precisely the same moment. And what if the coalition falls apart? “Do the Liberals really want to fight the next campaign with Mr. Dion leading them?” Do they really want to tether themselves to “a whole bunch of [NDP] ideas incompatible with” their own? And at what price would the Bloc Québécois’ support come? These are all very good questions, and they’re why our money is still on The Big Mess of ’08 ending with a whimper.

The Tories’ best hope at this point, and Canada’s greatest fear, is “ongoing Liberal divisions and the attending lack of stability of the leadership of any emerging coalition,” Chantal Hébert opines in the Star—particularly if that coalition is led by Dion, “who does not enjoy the confidence of his own MPs.” If the Grits can’t get the leadership questions sorted, Hébert advises, “they should stick to official opposition.” But if they keep on down the coalition path, she sees little hope for the Tories other than proroguing Parlaiment until the budget—”not an elegant solution,” she understates—and hoping that cooler heads prevail in the meantime. But we have to wonder, why not go more ambitious? If Parliament is so inessential to the functioning of a country on the brink of economic calamity, why not just shut it down forever?

The Chronicle-Herald‘s Dan Leger seems flummoxed by the whole thing. “What I don’t get is why the Tories threw away a golden opportunity to profit from the economic challenge,” he writes. “After all, the [economic] crisis presents an invitation for the Tories to spend like drunken sailors on projects to restart the economy, the so-called ‘stimulus package’ so earnestly demanded by the Liberals, Bloc and the NDP.” Well, yeah, that is a puzzle alright, but we were all well aware of it already. Perhaps next week, Mr. Leger, you can help us solve it!

In the Globe, Lysiane Gagnon wants to talk about eliminating the per-vote subsidy for political parties, because she thinks is a good idea. And perhaps it is. But there are now two compelling reasons not to talk about it, and she even helpfully identifies them: 1. Both the timing and the timeline of the proposal, and its hasty inclusion in a fiscal update, constituted “a cheap and dirty trick,” it was “fraught with gratuitous anti-labour measures” and it reeked more of “ideology” than of “governance.” 2. More to the point, they’ve withdrawn the proposal.

Canadian justice
The Star‘s Rosie DiManno expresses her disgust at David Frost’s latest venture—a hockey “insider” website on which the disgraced coach and agent describes himself as the sport’s “#1 bad boy.” “Of Frost’s three top hockey prospects, one now owns a junior team, one is a sales rep for an alarm company, and one is in jail for trying to have him murdered,” she observes. “That’s some coaching genius.” Zing!

The Globe‘s Christie Blatchford wraps up the “iPod killing” trial in Ottawa, where young offender “S.M.” was convicted of murdering 22-year-old Michael Oatway aboard an Ottawa city bus in 2006. The tragic case had an even more “unpleasant end” than anticipated, Blatchford reports, as S.M.’s relatives “spilled into the corridors … muttering about ‘white justice'” and, at one point, exchanged angry words with the victim’s family.

Duly noted
In the Post, David Frum attempts to preemptively soften history’s judgment of George W. Bush by noting some of his positive accomplishments. They include a “strategic entente with India [that] may well prove the most important geopolitical fact of the 21st [century]”; a “political reconciliation with Iraq”; modest progress on democracy in the Middle East; encouraging nuclear power, thus leading to a reduction in U.S. oil consumption; and “a national prescription-drug program that relieves those over 65 of the fear that they cannot afford the medications they need.”

The Gazette‘s Don Macpherson wants us to know that polls prove he was correct about Pauline Marois winning the Quebec leaders’ debate, and that ratings show he was correct about the “cacophonous” new format being atrocious, and particularly vexing for “the 18 per cent of Quebeckers who do not speak French most often at home.”

In the Chronicle-Herald, Scott Taylor continues to chronicle his Caucasian odyssey. In this episode, he runs afoul of some Azerbaijani university students when he uses the politically incorrect name for the capital city of breakaway republic Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Citizen‘s Dan Gardner concedes there is one legitimate parallel between our current financial situation and that of 1929, which is that fear, and human beings’ irrational responses to fear, are playing a significant role in steering the global economy downwards. The media are not helping, Gardner argues, recalling a recent political panel where the host correctly noted our relatively strong economic fundamentals, only to be rebuffed. “One guest responded by talking about a town that had lost factories and how the people were hurting and afraid. Others chimed in with similar stories,” he observes. “The discussion continued as before, as if the statistics had never been mentioned.”

In the Globe, Rex Murphy suggests the Carleton University cystic fibrosis fundraising debacle is “a casebook example of how political correctness … almost always ends up … committing greater sins than the ones it seeks to proscribe.” That’s about the only halfway interesting thing he has to say about it, in our opinion. But admittedly, it’s tough to salvage a column that begins with a shout-out to Margaret Wente.