The case for change

Aaron Wherry proposes Rob Oliphant’s speech, in which the Liberal MP excoriated the government for misrepresenting the economy on the campaign trail, as a potential eulogy for Stephen Harper’s Tories. Said Oliphant:

Aaron Wherry proposes Rob Oliphant’s speech, in which the Liberal MP excoriated the government for misrepresenting the economy on the campaign trail, as a potential eulogy for Stephen Harper’s Tories. Said Oliphant:

I was impressed that the government seemed to indicate [in the fiscal update] that, despite all evidence to the contrary, it might actually believe that government can and should be a force for good in people’s lives, and that it is appropriate for government to intervene, act and ensure that our future, particularly our economic future, is protected.

What surprises me about this recognition is that it is simply not even close to what the honourable members on the other side of the House were telling voters during the election, week after week in the recent campaign. In fact, during the campaign, the Conservatives ran against incurring deficits and un-budgeted spending while continually denying that Canada was heading toward a recession.

The problem with that eulogy, I’d say, is that it overlooks the sheer madness of what Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty have done to themselves. The prime minister had already abandoned the campaign “against incurring deficits and un-budgeted spending,” and he’d already admitted we might be heading towards recession. He did it loudly and proudly and—as Thomas Walkom bemusedly observed on Friday—even “eloquently.” Wrote Walkom:

In Peru last week, the Prime Minister talked of the need to take “unprecedented fiscal actions if necessary” to fight the global recession.

A day later, he eloquently and deliberately compared the current crisis to the 10-year-long Depression of the ’30s, vowing that he would not make the same mistakes that governments made then by trying to balance the books at all costs at a time “when fiscal stimulus (raising spending or cutting taxes) was absolutely essential.”

A day after that, he chided those who insist that deficits must be avoided at all costs and called for a “somewhat less simplistic view” of government finances.

And then he came home just in time to watch Simple Jim deliver the same old nostrums yesterday.

In other words, the fiscal update was in many ways a return to what the government had campaigned on a few weeks ago, not a repudiation of it.

And for what? Well, for nothing, probably; this PMO isn’t one to sweat cognitive dissonance. Nobody seems to think they’d actually be able to find billions to cut from operations, but a certain segment of the Canadian population wanted to hear that they’d try—or the Tory brainboxes thought they wanted to hear it, anyway—so that’s what made it into the update. In this case, as many have noted, the fluff was blowing in precisely the wrong direction; belt-tightening isn’t what you want to encourage when you’re facing a recession. But I suspect the opposition parties knew it was fluff, and it’s clear we wouldn’t be quite so close to the ledge right now had the update not originally proposed to immediately bankrupt them. And fair enough.

But even as the government backs down on the fiscal update’s specific outrages—election financing, public sector strikes and now, perhaps, pay equity—I think the coalition has a plausible case to make to Canadians. Well, plausible by Ottawa standards, anyway. Whereas either (a) the government produced a fiscal update that it doesn’t believe in and that runs largely against The New Global Economic Consensus, or (b) its leader has been gallivanting around the world claiming to be a member of The New Global Economic Consensus when he really isn’t, it has proven itself unworthy of Canadians’ trust.

Importantly, that argument can survive a total climbdown from the government—a complete do-over of the fiscal update, I mean, that’s more in line with Harper’s recent statements. What he’s already done is enough to justify removal, they can say. But such a climbdown would certainly make the coalition’s pitch more complicated, in terms of the public backlash it might provoke. And if it comes down to it, surely the Tories won’t allow themselves to be defeated without first climbing all the way down. The update seems to have been a politically inspired heap of rubbish. It would be a very, very stupid heap on which to die.

That would leave the coalition to argue that the Prime Minister simply isn’t willing to or perhaps even capable of effectively running a minority parliament. Conveniently, we need take nobody’s word on that but Harper’s; we went to the polls last month, you’ll recall, because he claimed the 39th parliament had become “dysfunctional.” And he couldn’t wait two weeks into the 40th to propose immediate bankruptcy for the official opposition. Regardless of that plan’s merits—and I’d argue it has none on the timeline the government proposed—and its subsequent withdrawal, this was not the gambit of someone who desires functionality in the face of a crisis or knows how to get it. Really, how much more contempt can you display for Parliament than to beggar its opposition for no reason at a time of national crisis?

That particular clause having been removed, it becomes more difficult for the coalition to deny its power-grabbing motivation, especially when you’ve got Scott Reid, over at the other place, baying for blood. But ultimately, we shouldn’t be talking about this right now. It’s Harper’s fault that we are. There’s no reason to believe there isn’t more of this nonsense waiting to be fired out his torpedo tubes if he survives. And the last election was October bloody 14th. Enough, already. The whole thing is utterly ludicrous. I think the coalition has a compelling case to make, and I’m all ears. (That said, I can’t shake this quintessentially Canadian inkling that the whole thing will just, somehow… fizzle.)