Futures market

Paul Wells on why Stephen Harper would rather fight an election on the detainee documents than concede

I haven’t seen the strategy memo Stephen Harper received from his campaign staff within days after he was elected, but I have no trouble imagining some of the points that would have been on it. Point 1 or 2 in the Conclusions would have been something like this:

Conservatives are outnumbered in Parliament and the electorate, isolated at one end of the left-right spectrum, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. At your first sign of durable weakness your defeat will become certain and your political career will be over.

Note what this (imaginary, but I think realistic) point doesn’t say. It doesn’t say “Neatness counts” or “Friends make friends” or “Don’t upset the Speaker.” The median MP in this Parliament, if you were to line them all up in order from the most left-wing all the way to Rob Anders, is a Liberal. This Parliament’s equilibrium state is a coalition of left and centre-left parties in support of a Liberal prime minister. Stephen Harper can’t ever let this Parliament reach its equilibrium state if he wants to keep being prime minister. If you look at things this way, “Parliamentary supremacy” starts to sound like the end of his political career.

We’re heading into an unpredictable couple of weeks, but I think all of the above gives you some hints about how Harper is likely to respond to Peter Milliken’s ruling. There is a question of substance here (How did Canadian governments permit detainees to be treated in Afghanistan in the early years of this conflict?) and one of circumstance (How does a government respond to an assertion of MPs’ collective privilege?). I have a hard time mustering appropriate reverence for colleagues who don’t give a damn about the substance but who want to build observatories of circumstance. I’ve addressed the substance here and there (torture generally; the Colvin testimony); now, on the process question, perhaps it isn’t too prosaic to point out that if the Conservatives let Parliament get into the habit of majority rule, the Conservatives will not long form the government. You may think that’s a good thing. Stephen Harper will disagree.

So he will stonewall. He would rather fight an election on this question than concede. So far he has had some success at winning or avoiding elections. Every time the prospect of an election has increased sharply over the past four years, the Conservative poll advantage has increased. A few days’ brinksmanship is usually all it takes to put SNAP ELECTION? into a front-page Globe headline, and a distracted electorate starts to engage and polarize, and the Conservatives start to climb in the polls to the Liberals’ disadvantage. I think Harper’s reading of his interests will lead him to work hard to recreate that dynamic. If it works, either Michael Ignatieff or Jack Layton will be very likely to rediscover a yearning to “make Parliament work,” which in that case won’t mean quite what Speaker Milliken intended it to mean.

If he manages to scare the rest of the Commons off balance yet again, Harper’s victory will displease many Canadians but it will not be empty or meaningless. It will be the only victory he has sought since January 2006: a chance to stay in power a while longer and make a few more decisions that will cement a broadly Conservative perspective on the way the country should be governed. A few more months during which Bev Oda, not Carolyn Bennett, will be setting the agenda for a G8 summit, and Jason Kenney, not Bob Rae, will have friends on the Rights and Democracy board, and Ken Dryden won’t be opening safe-injection sites, and so on. That’s the process I tried to lay out in this article, and even though some people still think Stephen Harper isn’t a conservative because his government spends a lot of money, I’m pretty sure that article remains a handy guide to understanding what will happen next.

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