Post-debate post: He’s a man, he’s got a plan, notwithstanding that eerie sense of déjà vu

I have little to add about the French-language leaders’ debate after our rather exhaustive group liveblog, which was a blast and which was extremely well-received by readers who were following along with us while the debate was happening.

I do, however, want to address the Liberal leader’s surprise policy announcement in the opening minutes of the debate. Apparently Prime Minister Martin wants to amend the constitution to bar the federal government from invoking the “notwithstanding” clause. Stéphane Dion has a five-point plan for fixing the economy in 30 days if he’s elected.

What to think of all this?

Well, first, as you can tell, I’m a bit weirded out by the structural resemblance to the failed 2006 ‘notwithstanding’ stunt. In that election, some of Martin’s staffers thought it’d be neat to release a policy plank live on TV while millions of Canadians were watching. Nothing required that the plank be a truly weird straw-man plan to skate Stephen Harper offside on abortion once again, but apparently that was some kind of bonus.

But just because tonight’s announcement borrows the manner of one of the really bad ideas in the history of Canadian politics doesn’t mean it is necessarily another of the really bad ideas in the history of Canadian politics. Let’s look at what Dion is actually proposing.

  1. He’d ask a bunch of financial eggheads — OSFI, CIDC, CMHC, Bank of Canada — if they have any good ideas.
  2. He’d have a meeting with economists. Don Drummond, check your Twitter.
  3. He’d slam together an Economic and Fiscal Update within three weeks after forming a government.
  4. He’d have a meeting of First Ministers.
  5. He’d accelerate infrastructure spending within already-planned spending programs.

This list comes close to satisfying the Hippocratic Oath — “first, do no harm” — while being perhaps a bit too reminiscent of the Favourite Paul Martin Idea — “first, hold a lot of meetings.” Items 1, 2, and 3 on this list seem, to me, to fall into the category of “Couldn’t hurt, and for all you know, they might even help.” Item 4 is riskier — premiers tend to be smarter one by one than in bulk. As for 5, depends on your tastes. Two earlier rookie leaders did things like this when they took office during earlier economic hard times: Bill Clinton held a big meeting with economists, and Jean Chrétien launched infrastructure spending.

Since it was Stephen Harper who asked for the debate’s chapter on the economy to be expanded from 12 minutes, it was striking that he didn’t have much new to say with the extra times. Mind you, Harper’s core economic message — “stay the course” — doesn’t take long to say. Dion showed up at an expanded debate with expanded economic policy, or at least with expanded economic busy-ness. It helped him fill his allotted speaking time, at least.

Dion will be able to take this list of ideas into the English debate without having to hang his head in shame. Is anyone actually against asking the Bank and the provinces for ideas?

I’m keenly, and sheepishly, aware that this post amounts to an entirely mixed review. I don’t think Dion’s announcement deserves better — or worse.

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