A coalition? Don’t we have one already?

PAUL WELLS: While Merkel’s coalition looks off-balance, Harper seems to be doing fine with Ignatieff as junior coalition partner

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Canada remains a model of stability and progress. Two years ago I wrote that our government was a “Grand Coalition” modelled on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s in Germany. The two main centrist parties, Conservative and Liberal, ensured that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s legislative agenda would pass. Fringe parties didn’t like it but could only grumble. Harper’s junior coalition partners, the Liberals, were steadfast in their support for the major elements of the Harper agenda.

Today, little has changed, at least in Canada. In Germany, an election led Merkel to replace her Grand Coalition with an off-balance one, centre-right and further-right, and its inherent instability is making her life complicated. In Canada, an election had no such effect. Harper and his junior coalition partner, Michael Ignatieff, are too smart to be thrown off balance. So, just before he welcomed the world’s leaders and southern Ontario’s riot police to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Harper permitted himself to revel in the Conservative-Liberal coalition’s latest accomplishments. “I think in the end we actually got some pretty good results,” Harper told reporters from Reuters. “Particularly in the closing days. As you know, we got the budget implementation bill through.”

One bill? That’s all he has to show for a year’s strife? But this was no ordinary bill. “The budget bill was wide-ranging legislation that had a lot, not just of important budgetary measures, but important measures for the Canadian economy. So I think the passage of the budget bill, in and of itself, made the parliamentary sessions productive.”

He listed other measures the opposition had caved on, like refugee-system reform and a measure making it harder for convicts to get pardons. (The opposition never fails to collapse in the face of each new Conservative tough-on-crime measure. Harper should recognize their contribution by hanging photos of Ignatieff and Jack Layton in every new federal prison.)

But the budget was the main ingredient. “I know we’ve been criticized for how much was in that budget bill,” Harper said. “But putting a lot in that budget bill effectively ensured—passing it ensured a productive parliamentary session.” This was a slip-up, I believe, for it marked the first time Harper admitted he used the implementation bill to smuggle a bunch of other stuff into law.

And what an impressive list of achievements it was. Bill C-9 enabled all the usual taxing and spending, but it also removed new energy projects from the purview of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and gave the job for assessing them to the National Energy Board. To make that move even while the world’s attention was transfixed by the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico was quite a feat. Harper couldn’t have done it without the Liberal members of his coalition.

Throw in provisions for the sale of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and an end to the Canada Post monopoly on overseas mail. The Canada Post plan was introduced as a separate, stand-alone bill in 2008 and 2009, only to die on the Order Paper when Harper called the 2008 election and prorogued Parliament a year later.

When the 900-page Budget Implementation Act, with amendments to five dozen laws, passed the Commons early in June because not enough Liberals showed up to vote against it, Liberal Sen. Pierrette Ringuette swore it wouldn’t be the same story in the Senate. “The Liberal senators are not rubber-stampers of the leadership,” Ringuette said. “We have a mandate to do sober second review of legislation for Canadians, and we will fulfill our responsibility.”

Then the Budget Implementation Act passed the Senate later in June because not enough Liberals showed up to vote against it.

So even though Ottawa is rife with rumours this summer, yet again, that Harper will contrive a reason to trigger an election in the autumn, there’s no reason to doubt something else that he told Reuters, which is that he doesn’t want one. If an election goes really well for him, he’ll be Prime Minister when it’s over. But he’s Prime Minister already. And he’s really the Prime Minister. Another evergreen Ottawa myth asserts that Harper is somehow unfulfilled without a parliamentary majority. But he has had a majority for four years, thanks to a succession of not-ready-for-prime-time Liberals. Every budget he has ever whipped up has passed with Liberal votes.

And in concert with the Liberals, Stephen Harper is changing this country. He was able to gut environmental oversight of energy projects in the middle of a historic energy-sector environmental disaster. He is stuffing the nation’s prisons like Christmas geese. He spent $1 billion turning the country’s biggest city into a demonstration of the necessity (if not, ahem, the effectiveness) of tough policing against thugs, rabble, bicyclists and other miscreants. Inside the riot zone, with the world watching, he stared down Barack Obama in a debate over continued fiscal stimulus vs. relative budgetary restraint. He gets to name Supreme Court justices. He gets to name a new governor general. He’s in charge of nominations to every board and agency.

So when Liberals debate the wisdom of coalition government, it would be well for them to remember they are already in one. And when they debate the worth of Michael Ignatieff to Liberals, they will perhaps be heartened to learn that Conservatives are tremendously fond of him.

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