The electorate replies: no thanks


no thanks

A week before the October election I interviewed Stephane Dion on board his campaign plane as it flew west from Saskatoon. He was in that euphoric can’t-lose mood that lasted, by all accounts, until four days after he lost the election. But I already had a hunch that any slim shot at real victory was behind him, so near the end of the interview I tested another hypothesis. What if the Liberals didn’t beat the Conservatives but Liberals-plus-NDP might? Would he consider throwing in his lot with Jack Layton?

Dion looked as though he had bitten something sour and explained, wearily, that Layton could have been a moderate, third-way social democrat like good old Tony Blair, but that he had chosen old-style socialist policies that were “bad for the economy.” No, Dion said, the only way to get a Liberal prime minister was to vote Liberal.

Dion’s press secretary cut me off and he apologetically offered to take more questions. No, I said; all I felt like doing was asking the last question a few more times. “The answer would be the same,” he said, smiling.

All righty then. If the consent of the governed means anything, then according to the answer Dion gave me and a half-dozen other reporters in the campaign’s last several days, he would never propose the coalition that has become his last political act. I mean, not if his word had any value, he wouldn’t.

By now, sophisticated readers will be chuckling at my puritanism. C’mon, Paul, everyone knows you can’t talk about a coalition before the election. Everyone knows there’s no honour among thieves. You’re not going to call that a lie, just because he behaved differently before an election and after it?

But I’m a simple fellow, and I used to believe Stephane Dion was too, and he looked me in the eye and told me one thing and then he did another. Does that disqualify him from being prime minister? Not in itself, although a whole bunch of other things do. But from a distance (I’m on assignment, not vacation) I’ve been reading the comment boards here, and the work of some of my colleagues, as they diligently chronicle Stephen Harper’s assorted half-truths, quarter-truths and other outrages. And I wonder who, precisely, they think is covered in glory by this whole incredibly sordid business.

Which brings me to the new Ekos poll, and the conspirators’ come-uppance.

Shorter Ekos: Canadians prefer to give Stephen Harper time to govern. If forced into an election they would give the Conservatives a thumping majority and reduce the Liberals to radioactive dust. Whether this is justice or outrage depends on your perspective, but the armies of comment-board combattants here may not be the best judges, because most Canadians aren’t combattants in political wars. They’re spectators. They judge from events, not first principles or partisan affiliation. They’re not going to disqualify a guy based on a lie because they’ve noticed all politicians lie sometimes. Every lie disappoints, every promise gives a little hope, they judge the whole and not each part, it’s complex, they’re distracted, that’s life. So they’ve watched the gaudy spectacle of the last 10 days and a very large number of them have decided that, given a choice between the government they have and the alternative on offer, they’ll stick with Harper, thank you very much.

Canadians are legitimists. They get, or can grasp once reminded, the idea that governments are creatures of Parliaments, not directly of elections. I believe a coalition alternative to Harper would have broad appeal, and would be accepted by voters even without an election, if it met a few criteria — if, at a glance, it looked better than the one Harper leads.

So if the Liberals had nearly as many seats as the Conservatives; or if Liberals-plus-NDP outnumbered the Conservatives; or, again, if Liberals-plus-NDP were close to the number of Conservatives, so that only a few Bloc MPs (ideally lured into quitting the Bloc for one of the other parties) were needed to make a majority, the coalition would be a lot more persuasive. As it is, Harper’s crew would still outnumber Dion’s and Layton’s put together, and nearly all of Duceppe’s would be needed to tilt the balance, so that Liberals would not only be a minority in the House but in their own government. Does that ruin the project’s credibility? Perhaps for some, and for the rest, there’s more.

If the putative replacement prime minister looked and acted prime ministerial, if his judgement was sound, perhaps we’d be off to the races. The one on offer vanished for six days after the election; failed to produce a useable video of himself in a timely manner for a crucial address to the nation; and this morning was, by more than an hour, the last leader in Parliament to comment on the prorogation of that parliament. He is — this is seriously not trivial, folks — an opponent of Quebec separatists of 20 years’ standing who could not govern without the support of separatists in confidence votes.

How would a Prime Minister Stephane Dion react if an Opposition Leader Stephen Harper challenged him with a coalition that depended on the entire Bloc caucus for its viability? Do you doubt for two seconds he’d scream blue murder? Would Dion’s defenders on this website rush to Harper’s defence then? Yes, yes, the Bloc has been here forever and we can’t shoo it away and they’ve earned their pension cheques and blah blah blah, but let’s just say it out loud: A coalition government that depends on Bloc support at every confidence vote is a really crappy coalition. It is fair to wish for a better one, or to discard the idea altogether.

I could go on. Michael Ignatieff is sending out fundraising emails tonight that neglect to mention the coalition altogether. If he doesn’t take it seriously, why should you? Liz May is atwitter at the thought of a Senate seat. If she can’t keep her eye on the economic crisis that’s supposed to be this project’s raison d’etre, why believe the rest of the Rebel Alliance will?

It is constitutionally legitimate to say, “This government has lost the confidence of the House and we propose a better one to replace it.” It is even legitimate to say, “This government has lost the confidence of the House and we hope you’ll buy the risible claptrap we have come up with instead.” But nobody should expect the latter pitch to find many buyers.

I hope I have made it clear since the summer that I have come to believe Stephen Harper is turning into a really bad prime minister. He is incoherent, vicious and unserious. His fall update was idiocy on stilts, and when he sent his transport minister out two days later to disown the work of his finance minister, nobody in the country blinked because nobody in the country takes what this government does as a government seriously.

All the opposition had to do was come up with a better alternative. They have failed. This is a depressing moment in our nation’s politcs.