Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Centre Cannot Hold

I apologize for the repeated Yeats quotes but it seems appropriate. I dealt with the substantive policy difference of this crisis in the last post. Now, to the politics. It has been over eighty years since a sitting prime minister was replaced by a prime minister of the opposite party without an election taking place. That record is not a trifling thing. It represents for the most part stable governments which have had the confidence of the Canadian people and parliament. We face now a constitutional crisis that few Canadians are old enough to recall any comparable circumstance. Let's start with the basics.

If on December 8th or sometime thereafter, the government is brought down either on a money bill or a vote of no-confidence introduced by the opposition, the government will fall and Prime Minister Harper will take a trip to Rideau Hall. There, in all likelihood, he will tell Governor General Jean that parliament is no longer workable (for real and for true this time) and ask her to kindly dissolve parliament, drop the writ of election for a date in January (probably similar to the timing of the 06 election). The Governor General would then have a decision to make. She could simply call an election or she could ask the rag-tag coalition that appears to have formed in the last few days to try to govern the country under the leadership, presumably, of Stephane Dion. Prime Minister Dion would then have the unenviable task of picking a cabinet (Gilles Duceppe for intergovernmental affairs!). M. Dion would then introduce a budget in the spring (with or without The Green Shift) and subsequently resign upon the election of his successor in early May in Vancouver (when he will cease to be the leader of the largest coalition in the House). With the Prime Minister resigned, a new Prime Minister (Dom, Iggy or Rae) would be sworn in with their own cabinet some time in May or June with the likely responsibility of passing the budget introduced by the Dion government. Thus, we would, in all likelihood, have three Prime Ministers after only one election for the first time since John Thompson was sworn in to succeed John Abbot in 1892. Sound like fun yet?

I do not, for the life of me, understand the thinking behind this plan. The optics of Stephane Dion leading a government supported by separatists would do irreparable damage to an already tarnished legacy. I argued in my last post why I thought Harper's economic approach was misguided. That does not mean I want to throw the country into a political crisis to stop his inaction. The real poison pill in all this, the removal of the elections subsidy, has been pulled back. The rest is negligent but the timing is, by Mr. Harper's design, unquestionably terrible for the opposition. Canadians understand that they elected a Conservative government on October 14th. They would be more than a little disturbed to see that government removed from office two months later. There is not a discernable sense that Canadians are truly angry with Harper's inaction. I think they would have like to have seen more, but I think they still respect the election that we just had.

Moreover, we have seen in the past weeks how little it takes for these already fragile markets to panic. We saw the panic in the United States when Barack Obama did not have his economic team announced weeks before he assumes office. What message do we send to the world if in the middle of an economic crisis we change governments without an election.

Beyond the markets, should we as Liberals be going down this road? We are (or were) the party of federalism and moderate government. We now look to work with separatists to overthrow the elected government. Mr. Harper's seeming inability to seek actual compromise is distressing and irresponsible but I do not believe the Canadian people will side with us in this fight. Even if you believe that the government must be thrown out, is it worht working with these people? What do Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton want for Canada? Do we want to be working with a man who doesn't believe our country, as it currently is constituted, should exist? Do we want to put a man who views business as an enemy into cabinet? Is it so crucial that a stimulus package be passed today instead of six months from now that we should so fundamentally compromise our values? My answer is no. I don't know how to explain such a decision to myself, let alone to another voter whenever the next election may come. Politically, I cannot see this doing anything but giving Stephen Harper the majority he's always wanted so that he can, unincumbered by a minority government, trash Prime Minister Chretien's legacy of election subsidization. If we thought we faced the worst of the people's wrath last time, just wait. Remember, it is possible that the GG could send us back to the polls immediately, without a new leader. It may be that the die is already irrecovably cast. I hope not. We need to back away from this cliff that we are standing on.


Scott Tribe said...

Aaron.. you're sounding worse then the Conservatives who've sent out their talking point on this. Duceppes has already ruled out he or any of the BQ accepting Cabinet positions. He is only looking for policies that will help Quebec (such as the forestry industry) for his support of it.

Furthermore, Harper had no compunction looking into setting up a coalition with the NDP and/or working wit the BQ in 2004, as evidenced by his joint letter to the Governor General.

Further.. you can look to 1985 as another precedent of changing government without an election. The Liberals and the NDP setting up an accord.

Unless Harper does a massive backing down and offering major stimulus and stop trying to poison pill his bills, the time to take him out is now.

IslandLiberal said...

Whether Harper took the poison pill off the table is basically irrelevant; he wants to do it, and if he continues on his current path with a prospect of majority, he'll do it then, and that will bankrupt the opposition.

He took the gloves off; he can't put them back on. The only recourse of the opposition is to cripple him, and this is their shot.

And that's not even touching the mess of his economic policies.

The bottom line is that any PM who would include the above political cuts in an economic package does not deserve power. As Rae put it, he poisoned the well, and now he must be made to drink from it.

Anonymous said...

Which Liberals have actually talked about a coalition? Not Dion. Not Ignatieff. Rae only said there had been talks and would be intense talks if it came to the GG asking the Liberals if they could form a government.

For the NDP it is actually a positive to form a coalition government. For the Liberals, this is not so clear, but it is a positive to have the threat of a coalition.

IslandLiberal said...

It's perfectly clear for the Liberals the benefits: they're currently in the cold, and this will put them in the driver's seat.

Anonymous said...

I know that LIbs like to say that NDP is "enemy of business' but don't believe your own election hype.

We don't want massive corporate tax cuts without strings. Something that Obama and congress support. Not exactly radical (assuming you aren't a Milton Friedman Liberal).

We believe in the right to organize and bargain collectively, again most Liberals would agree with that principle.

Of course there are differences, but they are workable for the purposes of trying to mitigate the truly desperate economic reality that we will be facing shortly.

The political nature this crisis should NOT overshadow the fact that the entire US economy is tanking and we are on the precipice of a massive chasm.

Harper is unwilling to act now and I do not believe he is willing to work with the other parties no matter how bad it gets. So we need to turf him now so that there is a crew willing to get the job done.

Are there political risks, of course. Should we set politics aside for the moment, absolutely.

Anonymous said...

I lived through the Harris years in Ontario and learned to vote strategically. I've voted for the NDP and the Liberal party. It seems clear the majority of Canadians should be giving serious thought to a left leaning coalition party so that the plurality opinion re public policy can be successfully expressed through the federal electoral process. However I will never vote Liberal given an Ignatieff leadership. His ties to American neoliberal interests and his own neoliberalism are unacknowledged but obvious and alarming. His expression of regret re support for the Iraq war has far more to do with the impact of an association with the incompetence of the Bush administration on the Ignatieff brand than any change of heart about the moral authority of global market capitalism and the concommitent enthusiams of American imperial concerns.
Joan Guenther | 11.29.08 - 10:34 am | #

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ignatieff may be "shrewd" in denying knowledge of the coalition planning, and in denying that he is party to it, but his doing so raises only three logical possibilities to my mind: (a) the coalition planning is not serious, and is therefore just a silly ploy by some in the Liberal Party (possibly Mr. Dion and his clique thrashing around looking for some excuse to keep Mr. Dion in the leader's seat) and NDP that wastes everyone's time, (b) he is not part of and cannot influence the major decision making within the Liberal party, which fatally undermines his claim to be the leader, or (c) he actually is knowledgeable about and privy to these discussions, in which case he is being false. The latter two of these possibilities are, on their face, extremely damaging to Mr. Ignatieff, and the first one is damaging to an already weak Liberal brand. Which one is right?
Michael Teper | 11.29.08 - 6:43 am | #

Aaron Ginsberg said...

Scott, in order for a Liberal-NDP coalition government to function it would need support from either the Bloc or the Tories. Whether or not Gilles Duceppe is in cabinet (a joke on my part, Scott), he would have influence. I can't believe he'd just let the Lib-NDP coalition take over without exacting his price.

It was the NDP who ran ads which painted corporations as the bad guys in the last elections. The whole new kind of strong thing... No Liberal spin doctoring here. I agree that we shouldn't play politics with this. Let's find a way to make the government Canadians elected function. Whether we like it or not, they elected a Conservative government.

As for the stage at which the negotiations about a coalition are at. Let's say this. Both the NDP and the LPC are planning to bring down the government on December 8th and neither want to go the polls. This leads me to believe, whether they're saying so or not, that there is a coalition agreement at least in principle in place. What Iggy tells the press is meaningless. He is not the leader of the Liberal Party. In fact, I'd pay a lot more attention to what Scott Brison and Ralph Goodale are saying than any leadership contestant.

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