Friday, November 28, 2008

Politics: A Plot Against Harper?

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - When Stephen Harper's Conservative party was re-elected in the last Canadian federal election with another minority instead of a majority, some pundits recognized that Harper may have actually been the real loser. While in the short term, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was the one forced to resign from his leadership post, the fact that Harper had not met expectations in Quebec largely because of how he handled the campaign led some to believe that the party would turn against Harper in the medium term and replace him as leader, most likely with the widely popular Jim Prentice. It became something of a given in the political culture that Prentice would someday succeed Harper; CBC comedian Rick Mercer mentioned this perspective matter-of-factly in one of his rants earlier this month.

I don't think anyone expected such a scenario to happen quickly, but in light of the events of the past week, I now wonder if some in the Conservative Party are in a bigger hurry than we thought. Stephen Harper had been giving a variety of unofficial speeches saying things that many on the left would regard as at least reasonable, including that deficit spending might be appropriate in weak economic times. Then, this week, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented the government's Fiscal Update and called for spending cuts to achieve supposed small budget surpluses in the coming years. There was no mention of running a deficit or any fiscal stimulus unless one counted (as the Conservatives did) previously-announced tax cuts.

But, just leaving out stimulus spending that all three of the opposition parties believe is necessary wasn't enough for Flaherty. Amongst a suite of cuts and measures, the Fiscal Update called for ending public financing of elections through elimination of the $1.95 per vote payment to parties, temporarily suspending the right of federal employees' unions to strike, and freezing efforts to create pay equity between men and women in the federal workforce. While the latter two items are clearly at odds with the ideologies of all three opposition parties, the first item quite literally endangers their very existence. The Bloc Quebecois and NDP rely heavily on the public money for their operations, and the Liberal Party is already in debt and cannot handle a further revenue loss. Quite literally, the implementation of that policy might kill the Liberal party as it presently exists.

The NDP and Bloc Quebecois tend to vote against Conservative budgets and throne speeches as a reflex, so the Conservatives needed to count on the Liberals to vote confidence in the government. Did the Conservatives honestly believe that even a weakened Liberal party would vote for something that was designed to attack their very financial existence?

If they did, they were wrong. Outgoing Liberal leader Stephane Dion has made it clear that the Liberals will vote against the Fiscal Update along with the NDP and the Bloc, which as a confidence vote would mean the fall of the government. At that point, Governor General Michaëlle Jean could either call an election or ask the opposition to form a government. Considering that an election was just held, it would seem likely that if the opposition had demonstrated that they could form a government that they might be allowed to do so.

It certainly appears that they are ready to try. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and respected former NDP leader Ed Broadbent have been meeting to hash out a coalition between the two parties that would form a new government, and all indications are that they will be able to reach agreement. Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, while not part of the potential coalition government, has indicated that he would vote for it, meaning that it would have enough votes to pass a confidence measure.

Prime Minister Harper has now delayed any vote that would bring down the government until Monday, December 8th. It is entirely possible that the Conservatives will back down from their present position on the Fiscal Update and include a stimulus package such that the Liberals would be at least pressured to vote for it. They will certainly try to paint their position as fiscally responsible and the Liberals as trying to grab power without an election.

Whatever the outcome of what will likely be a very interesting next two weeks in Canadian politics, Harper now looks to be weakened. If he manages to remain Prime Minister, the internal pressures within the Conservative Party will increase as he will be seen as having created this crisis. If the Conservative government falls and a coalition is installed, he will take the blame for it and likely be removed as leader in short order.

All this makes me contemplate that maybe all this didn't happen by chance--have anti-Harper forces in the Conservative Party created some of the apparent daylight between Harper and Flaherty, or have they encouraged Harper to push the Liberals to the brink, expecting that Harper would come out the loser? I wonder.

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