Stephen Harper is trying really hard to find political cover, at the expense of the Liberals. His recent musings on the budget remind me of the exact same tone we heard during the Afghanistan debate. Effectively overlapping his position with the Liberal one, with the main impetus, negate the issue. It is very, very critical that the Liberals get this debate right, and not be lulled by Harper the friendly. It is quite transparent, Harper is trying to share responsibility and neuter any future criticism.
I don't want to rehash the coalition debate, this post assumes the option is off the table, only a narrow focus on how the Liberals should proceed, if the Conservative budget is allowed to pass. It is imperative that the Liberals don't allow Harper to take the economy off the table, by leaving him a powerful argument on mutual agreement. It is already well known that this budget will include many of the demands made by opposition parties, the details notwithstanding. The centerpiece being the stimulus, more defined, infrastructure spending and bailouts. On this "big" issue, Harper has moved towards the opposition, but that fact doesn't mean the government can point to the Liberals for validation.
It pains me to say this, because the word is now synonymous with weak opposition, but the best course for the Liberals may be the abstaining route. If the Liberals vote for the budget, even if it is in the name of "the country's best interests", some pledge of nobility, that vote will allow Harper to wiggle off the hook. While the Liberals will argue that they've put partisanship aside for the immediate needs of the economy, it will be countered, and any support for the Conservative budget will be used by Harper in the future. Again, all we need do is review the Afghanistan debate, the issue barely raised, once mutual agreement was reached. Because the Liberals had a hand in reaching that agreement, the subsequent criticisms have been muted, and any revision of policy is superceded by the initial support.
There is a real danger of Harper using the Liberals to share in the economic responsibility. No matter how bad things get in the future, when it comes time for an election, Harper can say his chief opponent supported the same measures, what sense does it make then to replace him with a party that made the same calculations. The Liberals will be forced to argue the details, but Harper would have the quick soundbite, the broad stroke rationale, which just might suffice with a disinterested audience.
The Liberals can vote against, but then that means another election (yes, I know, the OTHER option), and given that we've JUST had one, only three months ago, it really isn't a favorable option, given public sentiment and/or simple logistics. Because of the just concluded election, coupled with the prospects of ultimate responsibility, abstaining or some other novel way of showing disapproval, without forcing an election, is probably the best option available.
There are many risks with abstaining, primarily because it re-introduces a decidedly negative narrative for the Liberals. However, every decision in this dance comes with inherent risks, and when you way the potential positives, abstaining looks more attractive. The Liberals can still use the for "good of country" angle, arguing they won't force another election, create more uncertainty, just when people demand clarity. The Liberals can use this frame, but also point to the policy differences in the budget, the measures they wanted, the failings of the Conservative offering, and say, with good conscience, they cannot support such a budget. The Liberals, understanding the present circumstance, will abstain, to show their displeasure, but in so doing, allow certain items they endorse to proceed and don't plunge the country into another crisis. I believe Ignatieff will not be ridiculed in the media class for this position, it is an entirely different dynamic than the painful 2008 routine we saw from the Liberals. I believe the Liberals would be cut some slack for abstaining, posturing of other parties aside.
Whatever your view, it is becoming more and more obvious to me, in listening to Harper, that the Liberals SHOULD NOT vote FOR this budget, under any circumstances. There are smart people surrounding Ignatieff, so I seriously doubt anyone is seduced by Harper's footsie routine, the kind rhetoric, the commonality of it all. That said, the entire debate for the next year, possibly beyond, will revolve around this budget vote. If the Liberals vote for the budget, the Conservatives have already tipped their hand, how they will manipulate that "support" to absolve their own actions. Clearly, Harper is angling for Liberal support, and that fact tells me EVERYTHING I need to know about what is the worst possible course of action for the party.