Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Harper Playing Footsie

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had a hand in reaching that agreement, the subsequent criticisms have been muted, and any revision of policy is superceded by the initial support.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.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does it really matter what's in the budget? You know perfectly well that it will all be a pack of lies. Harper will say and do anything to get past the six month from October 14 date so that he doesn't risk instantly losing power to the opposition. He will promise the moon in the budget and they he will do what he has done in the past and will simply not implement any of it.

Don't trust him. Depose this horrible man NOW!

The Rational Number said...

It is certain that Harper will try to share the budget with the opposition. They'll argue their update didn't pass, so most of the stuff in the budget is for the benefit of the opposition (anything the public finds objectionable, anyway).

However, Harper is VERY aggressive, and abstaining won't make any difference to him - he'll spin it as support of the weakest kind. And he'd be right. I think given the last parliament EVERYONE will see through such an abstention and interpret it as support for Harper.

At worst, Iggy will be painted as the new Dion, which is very risky given he's an unknown to most of the public.

I think abstaining isn't feasible.

I honestly don't have a clue whether the budget will pass or not, whether we'll have a coalition, election or neither.

Iggy's 3-point criteria is pretty vague to me; you could interpret most anything to be acceptable and at the same time unacceptable. But this is politics, and that's probably the correct response. Something that sounds concrete but isn't.

Most important, though is your point and I agree: the Liberals must not allow Harper to overlap his position with theirs in the eye of most voters (to be blunt).

Quixotique said...

Unintentionally, you have made the point about why the coalition actually remains a very viable option.

Why on earth would we want to give PMSH any time to solidify his position when he is clearly personally weakened now and could actually threaten Canada's economic future?

Greg said...

It doesn't matter what Liberals say about the budget. It matters what they do. If they pass it, they own it. Harper will make sure of that. If Iggy goes along with Harper's "sharing" he is complicit and if he tries to suggest that he disagrees with the budget but goes along anyway, he will be Dion Mark II.

Greg said...

And abstaining is completely Dionesque.

Davey's Politics said...

If we Liberals want to position ourselves as an alternative option to governing then abstaining sends the worst possible message. Decisiveness and accountability are huge factors in a leader's likeability - just ask Martin and Dion. Those are closely followed by effectiveness.

I agree a yes vote on the budget will open the door for Harper to attach any potential failures to us too (while ignoring us on any successes) - but I'd rather contend with that than the accusation that on the biggest crisis of our recent history the Liberals sat on their hands and dithered.

If we can live with the budget - vote for it. If the budget is unacceptable, reject it and prepare for an election and the wrath of voters for being sent to the polls again (where the key would be to direct that wrath at Harper).

I'm inclined to assume the budget will be passable and we can move on to our rebuilding work and presenting a credible, non-coalition option to Canadians. If the economy tanks further, Harper will wear it regardless of Liberal support on the budget.

Joyce said...

We have a leadership deficit with Harper. He requested prorogation of Parliament to avoid a confidence vote. He will do whatever he needs to do to get the budget passed and then do the exact opposite. Prentice, Baird, Flaherty will be mouthing their pseudo solutions to real problems.
And we watch and wait...

Anonymous said...

I think some of you Liberals better get your heads out of the sand and face up to the fact that sooner or later there will have to be a coalition if you are ever going to be in power again. In our multiparty reality, there is virtually ZERO chance of a Liberal majority again in the foreseeable future. Any future Liberal government will have to govern with some sort of agreement with the NDP and probably the BQ as well. Get used to it.

A coalition with committed majority support can easily last years and provide the country with stable government. Trying to "wing it" like minorities have done in the past - just means lurching from crisis to crisis with a government collapse a constant possibility

Susan said...

Steve, that's what some of us have been saying all along - you can't trust the s.o.b. no matter what he says, and abstaining will just play into his hands. What the Liberal party needs is a real leader - someone who can LEAD. So Ignatieff better rise to the occasion or the NDP will be running the coalition.

Steve V said...

"A coalition with committed majority support can easily last years and provide the country with stable government"

That simply isn't the case now. The two coalition parties have less MP's than the Conservatives, which is part of the problem. Only with the Bloc's blessing do you have a true majority.

What you said about coalitions isn't exactly a REVELATION to anyone, but what you don't recognize, this is a very weak coupling, that leaves out the party with the most seats, which comes to pass just after the chief coalition party was completely rejected at the polls. It's fine to have a principled stance on coalitions, but it would be nice if people recognized the last election, instead of pretending two parties, with barely a third of MP's has a mandate to govern. It's just not going to fly, the time was pre-prorogue, once Harper received his reprieve the dynamics changed. Some recognition that we don't live in a static universe would be refreshing. This ain't December.

Anonymous said...

44% of Canadians voted Liberal or NDP - that is far more than the 38% who voted Tory - not to mention all the people who voted Green or BQ. Most Canadians hate Harper.

There is nothing that says that the largest party has to be in power. In Germany all through the 70s, the Christian Democrats were the biggest party but the 2nd place Social Democrats and the 3rd place Free Democrats banded together to form a coalition. In Australia - the Labour Party almost always has more seats that the Liberals - but if the Liberals and the rightwing rurally based National Party have a majority between them - they invariably take power. In Ireland, there has NEVER been an election in which the Fianna Fail Party has not been the largest party - but anytime that they fall short of a majority - you invariably get a rainbow coalition of Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Fein etc...

The Swedish Social Democratic Party is by far the largest party in the Swedish parliament - but guess who is in power right now? A four-party "bourgeois coalition" of Liberals, Conservatives, Agrarians and Christian Democrats.

Which individual party has the most seats is 100% IRRELEVANT. Its a questions of which parties can form a stable government between them.

Canadians will just have to get used to the idea that having the most seats is meaningless - all that matters is who can put together a working coalition. Ideally, if we moved to some sort of proportional representation or even preferential voting like they have in Australia we can get into a situation where the Tories can be frozen out of power FOREVER AND EVER unless they ever manage to get over 50% of the vote!

Wouldn't that be SWEET!

Steve V said...

"Which individual party has the most seats is 100% IRRELEVANT."

I appreciate the world examples, but this is Canada, so that's pretty much irrelevant. You said yourself, Canadians will "have to get used to it", which admits that they aren't comfortable with a party getting trounced at the polls, then that party leading a new government- same goes for a party that improved it's fortunes being shut out.

Anyways, good luck selling Swedish politics to Canadians, I'm sure it will be a big success. People don't even understand our system, and you think distant world examples will change minds? Come on, that's wonk stuff, with NO relationship to the population, NONE.

Let me throw out a theoretical that might have resonated. What if Harper received less seats in this election, and the Liberals closed the gap. Forget popular vote, because it's never worked that way, nobody really cares (plus, if 62% voted against Harper, why don't we have 62% supporting a coalition, strange, strange disconnect if you ask me), then you'd have a great opportunity to argue for a coalition. A diminished mandate, a strong official opposition, a move to a coalition far more acceptable optics wise. If you want to introduce a new dynamic to the Canadian people, I would argue you don't spring it on them, when you present the weakest case possible.

Anyways...

Anonymous said...

The only way to get innovation-averse Canadians to accept a new and different way of doing things is for it to happen and for people to see that it actually works well.

Bring in the coalition and when people see that the sky hasn't fallen - they will embrace and it will become a natural part of our political system - but first we have to break the ice and make it happen.

There is a first time for everything!

I'm sure Steve, that if Iggy votes down the budget and gets appointed PM in a coalition - you will quickly become the biggest cheerleader in canada for the coalition!

Steve V said...

If that happens, obviously I'll want it too work -personally I support a coalition. However, I don't think it will work, people will go ballistic, the arrangement will have no legitimacy (unless of course Harper is so obnoxious in his budget, then you might get some momentum). People want stability, a coalition is now equated with temporary instability, so you will see another crisis, another round of hot headed reactions and even more threats. There will be a terrible atmosphere, and if people can't see that coming, well... Anyways, if it happens, I'll hope I'm dead wrong.

Greg said...

Steve, one way or another a coalition is coming. The only question to be answered is, will it be with the Tories or the NDP?

ottlib said...

Who ever is the face of the government will be the one to bear the full brunt of this recession regardless of what the opposition parties do.

Recessions change the whole dynamic of politics.

During good economic times voters do not care about politics so those bright shiny things politicians put in the window to distract and redirect work.

During recessions voters become very engaged and focused on what the GOVERNMENT is doing to assist them and bring about a quick end to the recession. Attempts to redirect fail when people are worried.

The recession will actually force Stephen Harper to do something he has not done since winning in 2006; GOVERN. Stephen Harper is going to be spending now until the next election putting out fires and trying to meet the conflicting demands of Canadians. Help save their jobs, while not running extreme deficits, while not raising taxes and not cutting spending to social programs.

Gone are the days of the constant campaign. If the Conservatives do not realize that they are more screwed than they would otherwise be as the face of the government during the worst economic recession since the 1930s.

When this budget is presented, if it does not contain any poison pills, the Liberals can safely let it pass.

In about 4-6 weeks, as more economic bad news washes over the land, the budget and how it was passed will be forgotten to be replaced with more demands from Canadians for the government to do something about the failing economy.

Greg said...

When this budget is presented, if it does not contain any poison pills, the Liberals can safely let it pass.

In about 4-6 weeks, as more economic bad news washes over the land, the budget and how it was passed will be forgotten to be replaced with more demands from Canadians for the government to do something about the failing economy.


I can see it all now. Iggy complaining about the state of the economy and Harper blandly replying that Iggy had an opportunity to suggest another course before the budget was passed, but did in fact show his support for the government's plan, so why complain? The Conservatives will laugh and laugh and Iggy will shake his fist and for all the world he will look like Stephan Dion.

ottlib said...

And while they are laughing at Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals the Conservatives will be watching their poll numbers plunging. You see, in March and beyond, Canadians will not care about what Mr. Ignatieff did in February because they will be more concerned about what Mr. Harper is going to do going forward. How will he handle those conflicting demands? If the answer is to try to deflect and blame someone else instead of actually doing anything he is truly screwed.

Greg, I am heartened by your response. I hope that it reflects the attitude of the people who are actually running the Conservative Party right how.

If Conservatives have not figured out yet that everything has changed there really is not hope for them.

Steve V said...

Bank of Canada just revised their economic forecast for 09, contracting 1.2%.

Mushroom said...

"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 mechanisms for the Grits to kill the budget even if they vote with the Cons in Second Reading. The Grits have not been that good in Opposition under Dion and they were still able to create headaches for Harper in the Parliamentary Committees. A few filibusters and forcing the Cons to the held accountable for their dodgy accounting will help Harper wear this recession.

The final decision for the Grits can be made at Third Reading. You can kill the budget and bring down the government, after supporting all the supply measures to keep the EI cheques rolling.

bigcitylib said...

I mostly agree with Davey's Politics. Past the budget, Harper and Co. seem set to accomplish nothing. So why change the gov. right now? They can do very little harm. If the budget isn't awful, let 'em hang around for awhile until people hate 'em.

And don't abstain, accept. Accepting a budget doesn't mean agreeing with its contents. It just means that it isn't so awfully bad that its worth fighting another election over. And I think taking an immediate election off the table helps the Libs.

There is an argument: "Minority gov. is unstable in a crisis. Harper isn't horrible. Next election, give him a majority so as to achieve stability. The oppo parties are just trouble-makers."

I don't agree with it, but I think its out there. And there will have to be another budget another year down the road, right?

By the way, this doesn't change my opinion on anything (esp. the coalition):

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090120.wpoll21/BNStory/politics/home

Steve V said...

"Accepting a budget doesn't mean agreeing with its contents. It just means that it isn't so awfully bad that its worth fighting another election over. And I think taking an immediate election off the table helps the Libs. "

True enough BCL, I just think the argument is a tad tricky, because we already see how Harper will play it. Voting for, would have to be accompanied by a concerted campaign to frame it right, cement it as a swallow hard, not an endorsement or collusion.