Thursday, January 08, 2009

Harper's New Calculus

There are a few different ways to look at the Harper government's move away from confidence motions, their signature tactic to push through legislation since first elected.

A reaction to a strengthened Liberal Party, the new approach could be a seen as a recognition that the Conservatives understand they are now dealing with a different animal, one that is better placed to replace them. Ignatieff is already on record, saying the Liberals won't tolerate continual confidence motions, so there is some logic in believing Harper is merely responding to a new landscape. There is probably some merit in that view, although I think the changing tactics are indicative of something else.

The government may have calculated, that their best hope with the Canadian people is too look conciliatory and non-confrontational. Dumping confidence motions at every turn, is a way to denote a serious agenda, that doesn't voluntarily seek conflict, but wishes to govern by finding common ground. A healthy dose of cynicism, any epiphany on this score is surely a political survival tactic, rather than genuine want. Whatever, moving away from constant conflict, would probably help Harper reshape his badly damaged image. Again, I see some merit in this particular impetus for the new approach, but it's only part of the story.

I believe, the most credible rationale for the changed approach, the Harper government merely wants to wait out the economy. Harper's latest interview on the economy offers some clues, as the Prime Minister sees a relatively strong position, that should result in a less protracted downturn. In other words, Harper sees a light at the end of the tunnel, which is politically advantageous. Avoid confrontation in the short term, don't allow election justification, and then when things start to turn around, revert back to previous form. At this point, the government would have a compelling argument, they could take credit for any perceived turnaround, a sense that the worst is behind us, their policies having helped the situation. A risky assumption, because nobody really knows the depth and length of this downturn, but clearly Harper is counting on some rebound in the not to distant future. Whatever the odds, it's probably the government's best hope, so operating within that scenario, does make sense politically.

This government will avoid non-confidence motions because it fears going to the polls in the present circumstance. In essence, Harper will try to ride out the economy, dance with the opposition, until he sees a future opportunity. I don't buy a "different approach", in the sense that it has nothing to do with good government, but what is good for the government, entirely motivated by self interest. Harper will look the "team" player, because that is what he needs, until the economy gives rise to reasonable optimism. "We made it through the worst of this crisis under this government, and our sound management deserves partial credit for our ability to come through it". To my mind, that is the preferred slogan for the next election, and everything will be done in the intermediary to ensure avoidance, until the time is right when the desired sales job finds empirical backing.


CuriosityCat said...

My reading is that Harper (unlike some Liberals) understands the potency of the Accord signed by the three opposition parties, and fears that his government will simply be replaced (without an election being called, because of the recent election) by the Governor General calling on the leader of the Liberal Party to form a new, replacement government, should the Tories lose a confidence vote.

Harper is a fairly astute political animal, and understands the reality of power. The power equation is against him, as long as the Accord continues.

The day that the Accord ends, Harper will once again have the upper hand, and his bullying will start again.

Unknown said...

I think Mr. Harper expects Mr. Ignatieff will support the budget to avoid a coalition, which might reflect poorly on Iggy (and also having to wear the recession).

It looks to me like the budget will not have much that the opposition is calling for, but rather more tax cuts. This won't appear as partisan as a poison pill, but it still makes it hard(er) for the Liberals to support it, if it's too different from their vision.

In short, I think Harper will DARE Iggy to bring him down. And I'm conflicted on whether he should or not.

Steve V said...

"It looks to me like the budget will not have much that the opposition is calling for"

What newspapers do you read?

Susan said...

I'm with the Rational Number. They're setting it up in the media to deliver a watered down stimulus package and to corner the Liberals into having to appear 'reasonable. The phrase of the day 'long term deficit'. Anything they don't want to do they'll say will contribute to a long-term deficit. They will do the corporate and business tax cuts they've always wanted to do and count on the public not noticing that after the personal tax cuts their pay check is only up by 5 cents. That's what they did last time and that's what Flaherty has been setting up in his speeches.

Steve V said...


If the budget even remotely resembles what you're suggesting, then we are in for an election, or coalition. Cornered?

I'm sorry, but I honestly don't get any sense of Harper daring anyone on the budget, more likely he looks like a guy just trying to survive. What happens after is anyone's guess, but thinking Harper enters this budget from a position of strength is just nonsense IMHO.

Unknown said...

Chantal Hebert wrote about it:

Steve V said...


Well, that's interesting that you cite an article which undercuts your initial point:

"Yet the odds that Stephen Harper's Conservatives will produce a budget later this month that the Liberals will not be able to support have also been going down with every passing day.

The government can't afford to earn a second consecutive failing grade on the budget front."

Doesn't quite jive with your comment:

"It looks to me like the budget will not have much that the opposition is calling for"

Steve V said...

Also, the idea that Harper would change gears, force an election, when the economy hits bottom, defies the most basic of logic. Yes, let's head to the polls, when everyday will be filled with poor economic data, always a winner for the incumbent party. More likely, Harper will change his tune when things start to look up, the indicators turn.

Anonymous said...

Steve you basically paint a case as to how the longer WE WAIT to have an election the better it is for Harper. If you are against bringing him down now when he's most vulnerable, WHEN do you suggest trigering an election that will MOST advantageous to US as Liberals?

It now seems evident the budget vote will be the ONLY confidence vote of the coming session. So it's bring him down now or wait till the fall (unless Harper does as Hebert says and calls one himself if he's riding high) for our next chance. In the fall the only confidence vote may be the throne speech and you've already said how ridiculous you thought it would be to trigger an election over a throne speech. So then that takes us to Budget 2010. By that point the economy may well have mostly recovered (or at least be on the mend) and we may have lost our best chance.

I think we have to take a long view here, but I'm curious as to your take on this.

Steve V said...


There are plenty of opportunities to take down a government, whenever you choose, opposition days being the most obvious, so I'm not too worried about Harper denying us any opportunity, only that he won't seek confrontation.

My view is that the Liberals pretty much have to support this budget, particularly when it will address some of our demands (hopefully not all, because we don't want to "wear" anything, just enough that it appears we swallow, with reservations). People can debate supporting it, in my mind the coalition is 99.36% dead, and the option of an election is remote. Reaching that conclusion, I would argue we use the next couple months to get some serious candidates in place (an election now, you'd basically have most of the same people just rejected), I suspect Ignatieff can attract a good slate, raise some money, develop a platform, and then be ready to move at the end of the spring session or the fall. I think the fall is the optimal time, because of the economy and our readiness. Waiting much longer than that, might play into the scenario I suggested in this post.

Anonymous said...

That's a fair view. Not sure we'll get to use our opposition days though, Harper could just delay them and prorogue again. The precedent is there it would odd for Jean to refuse him next time.

With luck he could get through this session without having faced a confidence vote and then prorogue until Jan for Budget 2010.
The one thing that motivates me to want to see Harper voted down now is that I believe Jean would face overwhelming pressure to bend to all the precedents that exist and let the coalition govern (she does have constitutional advisors who know quite well that public opinion should irrelevant to her view).

I know the coalition only has 40% support or so but it would force a conservative leadership race and infighting of the like we've never seen.

First and foremost I'd like to see Harper's career ended rather than give him another chance. Anything that see him out of politics at the soonest possible opportunity I think benefits the Liberals.

Steve V said...

If Harper tries to prorogue again, I think you have a strong argument that Canada has a government in name only, it isn't doing the people's work and you force the issue. The only reason prorogue was accepted this time, was because it avoided a coalition, which people didn't generally support, it was an extraordinary moment. If Harper pulls that again in the fall, if anything, it strengthens our hand.

One other point to consider, and we will no more in the coming months, the economy may not rebound for quite some time, some see 2010 as just as bad, if not worse, so we can reaccess.

I want Harper gone too, the sooner the better. My hesitation, you don't want an election where he can use the coalition against us, still fresh, coupled with the simple fact that we really aren't in the best possible shape to fight another one right now. If the budget is obnoxious, then I'd reconsider, but assuming it isn't, if you want Harper gone, a brief pause to get our house in order, seems the best move from here.

CuzBen said...

The "sit tight, play nice" strategy makes the most sense for Harper, as you say Steve, and I tend to agree with your budget predictions. But I thought the very same thing after the election and we all know how that turned out. Never underestimate the stupidity of this young government. They have opposition in their blood and can't seem to resist pettiness. Curiosity Cat said that Harper "is a fairly astute political animal and understands the reality of power." I disagree wholeheartedly. I would say that Harper is an obsessed political animal who neglects the reality of power. His rule has been utterly artless and that's why I'm not 100% convinced he'll do the reasonable thing on Jan 27.

Even if that's the case, I agree that brining them down now is a bad idea. "Poison pills" are confusing to the general public in their details. They will only hear "election" or "coalition": two very nasty words in the minds of the electorate.

Instead, the Liberals should rebuild and reform from the inside out until at least Budget 2010 or even later in that year. That's my bet for the turnaround.

Steve V said...


Fair points for sure.

With regard to Harper being "astute", I think we give him WAY too much credit. Keeping it real for a second, he came to power mostly because of timing and a convenient RCMP investigation. Since then, Harper has had the benefit of a Liberal Party, weaker than at almost any moment in history, so it's pretty easy to look artful, when you face feeble resistance. Harper was so astute the last election, he voluntarily THREW Quebec away. I would argue that is evidence of a political tin ear, rather than a keen strategist. Harper has since been so astute, that he completely misread the opposition in the fall, and he's now lost the advantage of having a lame duck Dion at the helm, faced with a far more formidable opponent, not distracted by months of leadership wrangling. Harper basically had a free ride for this year, but he blew it, and his reputation has suffered. I'm not saying Harper shouldn't be feared, that he doesn't demonstrate capability, but this notion of shrewd tactician, PLEASE. This isn't the gold standard people, in fact, the evidence suggests ordinary at best.

CuzBen said...

"so it's pretty easy to look artful, when you face feeble resistance"

Tell me about it...;)

Anonymous said...

Again fair points Steve, though I think do think we underestimate the ENORMOUS powers of incumbency, especially of the Prime Minister's office, to control the agenda. As you say Harper has screwed up again and again, but he will do EVERYTHING he can to ensure HE controls the timing of the next election and that it happens on his terms.

We really thought we had him finished in December and now everyone is convinced he'll survive at least until the fall. That's thanks to the powers of the PMO. I still say we are better off if we take those powers away in January when we will have our last chance to do so without an election.

The GG HAS to comply, the meeting didn't take 2 hours with Harper for no reason, she obviously wasn't a complete push over. Both Clarkson and Shreyer (past GG's) have said Jean would have to let the coalition govern if a govt fell within 6 months of an election.

Then WE would control the timing of the next election, not Harper and the coalition would in time be more popular.

Steve V said...


LOL. Hey, at least he might have a seat now ;)


I'll never under-estimate Harper, because you're right, he'll do whatever he can to ensure the timing suits him (see last election). Part of my point of view, I honestly believe we are at the beginning of a new era for the Liberal Party, so I'm not prepared to accept the past dynamics as necessarily the same in the future.

I'm not so sure on the GG, I think she will take public opinion into consideration and could well allow another election. For me, it isn't as cut and dry as some suggest.

One thing to consider moving forward, if Harper wants to play the "above partisanship" game and look like he is serious about getting things done for the Canadian people, it sort of negates the same sort of attacks we've seen in the past. If the Cons start with the negative ads against Ignatieff, it contradicts the desired appearance, they end up looking small and distracted by nonsense. That's the drawback for the concilatory Harper, if he reverts to aggressive attacks on Ignatieff, it won't work.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 3:49,

You are wrong with your assessment.

"do think we underestimate the ENORMOUS powers of incumbency, especially of the Prime Minister's office, to control the agenda."

A coalition propped up by the Bloc WEAKENS the PMO and is designed to do so PERMANENTLY. The person in charge of the PMO would have been a lame-duck PM Stephane Dion, a leader rejected by the voters and not that popular with the rank-and-file. Unless the Grits are willing to play second fiddle to the Cons in the forseeable future, the coalition is detrimental to the party's prospects.

A coalition government means the use of a PMO as a bully pulpit will be curtailed. This means the coalition CANNOT control the timing of the election (it will be the Bloc) and it cannot dissolve itself until 2011. Thus, the coalition will have to wear the economic recession with a Prime Minister that cannot control the agenda. The agenda is based on the coalition framework promoted by the Grits and the NDP, which is arguably not that well developed.

"The GG HAS to comply"

That is like saying that the GG HAD to allow the coalition to govern INSTEAD of the proroguing Parliament. The GG prerogued Parliament and this is an indication that she may grant Harper the dissolution he wants or threatens, if worse comes to worse.

"Then WE would control the timing of the next election"

No, the next election will have to be at the whim of the Bloc who will be keeping the government alive on supply and confidence measures. Something that the Grits and the NDP will have to disengage themselves with, as the talking points of collaborating with the separatists will persist no matter when the next election is.

Anonymous said...

There was no existing precedents re: prorogation. In fact Harper likely made the case that he technically still enjoyed the confidence of the House since he won the last confidence vote on the throne speech. EVERY precedent from past federal minorities and minorities in other countries with westminister systems has seen the GG/head of state(President/monarch, etc...) ask the opposition if they can form a government if an election has just recently occured.

And Dion is gone so the stuff about lame-duck leader no longer applies. And I think 18 months is more than enough time (which is all the Bloc agreed to) to be in good position to go back to the polls, and the Bloc will respect the deal because they'll fear losing seats to Ignatieff in the next election and will prolong the coalition no matter what it throws at them (essentially they will be powerless). I'd much prefer than then seeing an election called BY harper when it suits him.

Anonymous said...

"And Dion is gone so the stuff about lame-duck leader no longer applies."

From a lame-duck leader to an interim leader who has not been ratified by the party rank-and-file. An interim leader who the junior coalition partner is hostile to working with, due to his pro-American views and his ability to take votes away from the NDP. The coalition benefits the NDP with Dion at the helm, but hurts Layton with Iggy in charge. Much different scenario.

ottlib said...

Remember that just days before the economic update Stephen Harper was talking about uniting with the world to stimulate the global economy. He stated that deficits might be necessary to accomplish this. He also made concilatory noises towards the Opposition.

He then did a complete about face on the economic front and launched a frontal attack on the Opposition.

So, I would not take anything he is saying now seriously or at face value.

Stephen Harper will say and do anything if he believes it will afford him some short-term political gain. All of his public statements and appearances are geared towards that.

So, if you want to really see what he is up to with his recent actions you need to discover what he expects to gain from it politically.

Anonymous said...

"if you want to really see what he is up to with his recent actions you need to discover what he expects to gain from it politically."

Staying in power and ensuring that the likes of Prentice, MacKay, and Baird keep their limos and Cabinet privileges. They are in survival mode.

Harper has been read the riot act. The party grass roots may want to go Sarah Palin, but the risk is too high for a minority government in power. But, Harpo may just be that high risk, high reward politiciaan.

Steve V said...

"So, if you want to really see what he is up to with his recent actions you need to discover what he expects to gain from it politically."

Ottlib, that's the point of the post. I believe this new tone has everything to do with riding out the economic storm, then reverting back when opportunity arises to claim at least partial victory.

ottlib said...


I am thinking shorter term than that and I believe so is Mr. Harper.

I have been watching him closely for the last few weeks and I think he has taken that old adage "A week is a lifetime in politics" to heart.

I believe he is taking this a week at a time. He is setting weekly political objectives and he is trying to achieve them. If he does achieve them he believes he has won a political victory.

I do not believe that he really has thought as far ahead as you assert here. My belief is the major decisions on the budget have not been taken yet. They will be taken just days before budget day and after he assesses how many weeks he has won since he prorogued the House.

My guess, the budget is going to have a thrown-together-at-the-last-minute feel to it as a result of his current thought processes.

Steve V said...


You may be right, but my view comes from the operating assumption that Harper doesn't want an election this spring. I don't see how the Conservatives could entertain the idea, when they no full well they can't control the pace of any campaign. The numbers are about to get ugly in the coming months, which is the last thing a sitting government wants in the middle of a campaign. An election, during the roughest patch in literally decades, that doesn't fit the controlling mentality, to many unknowns for this lot. That's my view, but I appreciate how others can see it differently.

Unknown said...

IMHO Harper just can't move left at all, not one bit. Maybe its him. Maybe uniting the right changed him, or maybe he thinks he united the right and the center (I'd disagree). Maybe, fresh from the Conservative convention, he feels too much pressure from the further right within his party.

But he can't move left, and can't abandon the right as he understands it.

Suppose Harper went further in wooing Quebec, or Ontario - or anywhere other than the West. How would his supporters within his party feel about him?

He can APPEAR conciliatory, but he CAN'T BE conciliatory without risking dissension. He already APPEARED conciliatory, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice...

I'm optimistic that he can never gain a majority - unless it is given to him by the opposition by mistake.

Finally, I think he hasn't changed his mind from laissez-faire handling of the economy - and IMHO it follows he doesn't see the economy as his problem, but one he must get out of his way to a socially conservative agenda.

ottlib said...


I would agree that your argument is logical but I am not so certain he has thought that far ahead.

When Stephan Harper pretty much had it easy he had the luxury of planning ahead and he rarely did so, more often than not, making decisions that satisfied his short-term political objectives. (And forget about actually governing.)

Now that he has been badly wounded and he is facing a Liberal leader perceived to be more credible it looks to me that he has retreated even further into the short-term.

At least when things were going well he seemed to think a few weeks or even months in advance. Now he does not seem to be even thinking beyond next week.

The constantly changing stories on the economy a few weeks ago and his decision on the Senate are prime examples of that. If he were thinking long-term or even medium-term he would have handled both much differently.