Friday, January 02, 2009

Polls, Coalitions and Harper

I found myself in entire agreement with Rex Murphy's perspective on recent events in Ottawa. Murphy basically put forth the same notions I've argued in the last few weeks.

In relation to my post on the issue of "legitimacy" being a hindrance to the coalition, Murphy argued:
"What people saw, even if this was technically legal, the election was being tossed away. It wasn't a matter of understanding, it was a matter of real legitimacy, and there's a distinction to be made between something that's correct and something that's legitimate."

"But, if the Governor General did, and 10 or 12 million Canadians didn't like it, then it may still be legitimate, but you can't run a government without the acceptance of the people."

I think the "distinction" is what some of us don't calculate into the equation. While our system allows a coalition, while a coalition is entirely justified, particularly given the circumstances, if the public largely views it as a power grab, or a deal with separatists, or a refutation of election results, it will never have the necessary moral authority to govern. The basic idea of a party, which just garnered it's lowest public support total in history taking the helm strikes many as somehow unfair, rightly or wrongly. To plow ahead, comforted in the knowledge of justified procedure, without acknowledging whether the public will view the arrangement as "legitimate" is a recipe for disaster.


I don't mind that my Conservative friends are damp at the recent spate of polls, which MOSTLY show the party soaring to new highs, the tantalizing majority within reach. I believe that is a complete and utter mirage, in fact Harper and the Conservatives have been hurt by this crisis, only the idea of a coalition masks the real damage, and any cocky attitude fails to accurately read the true implications. Murphy on the polls:
"Just because the polls leaped up after the over response of the opposition, does not mean Stephen Harper earned a lot in this affair himself. Stephen Harper's been hurt, even with his own base. And, the idea that even these polls, which are at best very, very fragile, have anything permanent to offer are gone. If he were to precipitate an election, I think you would see a dive in these polls."

"His elevation in the polls, had nothing to do with the fundraising subsidy, it was the backlash against the response to him doing it, that gave him an artificial lift...They saw this turmoil, and it temporarily gave him this artificial shelf, it's just because the coalition was so bad"

An "artificial lift", which is why I remain entirely confident that once the Liberals dis-entangle themselves from the coalition, particularly with a leader that's hand it in is tertiary at best, we will see the true impact of the Conservatives actions. Harper and the Conservatives truly riding high, please.


In two recent end of the year interviews, Harper has openly mused about his tenure as Prime Minister in the past tense, he even went so far as too suggest he's moved potential successors around in portfolios to give the depth demanded for potential leadership. With those musings in mind, Lawrence Martin's column today about Harper possibly stepping aside this year, seems entirely reasonable. My only caveat, Martin fails to acknowledge the role of ego in any thinking, and I would think that a primary consideration, given that we are talking about a man who has systematically ensured all things Conservative revolve around him personally. That said, an intruiging piece:
Mr. Harper will then have served seven years as a party leader and close to four as Prime Minister. Given his enjoyment of power, his first wish would be for more of it. But he will assess the odds and, most likely, realize that the probability of his overcoming the ominous portents and enhancing his standing in his party and the country are hardly high.

As well, he may look at history, at the many leaders before him who didn't know when to leave, who sought to defy the odds. If he does, he'll see they've never stopped regretting it.

As a Liberal, I hope Harper stays on, because he's clearly past his best before date, man has a certain odor now.


Scott Tribe said...

If a coalition government takes over, and puts in place policies and such that deal with this economic downturn and are popular with the people (and policies that work), then the polls would automatically turn around, Steve. Plus, we have an 18 month window under that agreement to show coalition governments can work.

We can't be afraid of this idea because of what polls say, or what pundits like Rex Murphy, a known Conservative, say.

Regardless, I think this continued harping on the coalition is rather academic. Iggy's public position, if he holds to it, is that if the government's budget is not acceptable and it falls, and the G-G offers Iggy the chance to form a new government in the House, then he will do so. If the G-G elects to dissolve and call a new election, Iggy won't mind that either. It's really in the G-G's hands on what she decides, and if she were to decide election, so be it.

What I don't want to see. Steve, is the Liberals allow a Budget which is clearly mediocre (or listed with more poison-pills like the public financing axing) allowed to pass because we are afraid of what snapshot in time polls say or what hostile pundits on the TV or in print say.

If the Budget is bad, vote it down, and let whatever happens with regards to the G-G's decision , happen.

Anonymous said...

Something else to consider: an election won on false promises and declarations (no deficit, economy is fine, etc) calls into question the very legitimacy of the result.

There is also a moral question: if the Liberals and others think that Harper/Flaherty are either incompetent or mendacious when it comes to the budget numbers, they have a moral obligation to put the country before the party and take them out.

The Liberals really have two options: either support the budget (and really, it'll be the vote on the Throne Speech on Feb 3 that'll decide things) or oppose it. Can't be any of that sitting-on-your-hands or strategic-abstention nonsense.

I agree with ScottT: if Iggy takes over, the polls will turn not on how he got there, but what he does once he is in office.

Steve V said...


Wishful thinking at best. It's not a snapshot in time, it's a verdict on whether or not the coalition has legitimacy. The only place we see a semblance of support is in Quebec, which tends to counter balance the sheer outrage in other parts of the country.

One other point, which Hebert pointed out, this coalition is much different than the Ontario experiment. The problem, the chief player in this coalition is so weakened, that it can't cobble together a relationship with one party, it needs an agreement with the Bloc, just to have the numbers to govern. IF, the Liberals weren't so rejected in the last election, then you might have more legitimacy, but that wasn't the case, which explains part of the problem.

If the budget is full of poison pills, then there could be some added weight to the coalition, because I suspect people won't be kind, they demand seriousness, no appetite for partisanship. Sort of that, if the budget has the stimulus, the centerpiece of the coalition agreement, then any move to a coalition will be seen as opportunistic, and it will fail to garner acceptance.

You don't get to hide from the electorate for 18 months, nor do you get a chance to "show your stuff", people will react immediately and you will start with a crisis of legitimacy. How that equates to success escapes me entirely.

I would also caution against this kneejerk "sitting on our hands" concerns, because of past behavior. This budget is a different animal, it already has our fingerprints on it, plus the public OVERWHELMINGLY wants it too pass, short of a replay. The Liberals won't be seen as enablers, they will be seen as putting country first, particularly if we've successfully extracted some policies we pushed.

Steve V said...

The most important consideration, that supercedes any other issues or details in this budget, is the belief that we need immediate intervention in the economy. Any manoeuvers that delay a stimulus, even if only for a few weeks, while politicians sort out the makeup of parliament, will be rejected as partisanship at the expense of the economic need. To not accurately gauge the urgency, puts a pet want ahead of common sense. The last thing Canadians want to see is anymore drama in Ottawa, they just want a budget. Period.

Scott Tribe said...

They want a Budget that works, Steve.. and I say again, we cannot allow a Budget to pass simply for the sake of passing if it doesn't muster the sniff test, or because we're afraid of polls or pundits.

Iggy himself was on record over this past week as saying he doubts Harper can change his colours and come up with anything that addresses the country's needs. You can call that rhetoric if you want, but that to me is a pretty strong public statement.

Chretien famously once talked about the "Nervous Nellies" in his caucus. We saw a lot of those folks during the Dion period. I hope we don't see the same ones grabbing Iggy's ear over what his decision will be when the time comes to vote on this.

Mark Francis said...

Keep this simple: Most people are fickle and have short memory of things political except for a few strong biases. If a coalition governed well, the polls would quickly turn around.

The idea that the Liberals will get a majority any time soon is ridiculous. People had better start pushing for a coalition plan, rather than knocking one, else we are looking at an ongoing democratic disaster with the Cons in control.

Steve V said...


I agree on a majority, that is out of the question, but right now we have a lowly 1/4 of the seats, which is part of the reason we lack legitimacy.


Again, don't fall back on the "nervous nellies" argument, because this case isn't like the abstaining routine we saw, which I completely rejected. This budget already has the Liberal stamp on it, the stimulus itself a clear climbdown for the Cons. To say, it's a Conservative budget that we just swallow fails to acknowledge what has happened in recent weeks. Heck, even Layton has already stated that the coalition threat has moved the government, so it's an objective fact, which can't be discounted.

I agree with one thing, the Liberals should publicly put out some more demands, particularly on EI, as contingent on any support. If you do this in pre-emptive fashion, then the onus is on the Conservatives to respond, if they fail, then you have some argument on lack of co-operation.

Antonio said...

the odds are the Liberals will support the budget unless there is something so insane that they have to vote it down, something which they can clearly explain to the Canadian people.

At that point, screw the coalition, the Liberals are better off having an election and weakening the Conservative Party, getting back over 100. A majority may be out of the question but getting more seats than the Tories is a definite possibility.

Anonymous said...

Steve, what if the budget contains:
A) A Gst cut to 4%
B) Income splitting

Or both of the above? Passing a budget with A would invalidate all our criticisms of the previous two GST cuts. Passing a bugdget with B (which would cost at least $5 billion a year) would bleed the coffers dry for ANY future Liberal piorities like Kelowna or child care, etc...

Don't dismiss A so lightly as Tim Powers (Cons Strategist on QP) has been openly advocating for that and quoting economists who approve. Didn't you argue to vote against the fiscal update that had the cut to 5% GST?

B has been advocated for for some time by the Con base and Harper will want to put something in the budget that satisfies them.

Steve V said...

Good luck arguing for a coalition because the GST goes down. That would be about the last thing that would rile Canadians, especially under these circumstances, where you can now make a legitimate argument that lowering a consumption tax, encourages consumption, makes it more attractive, a key to getting out a recession. I could swallow that one in a heartbeat, at this moment.

Income splitting? Is that really a serious "poison pill"?


I agree on the election front.

Anonymous said...

First we need to remember that the conservatives ARE a coalition of two parties and if we can drive a wedge into them we can splt them.

Second any talk of the coalition is just the msm buying Harper time on unimportant issues to deflect from the real ones. It only becomes an issue if he is defeated, maybe.

Third the Liberals need to learn how to become an opposition party!!! Harper has proven he does not now how to lead but only oppose and the Liberals need to learn from him if they want to gain back power. They already know how to lead but haven't figured out that they have to be a week ahead of him defining subjects before he has a chance to thus forcing him closer to center and drive that wedge deeper into his party. This is easy because outside of abortion and throwing everyone in jail Harper has no defined policies on any important part of the government operation.

Fourth, it doesn' matter what anyone does as Obama is going to hit the ground running and EVERYONE will be playing catchup. National Newswatch had an article this morning that he is being counciled that a carbon tax is the only way to deal with the environment. This subject will be front and center in a few months if he follows what he says so any country unprepared will get screwed quickly if they don't have a policy ready.

The Liberals need to put out their version of the budget in a couple of weeks to force Harpers hand and to give the public a reminder that they do know how to run a country. By March they need a comprehensive environmental policy ready to go in line with the U.S.

Whle the Liberal are possibly the worlds worst ever opposition party the public needs to be reminded DAILY that they are among the best governing parties. The best way to do this is to take the policy attack to Harper and prevent him from defining what the Liberals stand for all the time like they have let him do for more than four years.

janfromthebruce said...

Personally, people don't just want a budget. I agree with the stance that the liberals are in a tight spot. Backing up the Harper conservative budget will be perceived as a Conservative/liberal coalition govt - two business parties working together for ????
I'm with Scott here. If the GG, calls an election, one might want to think about what Harper will run on - scrapping the per voter 1.95 subsidy and reducing workers and women's rights. Oh, and also rejigging EI to one of "welfare bashing".
Personally, the cons got a trunk full of money and they are hoping for an election to bankrupt the liberals.

Anonymous said...

Ok Steve (btw Anon 11:57 is a diff one, I was commenting on GST and income splitting). So to you is it really all about optics and not at all about future Liberal policy then? With income splitting there will be NO money left for Liberal priorities, it will be $5 billion a year gone and you will never be able to get rid of that just like the $2 billion a year $100 a month baby bonuses we knew were useless. What's the point of EVEN BEING THE NEXT GOVT if you can't do anything with it because of the cupboards are bare?

And I thought you wanted to CRUCIFY the Conservatives on economic management saying they put us in deficit, etc... Passing another GST cut would invalidate all that since the only reason the coffers were bare was because the cuts to 5%. You said if we CAN'T make that argument on them putting us in deficit WE LOSE the next election. That was the WHOLE BASIS of your argument against Bob Rae remember?

I'm not saying those are poison pills in the public eye but that to pass them would do long term damage to our prospects both in an election and governing context. Surely that should be a consideration for our caucus in voting too no?

Steve V said...

"I agree with the stance that the liberals are in a tight spot."

I see absolutely no negative fallout for the Liberals, should they choose to support a reasonable budget. None.

Steve V said...


People like income splitting, so it's a hard sell.

As for the GST cut, I would see this one as entirely different. You will note, many of the economists that criticized the Cons initial two cuts, are now re-thinking the rationale for an additional one, and I agree. Part of the problem is consumer confidence, a GST cut rewards consumption, which is a critical way to get out of a recession. I guess my opinion will be contingent on whether it's a temporary drop or permanent.

I don't see how acknowledging a different reality now, takes away from the deficit argument.

Northern PoV said...

The whole point of a Parliamentary representative democracy is to bring together REPRESENTATIVES of the people who will listen to each other and make the necessary compromises to make a civil society work. We do not have a system of direct democracy (thankfully).
Harper ignoring his minority status for the past two Parliaments and then successfully bullying the media and public opinion into opposing "the over-through of the gov't" by the coalition come from the same scorched-earth handbook that seeks to dumb-down the level of debate.

I agree with the other commentary ... a well-run coalition gov't would turn public opinion around, and ultimately an election will show that (or not).

We need to look very closely at the budget and not just the "stimulus $" size, but how it is spent. EI and tax-credits for poor folks would be the place to start. Bush poured billions into post-Katrina but most of it went to his buddies, not the people that needed it.

Ignore the current polls - given the current media environment where even CBC-TV sounds like Faux News and given the way the questions are asked: to yield the exact answers being sought by our public opinion makers. They come awful close to being "push polls".

To govern (or oppose) by public opinion polls is, well ... undemocratic

Steve V said...

"To govern (or oppose) by public opinion polls is, well ... undemocratic"

To try and govern without the moral authority to do so, is irresponsible in the extreme.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of moral authority to govern, this is what Stephen Harper said about Paul Martin's govt when they cancelled an opposition day:
"When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is when it's rapidly losing its moral authority to govern"
Stephen Harper resolved to defeat the government at the next possible opportunity no matter what they did. Stephen Harper won the next election.

Northern PoV said...

Where you and I differ:

I do not believe public opinion polls can be used to ascertain "moral authority".

I think you confuse "moral authority" with short term electoral-success-prospects.

Steve V said...


Absolutely not, I think you confuse parliamentary procedure with what people will accept.

And, you yourself mentioned CBC/Faux, which begs the question- where exactly will you find your voice of legitimacy in the media?? If we have near universal disapproval of the "three headed monster", that will further erode any sense that is a responsible alternative. Who's going to champion it, and make no mistake, it will need some friendly voices?

This coalition is a national unity crisis, and given the feedback to date, if we plow ahead and don't heed the warnings, then...

Steve V said...

I'm okay with another election.

Jeff said...

Steve, I’m really not comfortable with the Rex Murphy argument. Once Mr. Harpoon pulled his boneheaded stunt in November, the options were 1) let him get away with it, 2) force an election or 3) offer a coalition government that can take over. Since we had just had an election, #3 was the only viable alternative.

But if we accept the Murphy position, then moves like #3 are off of the table, because they don’t have popular support with the general population. So what should have happened, then? Should the opposition have stood aside or forced another election?

Now I agree that TIMES HAVE CHANGED, and the 2009 coalition question not the same as the 2008 version. And I agree that public opinion about the coalition must be a factor, for moral and practical reasons. But in the context of Harpoon’s 2008 antics, Murphy’s position is bunk.

And I would add: we’d better figure this one out, because coalition options are likely going to become more significant in future parliaments.

Steve V said...

We do need to figure this out Jeff, as you say coalitions are going to be part of the equation moving forward.

My position is somewhat different than Murphy's, on the impetus. Given the fiscal update, a response of this kind was entirely legitimate, entirely justified, and I think Canadians do understand that Harper bears ultimate responsibility. Once, the GG gave Harper a reprieve, then I think it all changes, because that "cooling off" period allows for something more to be brought forward, as well as the opinion to cement itself. It was a viable option, but the re-group aspect now makes it less so, more likely it's now a matter of another election or not.

Maybe history will show that this introduction of a coalition was the first step towards acceptance, the next time it rears, it might be more palatable. I suspect we will hear talk of it in the next election, particularly if we have one as a result of this budget- I'm sure the Conservatives will make it a centerpiece, fear mongering and duplicity comes natural.

Jerry Prager said...

Anti-coalition reaction was spun by the corporate media that was itself being spun by our Con PM. It's called propaganda, and both Harper and his friends and allies in the corporate news rooms spun the country like a top and that's what those polls and public opinions represent: Tory talking points set whirling around the body politic like gnats, masking the truth that will eventually set us free from Stephen Geoffrey Harper and the Principality he represents.

Jeff said...

I suspect that coalitions will become more more acceptable as Canadians get used to the idea and recognize their legitimacy. The "cooler heads" period has brought out political scientists and constitutional experts and journalists who are patiently explaining the rules and misconceptions about how our system works.

I hope that the pollsters find a good way to track public opinion on this. I suspect that opinions will shift from "The coalition was staging something akin to a third world coup" to "Yes, a governing body needs to have the confidence of the majority of MPs".

One nagging question: In future elections, if there is no clear majority, will the coalition option automatically be on the table?

Steve V said...

It probably would have helped the concept, if Canadians didn't see an overwhelmingly rejected Liberal leader center stage, not exactly the best optics for an alternative government. Couple that with an abysmal sales job, which makes amateurish look good, and that's part of the problem.

Let's say the election didn't give Harper a stronger mandate, or the Liberals improved, enough so, that they could form a majority with the NDP. That scenario would be more acceptable to people. I think some would have to at least concede, the results of the last election weren't the best for an introduction.

Greg said...

I see absolutely no negative fallout for the Liberals, should they choose to support a reasonable budget. None.

That just means you aren't looking hard enough, Steve. Harper will find a way to make any deficits your fault and any further downturn a shared responsibility. And what can your party say? Yes we supported the budget, yes we kept Harper in power, but no we don't support him? That has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it? I think it would be almost better for your party to propose a real coalition with the Tories. At least you would have more influence and if you are going to get blamed for the deficits anyway, you might as well have a seat at the table. Anything would be better than this fan dance your party seems addicted to.

Anonymous said...

I'm at a loss to understand what SteveV is doing here. If he is moderating the blog and encouraging a debate with all viewpoints, that's one thing.

Increasingly though it seems like he is - unwittingly perhaps - echoing the Conservative talking points as to why the Liberals should keep them in power.

In other words, he doesn't appear to point out how supporting Mr. Harper helps the Liberals. He is pointing out how forming a coalition would be morally objectionable and not accepted by Canadians, which is precisely the Conservative argument.

Phil said...

you're right, the CPC is hurting.
screw the coalition, we want an election.
let's get rid of the CPC and Harper.

Steve V said...


I have no clue what your babbling on about, but pointing out the idea of legitimacy isn't a Con talking point, it's sort of common knowledge.


When I say no downside, I mean this lame argument of "propping up" the Cons, which in this case doesn't wash. I just don't see how this budget passing suddenly absolves the Cons for the last year, while simultaneously giving full accountability to the Libs.

Steve V said...


That to me is the more reasonable path, because I think you can make a credible case, that if you want parliament to work, you need to remove the irritant. You don't reward the Cons with another mandate, given their behavior, nor do you reward a package which only comes about because you're cornered and desperate to hold onto power.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Anonymous is my real name. I mean I could call myself Phil or Greg or something, but what would be the point?

Seriously though, I think Iggy is itching for a fight. He is not going to give Gee (Greatest Economist on Earth) Harper the satisfaction of running around the country trumpetting his budget and running attack ads at the same time.

Iggy is no wimp, and I doubt the legitimacy argument has his knickers in a knot. He'll probably spend most of January trumpetting his own budget proposals and try to build a base of support.

Steve V said...

"Seriously though, I think Iggy is itching for a fight."

Well then, you're using selective quotes, because in totality, "itching" is about the last word I would use. "Measured" seems more apt from here.

Just to add, I know full well this point of view isn't popular on our side of the blogosphere, but please don't give me this Con talking point crap, just because I don't happen to subscribe to the group think. It's my opinion, and frankly I don't even consider how things "go over" when I post.

Steve V said...

I'll throw this in this post, from today's Ipsos poll:

"The survey also sampled opinion on possible parliamentary politics around the planned Jan. 27 budget. It said seven in 10 of those interviewed said they wanted "the politicians on Parliament Hill to start co-operating so that the budget is passed and we get more stability in Parliament." Three of 10 said that "if the opposition says the budget is insufficient, they should defeat it so we can have an election and clear the air, once and for all."

Dr.Dawg said...

but you can't run a government without the acceptance of the people."

A keeper, and the crux of the tale.

Harper has never had the "acceptance of the people." 62% voted against Conservative MPs and for Opposition MPs in the last election.

We have to think outside the box. Of course the Coalition has the moral authority to govern. It has the most votes and the most seats. Last I heard, that was called democracy.

Let's not play into Harper's BS. Why not watch public opinion swing back once the perfectly democratic coalition is in place.

What you seem to be suggesting is that nothing should ever change, and the public should be left in its mire of misinformation and spin. Not my idea of democracy, thanks.

wv= "press," believe it or not.

Steve V said...

"What you seem to be suggesting is that nothing should ever change, and the public should be left in its mire of misinformation and spin. Not my idea of democracy, thanks."

What I'm suggesting is realism, as opposed to some idealistic notion that the Canadian public will become informed in a matter of weeks. We can talk about 62% all we want, if the concept isn't resonating, it's a mute point. I'm not particularly interested in ensuring a Harper majority thanks, which is exactly what this purism would result in.

Let's see the budget, nothing is absolute, but this rigid detachment serves no one.

Anonymous said...

I read anlogy of a coalition on another blog & it has me doing some serious thinking. Reform/ Alliance & conservatives= coalition. IMO that was what really happened with Harper & company a few years back. That was the only way that the alliance/reform party was ever going to make gains past the western provinces. It happened & see where that got them. I say Iggy, form a coalition if necessary & throw those systers right out of Canada. We have had just about as much as we can handle with that party.

There!!!! that's my take on this phonny party & Harper