Friday, March 19, 2010

On Confidence Motions

Now that the opposition has asserted the supremacy of Parliament, I note Conservative supporters are moving the goal posts. The opposition is just blustering, they will fold as soon as the Conservatives make this whole affair a confidence motion. First, some background:
Bob Rae was asked yesterday how far the opposition was willing to go to obtain documents related to the Afghan detainee affair and, paraphrasing Pierre Trudeau, responded, “Just watch us.”

Jack Harris was asked about the possibility that the government might declare any vote on the matter to be a confidence vote. His response: “Well, you know, the government and the Prime Minister can declare any motion a confidence motion. They may decide that this is a confidence motion. If so, so be it.”

Doesn't sound like a timid opposition, and I think people knew FULL well what yesterday's proceedings could ultimately mean. In other words, none of this is rash, entirely calculated.

I'm sorry, but as much as I try, I can't find ANY upside for the government to force an election over these demands. The issues surrounding the opposition demands are fundamental and those themes would dominate a campaign. Would the Conservatives really want an election about accountability, transparency, democratic will, secrecy, "stonewalling"? I understand the government has their retorts, but any fair minded observer must note little to no support for their arguments within the media filter. In other words, we would have an almost guaranteed defensive posture, the opposition attacking, the government justifying. This discussion would also raise the issue of CHANGE, pure poison for any incumbent. From the Liberal perspective, I can't think of a better focus than one surrounding how this government operates, how they avoid responsibility, can't "play well with others", a buffet of negative narratives.

Conventional wisdom assumes the next election will be primarily a fight centering around the economy. On this file, Harper has a distinct advantage, that is the ground they would choose to fight on. About the last thing in the world the Conservatives want is an election derailed towards a referendum on their conduct. At best dicey, problematic when compared with preferred storylines.

Conservatives can talk tough all they want, but their recent posture doesn't suggest a party itching for election. I don't see any swagger in the least. Of course, the Liberals aren't exactly in optimal shape, but given the options, I could see a serious rethink on the "long view" strategy, if we see the probability of the type of campaign I outlined.

If this issue leads to a confidence motion (I still don't think it will), I don't buy the fear mongering that the opposition will wear any election. Harper has the ultimate choice, and the opposition has provided sensible options that protect his supposed concerns. Should the Conservatives refuse, then ultimately they are raising the matter of confidence, they are arbitarily making a decision to force an election. At best, "blame" is a wash, at worst, we head off on the trail with Harper defending his refusal.

As it relates to the polls, again their is little immediate upside from the Conservative perspective. Harper's popularity has eroded for months, a majority seems the most unlikely of scenarios, possible but hardly probable. More likely a reduced mandate, more a chance of outright loss of power than ultimate. This is not the optimal moment for the government, if anything it is rife with risk.

As Harris said, if the Conservatives are hell bent on forcing an election over this issue, "so be it". I'm just not terribly frightened by the big blue machine, especially with relatively advantageous narratives certain to drive any campaign.


ottlib said...

There is not much of an upside for the government but we have to be careful that we do not overestimate the upside for the Liberals.

I won't rehash my argument here. I believe you have read it.

I would point out the the Conservatives ran on government honesty, accountability and transparency in 2006 and only managed to eke out a weak minority. This despite Adscam being a household word for three years, everybody being able to relate to people stealing money, the Liberal government really showing its age and a brutal campaign by the Liberals.

Alot of that had to do with Stephen Harper himself but it is still an open question as to whether Canadians will warm up to Mr. Ignatieff enough over the course of a 36 day campaign to make a difference.

As well, no election ever unfolds as expected. They are way to unpredictable to assume one issue will dominate the debate during it.

The Liberals are going to need more than this issue to put them back in the government benches. If they spend a whole campaign just talking about this they lose.

Tof KW said...

Well written as always Steve.

Stepping back from this and looking at the bigger picture, I’m surprised the ‘merged-right’ doesn’t seem to have any second thoughts on this. I guess they are all on autopilot with the ‘Harper – Good, Liberals – Bad’ concept that they don’t see how Harper challenging the principle of parliamentary supremacy is setting a very bad precedent for future governments. Aside from some rather lucid commentary in the Western Standard by some libertarian bloggers (who have never been real fans of Harper’s anyways), not one bit on how he’s attempting to redefine our parliamentary system from how it was originally set over 400 years ago.

To put it in terms they would understand, it is not difficult to comprehend that at some point Harper will lose an election, or perhaps retire before facing one. In our present fragmented and sectarian political environment, any future government looks like it will be a minority (outright majorities for any party are very difficult now). Now imagine the horror (to the ultrarightwingnuts) of a democratically elected Liberal-NDP coalition being voted in, and they begin to act as a majority like Harper is doing now. Why not? After all Harper himself set the precedent. They can make every vote a confidence vote, withhold information from committees citing ‘national security’, and govern like a majority government without ever having been elected by even 40% of the population. And that the majority of the members in the House of Commons are against their legislation and actions mean nothing. Heck, better to just dispense of Parliament altogether and save the taxpayers some money. Just hold elections every four years and whoever wins gets to rule without impunity for a certain period of time.

How would they like it? I suspect not much, as I would find this future quite distasteful myself. The principles of parliamentary supremacy and maintaining a loyal opposition are part of Westminster-style parliament for very good reasons. The Brits beheaded a king and fought a civil war over the idea that a majority of democratically elected peers in the House of Commons represents the supreme will of the people and highest court of the land.

This really is an election-worthy debate on the powers of government versus parliament. If we wish to change the way our inherited system of Westminster government has worked for over 400 years, this needs to be put before the people and stakes explained in great detail.

Steve V said...

I think you're confining the "issue". As I said, this issue feeds other overarching themes, speaking to Harper's biggest liabilities. I also said the Libs aren't in fantastic shape, so I don't understand your caution advice.

Ottlib, you've argued against an election since 2006, no matter the circumstance or timing. Harper would be in power for 10 years until you saw "winning conditions".

We stand on principle, Harper can decide.

Frunger said...

Elections aren't often about one thing, at least not recently. They are almost certainly not ALL about the issue that triggers them either.

An election can be triggered by the Afgan Detainee issue, but it's not going to last more than a couple of days before more important issues take the spotlight. Right now, the most important issue to Canadians is the Economy, which it always is when it goes sour.

Your post then explains, quite rightly, that the Economy is the group the Harper wants to fight on, and that he has the advantage on.

The ballot box question if different for everyone, but it is not likely to be influenced by the bill the government happens to fall on.

Greg said...

The ballot box question if different for everyone, but it is not likely to be influenced by the bill the government happens to fall on.

Maybe so, but I think in this case it is different. If Harper self-declares this a vote of confidence, then this will be the second time in two years he has pulled the plug on his own government. That, I suspect, will go over like a lead balloon. Economy or not, he will have to explain why he is calling for another $300,000,000 vote, when it was not absolutely required.

JimmE said...

I'm a hawk when it comes to an election. My feeling has always been sooner rather than later. Downside for the LPC is: what next after setting the ballot question? Even a cobbled together election platform has to look well thought out.

In '88 John Turner went from loser to winner to also ran because elections were longer, the ballot question did not emerge until mid-campaign, & when it did happen the team who's leader took money from KHS was able to counter strike effectively.

Ya gatta know the present PM's evil doers are in their parents basement right now crafting a parry & thrust for our much shorter election campaigns. Fellow Grits be warned this will be no narcoleptic cardigan campaign. Dippers, go to your room & get outta the way the big kids are going to play.

Greg said...

Dippers, go to your room & get outta the way the big kids are going to play.

Sigh, reason 1023 why the Liberals are sitting at 28%.

Tof KW said...

Sigh, reason 1023 why the Liberals are sitting at 28%.

Jack Layton – reason #1 why Steven Harper has been in power since 2006.

JimmE said...

Right on!

& why Muldoon got his second term.

Dippers, electing Tories since 1964!

Tof KW said...

Actually I don’t think this is the time for infighting, as this really should be a fight uniting all democrats here, be they Liberal, NDP, Bloc and even those Conservatives out there who remember what the traditional term ‘conservative’ was once all about (hint: had a lot to do with conserving the laws and traditions of our institutions). Parliamentary supremacy is really one of the few important principles of democracy that we have where party affiliations need to take a back seat.

JimmE said...

T of KW
Nicely said, I respectfully withdraw my sophomoric partizan comment... except the 1964 part


Tof KW said...

Likewise, I'd like to withdraw my crack as well.

Omar said... least you guys are allowed to make cracks. Every time I open my yap I get called things like "one trick snake in the grass"! Or some such thing. S'all right though. Thy skin is thick.

Fred from BC said...

Maybe so, but I think in this case it is different. If Harper self-declares this a vote of confidence, then this will be the second time in two years he has pulled the plug on his own government. That, I suspect, will go over like a lead balloon. Economy or not, he will have to explain why he is calling for another $300,000,000 vote, when it was not absolutely required.

Harper will explain it in a way that makes perfect sense to most Canadians. Maybe he'll go with protecting the lives of Canadian soldiers, diplomats and their allies in Afghanistan. Maybe he'll point out that his appointment of a well-respected judge to look into the situation will be cheaper, faster, more secure and in no way preclude a full Parliamentary Inquiry if one appears to be warranted.

Maybe he'll go with a combination of things that the average Canadian can relate to. A previous poster has already hit the nail on the head here: If the Liberals force an election over stuff the average Canadian doesn't really care about (a hint: pay attention to the recent polls), they WILL lose.

So go right ahead, guys...take a principled stand. We'll take a practical one. See you at the polls!...

JimmE said...


Right, democracy vs the Nixon argument, lemme know how you think that will play.

The Rat said...

It will play something like this:

In a time of economic crisis, when Canadians are worried about their jobs and their families the Liberals are more concerned about Taliban prisoners. The Liberals are more concerned with Taliban prisoners than the safety and security of Canadian soldiers. The Liberals have accused our soldiers of war crimes, with no evidence, and forced an election at a cost of $300,000,000 in order to press those scurrilous accusations, all because they to care more for Taliban killers than our Canadian soldiers.

Imagine that ad next to an add about parliamentary supremacy. Which do you think will resonate with Canadians? Openness and democracy? When Canadians barely yawned over adscam will they really get worked up that the Liberals don't get to see some paper? Yeah.

And in case you think the media will filter that message all you need to remember is that these will be ads on TV, during Hockey games even. The CBC can't help you with this one.

Tof KW said...

Fred, did you bother to read my comments from 12:02?

I'd really like to know your thoughts about whether you would approve of a properly elected Lib-NDP minority coalition government behaving as Harper's government has been over the Afghan files.

Tof KW said...

I'd like to hear your thoughts too Rat.

By the way, nice to hear you say those nice comments about openness and democracy ...obviously the Conservative Party of Canada is against those now. Funny you ran on those ideals back in 2006. I can only assume the Reform Party was full of shit then?

CuzBen said...

I would rather run on the principle of preserving democracy and lose than run on some manipulative excuse for torture and win. At least I would be able to sleep at night.

The conservatives of my father's generation would be ashamed of the new breed.

Tof KW said...

The conservatives of my father's generation would be ashamed of the new breed.

I am a conservative of my father's generation, and it's the reason I left after the PCs were done.

There is very little 'conservative' left in the CPofC, in fact I consider there use of the name a misnomer. This specific issue only helps prove I'm correct.

JimmE said...


Dude, you just undermined you own argument:

"When Canadians barely yawned over adscam..."

Really? & how did we end up with the present PM? Pray tell!

Word to the wise, lay off the tainted tory cheese, it's a nice day, crawl outa mummy's reck room, get outa your jammies, & get some fresh air!

Jerry Prager said...

One thing Harper will be facing in any election is CAPP and all its spin offs, who have learned how to use social networking on a scale that far surpasses that of Tory online capabilities, the Tories have no fire, no ethics, they thrive on malice, their Right Wing agenda if given a majority is now much easier to define and reject. The libs will come out their ideas conference with wind in their sails. The NDP will take tight ridings from conservatives. People are looking for a reason to get rid of Harper, he's a bad taste in our mouths, and at the first opportunity, we'll be horking him out the window like so much phlem

ottlib said...

"Ottlib, you've argued against an election since 2006, no matter the circumstance or timing. Harper would be in power for 10 years until you saw "winning conditions"."

The results of the 2008 election would seem to indicate that I had good cause.

Mr. Harper's biggest liabilities have been on display since he came on the political scene. They have been there for everybody to see yet Canadians have elected his party to government twice, and almost did it a third time.

The simple truth is ordinary Canadians either do not see him and his gang of wingnuts as we political animals do or they do not care.

The Opposition parties ignore that fact at their peril.

James Bow said...

There is only one response I have to any Conservative threat to call an election with this as an issue:

"Go ahead. Make my day."

James Bow said...


I think there is a significant difference between late 2008 and now. Back then, while we bloggers were upset that Harper called an election in contravention of the spirit of his own election law, the fact remained that the opposition had very little to campaign on. Harper knew this, and he probably thought that the conditions were even better than they were -- good enough for him to take the blowback from violating his own election law. And to some extent, he was right; he ended up just 12 seats short of his majority.

Things are different now. Breaking a superficial law that was little more than window dressing in any event is not enough for an electorate to find Harper so cynical he needs to be replaced, especially considering the quality of the potential replacements at the time. Now, particularly with how ordinary Canadians responded to his unquestionably democratic and secretive actions following the second prorogation, Harper is looking like a significantly worse proposition than his alternates.

The opposition finds itself on the side of democracy and accountability here -- a position that Harper himself took up when he campaigned in 2006. Any other issue would make the subsequent election a crap shoot. The election now is still a roll of the dice, but with Harper running to try and hide documents that might hurt him, I think many Canadians will see that the time has come to slap him down.