After The Storm

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From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

E-mail Jeffrey Simpson | Read Bio | Latest Columns
December 5, 2008 at 8:00 PM EST

Now that a sudden and violent storm has passed through Canadian politics, people of all persuasions are trying to sort out what precisely happened, why the convulsion came, what damage was done and what lies ahead.

A Conservative government exists. It had won one confidence vote, but could not win another, and so used prorogation to flee Parliament. The Conservatives appear to have the upper hand in public opinion outside Quebec, but have lost ground in that province.

A Liberal opposition exists. It nominally leads a government-in-waiting coalition with the NDP, supported by the Bloc Québécois. But the Liberals, saddled with a politically inept leader, walked into a trap of their own making from which they do not know how to escape.

The political storm reflected badly on Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose decisions ignited it, but even worse on Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, whose impetuous reaction led the party astray.

Mr. Harper’s decisions showed a secretive, ferociously partisan leader, centralizing everything in his own hands, willing to fight with every conceivable tool to save his political career. Mr. Dion’s reaction showed a leader apparently so desperate to atone for the election result, the worst in Liberal history, that he grossly overplayed his party’s weak hand.

The storm, as occasionally happens in the feverish, closed world of political Ottawa, showed parties misreading the intentions of their adversaries. Politicians of every stripe got so caught up in their own machinations and ambitions that they mistook appearing on political gab shows for genuine influence and talking to themselves as a substitute for consultation.

All parties will now struggle to influence public opinion before the resumption of Parliament on Jan. 26. In this struggle, the Conservatives enjoy most of the advantages: more party money, a bigger party membership, more MPs, the entire communications apparatus of the federal government, the ability to set the agenda, especially when Parliament is not in session.

In the next seven weeks, the Conservatives need to find their footing. Ever since the economic tsunami struck in late September, they have been unsteady in finding appropriate substantive or communications responses.

The Conservatives have been unsteady, in fairness, because economic events unfolded so swiftly, but also because an economic reality that demanded a more vigorous government response collided with their ideology and instincts. Remember during the election, when Mr. Harper remarked that the collapse of the stock market provided good buying opportunities. Remember his evident lack of empathy with those already hit by the tsunami. Remember his declaration that the government would never run a deficit.

Remember, too, his pitch became that his party was best positioned to guide the economy through the storm with an approach of low taxes, no deficits and modest spending increases. That strategy/ideology clashed with the reality that Canada will run deficits, that spending will increase with the deteriorating economy and that the strange insistence of using the words “technical recession” belies what everyone knows: Canada is in recession.

The economic statement epitomized this policy approach, and in so doing galvanized the opposition and produced a raspberry verdict from most of the nation’s economists, who did not believe the document when it argued that Canada would or should run surpluses, and that cutting government spending was the right approach.

Worse, of course, was the Prime Minister’s strategy of using the document as the vehicle for shafting the opposition parties and trade unions. At his insistence, the document contained the end of subsides for political parties and the right to strike for public-sector unions.

Mr. Harper obviously believed the Liberals, recently embarked on a leadership campaign, would not be able to resist these initiatives, with the happy result, he thought, of greatly weakening them through the loss of public subsidies.

He saw a weakness, and he leaped — right into trouble.

How could we have gotten ourselves into this mess, angry Conservatives wondered a week ago, when the three opposition parties first appeared to be uniting against them, thereby threatening the Conservatives’ grip on power? Conservative MPs stood and cheered, as they are supposed to do, for the economic statement they had not read, had not been consulted about, and for which they were unprepared to respond. Where, they asked, had that kinder, gentler, collaborative approach gone, the one Mr. Harper had seemed to have suggested would be his guide?

The simple answer (apart from the fact that Mr. Harper has never really been terribly interested in other opinions) is that the Prime Minister miscalculated. The wider, and more important, answer is that he has no kitchen cabinet, no Rolodex of friends across the country, and no advisers whom he has deliberately chosen for their different views.

Mr. Harper makes decisions himself, or in an exceptionally closed circle. When his worst instincts are on the loose, there are inadequate checks in the system he has created around him, and few people willing or able to curb those instincts.

That’s why at the very last minute, the Prime Minister’s Office sent over to the Finance Department those political zingers to include in the statement, without ministers or deputies knowing. And that procedure illustrates wider truths about this government: the centralization of power in Mr. Harper’s hands, his office’s fundamental distrust of most ministers and their staffs, and the Prime Minister’s insistence that politics should drive decisions. The way Mr. Harper acted, and the advantage he tried to gain, will be remembered now by all those who feared what he might do with a majority government.

It was perhaps understandable why the Prime Minister miscalculated politically. The Liberals were changing leaders. They had lost the election badly. They had an unpopular leader, Stéphane Dion. And they had backpedalled for months under him in Parliament before the last election, an implicit admission of their political weakness.

Liberals had not liked backpedalling. They were determined once a new leader arrived never to repeat that experience. They resented their defeat, and disliked Mr. Harper quite personally. And they were still being led, however reluctantly, by Mr. Dion — a man of pride, stubbornness, self-conviction of excellence, and an almost uncanny ability to delude himself on matters political. Given that ability, it seemed incredible that Liberals would allow him to take them into a coalition.

A coalition made no sense for the Liberal Party. A coalition with the NDP signalled the wrong direction, since a Liberal victory must depend on taking Conservative votes. An arrangement with the Bloc would generate hostility outside Quebec.

The coalition reflected a leader seeking vindication, and a party left without adult supervision, angry at its recent fate, internally divided, revving itself up into righteous political indignation at an admittedly inadequate economic statement, and mortally afraid of what the elimination of public subsidies would mean for an indebted party.

It was the rash reaction of a party tired of being pushed around, angry at having backpedalled, and damned well determined to fight back, by the only available means, with the only available leader, no matter the weakness of both.

There was no one around, apparently, to offer cool advice based on knowledge of the vagaries of Parliament, the Governor-General’s power and, critically, the perspective of history. Liberals ought to have given the Conservatives the uncertain pleasure of governing through the worst recession since the 1930s, while the Liberals went about choosing their new leader next May.

Last Saturday night, at an annual bash bringing together the tiny political beau monde of Ottawa, Liberal MPs were ebullient at their determination to bring down the government. They had convinced themselves their foe was trapped, that their emerging coalition with the NDP would work, and that power would shortly be theirs.

They had not adequately thought through elementary matters such as the absolutely predictable negative public reaction to the prospect, let alone the reality, of Mr. Dion as prime minister. Such as the desire of a large majority of Canadians not to see the NDP in office. Such as the almost unanimous view outside Quebec that no federal government should be beholden the Bloc, other than on a case-by-base basis. Such as any prime minister’s considerable weapons and the sure-fire assumption that this one would use them all. Such as the far greater sophistication of the Conservative Party machine. Such as, a parliamentary manoeuvre to oust the Conservatives, although constitutional, might not pass the political test of fairness in the country.

Now, the Liberals are trapped. They failed to kill the king. He and his supporters are still in charge. The Liberals, having failed, are turning on themselves. Mr. Dion had almost no support in caucus before the attempted coup, and certainly has none now. Many caucus members are nervous, as is the rank-and-file.

Bob Rae is trying to steel the party’s nerves, and enhance his dim leadership chances, by urging Liberals to stand firm. Michael Ignatieff, who understands the weakness of the party’s position, is equivocating and distancing himself from what is likely to be a losing strategy.

The coalition did temporarily frighten the Conservatives; the coalition now frightens the Liberals.

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