Sunday, December 7, 2008

Stephane, Take Stephen With You

Stephane Dion has already announced his departure from the leadership of the Liberal Party, although not soon enough according to some, including many in his own party. Perhaps it would be best if while exiting M. Dion held the door for Mr. Harper to leave as well.

Some will bristle at this suggestion, after all Stephen Harper has just won a second consecutive mandate for the Tories, the most recent being tantalizingly close to a majority. And therein lies the rub. With almost every conceivable advantage going into the October 14th election he STILL was unable to garner his coveted majority.

His principle rivals were plagued with an ineffective leader, one unable to articulate well in the language spoken by 75 per cent of Canadians. While certainly earnest, Liberal leader Stephane Dion failed miserably to connect with voters. And the attack ads unleashed by Harper's Conservatives were patently unnecessary. Those radio phone-in show ads, with actors voicing lines like, "Can you imagine Dion representing us on the world stage", to say nothing of the pooping just made the Conservatives look mean spirited and small minded.

Harper's team didn't even bother to put out an election platform until the advance polls had already closed. Why bother? The central issue of the campaign became whether or not we wanted the so called "Green Shift" and the answer was clear...whether it was a smart move or not, a majority of Canadians rejected it whole heartedly. Dion started to recover slightly when the focus shifted to the economy, but he squandered his lift in the polls by using it to try and sell the doomed Green Shift.

Harper had demonstrated his political acumen by gaining support in Quebec and seemed poised to win perhaps as many as 20 seats in that province, doubling up from the previous election. His recognition of Quebecers as a 'nation' within Canada was key to wooing the support of soft separatist voters in that province. Perhaps this was the cost when he negotiated for the support of the Bloc Quebecois in trying to topple Paul Martin's Liberal minority in 2004...but that's something we'll never know.

Add to that the emergence of the Green Party on the left and you had the perfect Conservative storm. Harper called the election in an obvious attempt to gain a majority and rid himself of any worry about the opposition defeating his government. Were it not for tactical blunders in cutting back funding to arts and culture, as well as a get tough approach on youth crime...he likely would have secured it. Quebecers care deeply about arts and culture, and as one of the most liberal minded parts of the country they're uncomfortable with the notion of sticking teenage lawbreakers with the label of felon.

After the dust from the election had settled the wise thing to do would have been for Mr. Harper to lick his wounds and learn from his mistakes. But perhaps like a cribbage player ruminating over a wrong decision of which cards to toss into the crib...I imagine he couldn't let go of what he'd lost. He'd come so close to being able to enact whatever agenda he wished without any real opposition...and now his government would have to face an opposition that could unite at any time and topple his government.

The only reason for that to be a concern would be if he was planning to unleash something around which the opposition could galvanize public support. Think of Mulroney's GST for example. Had Mulroney led a minority parliament and been defeated by the prospect of a national sales tax he would have been crucified in an election. But with a majority a governing party can follow a less popular more ideological path early in its mandate, becoming more concerned with popularity and re-election as time winds down to dissolution.

In Canada's 39th parliament, the one we just replaced, the opposition parties had given Harper free reign. The Liberals/NDP/Bloc were not going to unite and defeat Harper's government without a key issue around which to rally Canadians. And Harper was wise not to give them one...and so we had over 2 years of electoral peace in this country. Had Harper stuck to his promise of fixed election dates we could have avoided this mess altogether. But with a deep recession looming on the horizon Harper couldn't take the chance of going to the electorate in the midst of a faltering economy and quite likely in a deficit position.

And now what do we have thanks to all of Harper's Machiavellian maneuverings? We have a country that's ready to come apart at the seams with staunch supporters on the left and right screaming at each other. We have the west talking of separation and have strengthened the separatist Bloc's electoral hold on Quebec. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, its east versus west, urban versus rural, English versus French...what a mess.

And of course with rabid supporters on each side of the coalition debate its all turned into a question of whose conspiracy theory do you buy into. If you're anti-coalition you probably see this as an undemocratic cabal of central Canadians trying to seize power from a duly elected government. If you support the coalition you probably see Harper as a neo-conservative ideologue who desperately needs a majority to enact a pro-business, slash and burn agenda that will erode the rights of individuals. The Conservatives' Watergating of the private Bloc/NDP discussions does little to dispel this impression.

Harper has poisoned the well from which our democracy drinks. Yes Canadians elected the Conservatives to a strong minority mandate, and yes they should be allowed to govern accordingly. But to make this work Harper should join Stephane Dion on the sidelines so that new leaders capable of governing in the Canadian tradition of conciliation and compromise can take over.

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