Saturday, December 13, 2008

Harper Verses Ignatieff in Political Chess Match

I saw an interesting political cartoon in the Toronto Sun on Friday. In it Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff are separated by a river filled with sharks and alligators. Harper is standing in front of a fire he’s lit on his side, while on Ignatieff’s side he has laid out land mines, bear traps and broken glass. Both are standing in front of their respective obstacles with Harper extending a hand and saying: “See…I’m reaching out to the opposition”.

While there may still be a few political idealists out there, I suspect more and more Canadians are coming to a better understanding of the ‘blood sport’ that the game of politics truly is. Harper is king of the castle, and Michael Ignatieff is looking for ways to knock him off his perch. Harper knows this of course, and so what we’re witnessing is not true leadership but a game of brinkmanship with both Stevie and Iggy looking to score big with the kids on the playground…that is to say, us.

In this game of political chess you always have to be thinking at least 3 or 4 moves ahead. Our current situation is the result of what should be aptly called, “The Harper Gambit”. During the election Harper had failed to protect an important piece, Quebec. By leaving it vulnerable Harper lost the ability to check mate the opposition with a majority. The board still looked good, the Liberals were basically broke and stuck with an ineffective lame duck leader. They were also facing the prospect of a lengthy and potentially divisive leadership campaign. Harper could have sat back, perhaps even been conciliatory in soliciting input from the opposition…while leaving public funding for political parties alone. Instead the Liberals have taken advantage of the break their coalition ploy provided and regrouped. Instead of a costly and contested leadership race they’ve rallied behind Michael Ignatieff. While he’s untested as a leader, Mr. Ignatieff certainly has the required intellect and seems to possess the needed political savvy.

Both Harper and Ignatieff know that Ottawa has little alternative but to weather years of deficit spending. An economy in deep recession means increased expenditures at a time of declining revenue. No matter what measures are taken and no matter how many billions are spent there is going to be lots of pain to go around from job losses and decreased economic activity. Both Harper and Ignatieff want to cast themselves as the people’s champion, while castigating the other for being unresponsive to the needs of Canadians.

Knowing this Harper is looking for input on the coming budget from the new Liberal leader. That way when the inevitable pain hits he would be able to point at Mr. Ignatieff and say: “Well, I didn’t agree with most of the measures put forth by the opposition. But that’s what you get with a minority government.” Ignatieff though isn’t going to take the bait. No matter what the budget document looks like there’s no avoiding the fact that the Canadian economy is in for several years of trouble and he doesn’t want his fingerprints on any evidence that will later be used against him. He has wisely asserted that the responsibility of creating and presenting a budget rests with the Conservatives, and it is the job of the opposition to respond.

When the budget comes out Ignatieff will say that it doesn’t do enough, and that it is leaving too many vulnerable, on that I am willing to place a decent sized wager. And I will also wager an equal sum that the Liberals will nonetheless support it, while voicing their reservations. The result is that Harper will once again have the confidence of Parliament, albeit tepid. And he’ll be pouring over the chess board in the weeks and month’s ahead looking to invent another gambit to stymie his new and more politically astute opponent.

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