Saturday, December 6, 2008

The prorogation and 2009's limping victor

So after a debate that split the country and amid rallies in which words like "coup" and "antidemocratic" were tossed around, a group of opposition legislators announce they have secured a majority in the House and plan to take power.

But enough about Thailand... Here, in Canada, some coalition supporters might be disappointed that our Governor General accepted Stephen Harper's request to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament until January 26.

The Prorogation

While I'm a supporter of the coalition, I don't find her decision at all unreasonable. After all, if the opposition coalition can't stay together through seven weeks of Tory apologies and/or anti-coalition PR, what would have been the odds of it sticking it out for the promised 18 months? If it is able to hold together until the end of January, and if the Liberals can sort out their leadership issues without clobbering each other over that time, then there's a good chance it can form a workable government. And, if it does hold together, it'll be entirely within its right as a majority-group of MPs to pass non-confidence in the current government and to form an alternative one.

Of course, there'll be no clear winner and loser, even after the budget/confidence vote. Whether the Tories cling to power or the coalition takes over, Canadians will be left with an exceptionally weak federal government.

If the Tories Survive

Consider that, if the Tories do hold on, they'll be chastened and cautious. Harper will be weakened and his hold over the party will be much more tenuous than it was before all this drama -- his reputation as a brilliant tactician is in tatters. And, as part of its effort to survive, the government will likely have committed to a budget that has a more centrist or left-leaning flavour than the Conservatives would really like. Many divisive Tory policies, such as dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board, may have to be shelved. At the same time that Conservative supporters see their hopes deflated by the continued backpedaling of their own party, other parties will be able to accuse the Tories of having a hidden agenda and have many voters believe them. The Conservative Party will also have much rebuilding to do in Quebec and they'll be taken to task nationally for having risked opening the sovereignty/national unity can of worms. Finally, they'll be at the helm of a Canadian economy that's on its way downward, something they may have to rightly or wrongly shoulder the blame for the next time they face voters.

If the Coalition Succeeds

Of course, it won't be all fun and games for the coalition if it assumes power. After all, it will likely be the weakest minority government ever to preside over the country. It will be led by the Liberals, a disorganized and money-strapped shell of what was once the country's natural governing party, in partnership with the NDP, whose inexperience in federal cabinet may well show. With a mere 114 seats to the Tories' 143, the coalition will have difficulty passing bills that aren't confidence motions, since the Bloc is not bound to vote with the government on every bill. Ditto for having control of the House committees. And, like any government that holds office through 2009, it will preside over a sinking economy and a federal deficit, all of which the Conservatives will be only too happy to blame on the coalition's supposed fiscal mismanagement. Then, when the coalition parties eventually do face an election, some voters will rightly or wrongly punish them for having worked with the Bloc, not to mention for the above mentioned economic woes.

Battle Stations

These issues must be on the minds of those considering their options right now, particularly by Michael Ignatieff and his supporters, as they consider how to ease the honourable yet inept Dion out of his leadership role. Meanwhile, coalition solidarity is being driven by Dion, who desperately wants to become Prime Minister even if for just one day; Bob Rae, who's support of Dion and of the coalition is really a proxy for his own bid to stave off Ignatieff and win the leadership for himself; the NDP, which hopes to bolster its own legitimacy by sitting in a federal cabinet for the first time ever; and a diverse array of interest groups, including labour unions, women's organizations, human rights groups, wheat board supporters, arts organizations and others who abhor Tory policies and who see opportunity in the coalition.

From the Prime Minister and his crew, who seek to hold power, we should fully brace ourselves for all of the following:

- Bend-over-backwards apologies for Financial Update misdeeds (note the statement's initials -- from a joke making its rounds this week);

- Promises of a new era of cooperation (no doubt to be accompanied by a strong sense of deja vu among Canadians...)

- A budget so steeped in Liberal and NDP policies as well as treats for every Canadian that the opposition will risk embarrassement and/or the wrath of Canadians by voting against it to defeat the government;

- More national-unity-be-damned "the separatists are at the gates" hysterics and other Tory coffer-funded PR aimed at turning popular support against the coalition;

- PR aimed at driving wedges between the two Liberal Party camps; and

- A push to have the coalition accept a return to the polls if it chooses to defeat the government on January's budget.


Stimpson said...

When I consider what good things came out of the coalition, 2 things come to mind right away:
1. Team Harper was given a lesson on how governing with a minority means you can't present every decision to the opposition as "like it or lump it."
2. More Quebecers got to see what Prime Minister Steve and Co. really think of Quebec, and how they'll revive divisive us-against-them, Reform-style Quebec-hating if it suits their needs. I don't know if it'll hurt the Tories in Quebec in the next election, but it can't be good for them.


Given Dion's expedited exit from the unforgiving political stage, it will be interesting to see if 'the Iggy' even considers preserving the idea of a coalition. Or, as is more likely, he determines his own narrow interests are better served by pulling the LPC out of the agreement. It would be a pity if he were to underestimate the leverage the coalition offers. Better he should make no definitive pronouncement on the issue until AFTER Harper tries to pull the wool over our collective eyes in a budget.

Prairie Topiary said...

I agree with both of you.

Even if Iggy is thinking of backing out of the coalition now, he should take a "wait and see" approach to the budget. At the very least, it will make for a much more reasonable Tory budget.

The very possibility of the coalition is what made Harper back down in the first place; the same should thankfully keep many of Harper's more mean-spirited tendencies in check as he unveils his budget.

Will Seymour said...

An excellent piece, but it does help make my case against a coalition. A weak but fairly elected on October 14/08 minority government would be replaced by an even weaker but unelected coalition minority government. How does this help Canadians? It may be legitimate as spelled out in the pages of parliamentary procedure but lacks the most fundamental form of legitimacy that all democratically elected governments cannot and should not live without - the will of the people. It's been virtually ignored by supporters of the coalition. Such ignorance could be costly when it comes time to face the electorate. Expect the Tories to model themselves as the only true champions of democracy left in Canada while the opposition will be labelled as conspirators who seek power through secret backroom deals but ignore the rights of ordinary Canadians. I am a proud New Democrat who doesn't want to wear that kind of label. Whatever amount of power the NDP achieves should always have the backing of the people. We have got to earn our power. Let's also not forget that one of the coalition partners - the Liberals - have a new and much stronger leader who has publically expressed his party's willingness to reconsider its role in a coalition. The Grits are getting cold feet just before the wedding and the NDP will be left waiting at the alter.

Stimpson said...

"An excellent piece, but it does help make my case against a coalition. ..."

Way ta start out pompous, buddy.

Rowell said...

@ Will Seymore(sp?) - could not let your absurd comment pass without noting the following points: YOU ARE WRONG - LEGITIMACY ON PAPER IS LEGITIMACY IN FACT.

Prairie Topiary said...

Will, I think the coalition does represent the "will of the people" as least as much as any Tory minority government does. After all, every one of those MPs -- whether Tory or otherwise -- was elected to the House of Commons in October. That a bunch of those MPs would group together to form a coalition government is as reasonable as a bunch of them grouping together to form a Conservative minority.

I concede that the "will of the people" argument seems to have more traction right now in the minds of the public than does the counter-argument, and we can expect the Tories to keep pushing their side in an effort to keep the coaltion out.

The big problem with the argument is the very concept of "will of the people," which assumes that an election is about the citizenry somehow becoming of one mind to provide a mandate to a certain party. In reality, we live in a diverse society of competing interests, out of which parties may rise or to which parties seek to represent.

There is no unified "will of the people" that got behind the Tories on October 14, nor was there a unified "will of the people" that supported the opposition parties, even though they together got 62% of the vote. Similarly, if the opposition parties campaigned on the idea of a coalition in an election and they then won a majority of seats, there still would be no "will of the people" behind it.

A similar concept used to be thrown around by the Reform Party, when they claimed that there should be no party discipline because MPs should vote the "will" of their constituents, to which one might ask, "the will of exactly which constituents?"

The concept that there is some unified interest or "will" lies in liberal philosophy, which holds that there's a way forward for all of us -- that "good" public policy outcomes don't have winners and losers. The neo-liberal right continues to use such arguments, stating for one that trade and gloablization "raises all boats."

Whenever we hear the argument that there's one way forward, that we all stand to benefit, that the will of the people points in one direction and that we should all get on board, I suggest we stop and consider just whose interest is really being represented and what they stand to gain by getting everyone to rally behind them.

Will Seymour said...

To Prairie Topiary,
Thank you for the intelligent discussion I was looking for. You're right. The coalition is legitimate in many ways and does represent the will of the people. However, individual Canadians have every right to question this entire process. They genuinely feel alienated. You can argue they don't understand our complex political process and you would be right. I think you're right. Canadians don't get how this works. What we're not getting is that they don't care. People expect something that resembles a "strong" government that "does its job". People don't like what smells like back room deal making and they don't care if the back room deal making is perfectly legitimate. Steven Harper's Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservative Party appears to them the only party that gets them and speaks their language, even if it is complete bullshit. At this moment, Tory bullshit smells better than Liberal/NDP/Bloc bullshit to enough people in enough ridings. Expect the Tories to ruthlessly and unapologetically use their sweeter smelling dung to better effect than us. If this trend continues through to the next general election this coalition will be defeated and the Tories will be returned to power where they will continue doing everything we stand opposed to. Do not underestimate the so-called "will of the people". In this ridiculous excuse of a "democracy" apparently this matters. Ultimately every MP or MP wannabe has to go back to individual voters and say "Hi! Vote for me and I'll set you free!" Expect one of three possible responses:
1. "Yes I will vote for you. Set me free".
2. "Not a chance. I want the other candidate to set me free".
3. "Why should I even bother. None of you clowns can set me free".
The third response is the one we should all be most concerned about if democracy actually matters to us. Voter turnout is going down because individual Canadians don't understand what's going on and don't think their voices matter. We need more than a political science lecture no matter how accurate it is.

I still object to this coalition for four reasons:
1. It began with a weak leader and a divided caucus of a party that's genuinely and rightly worried about it's own financial health.
2. It now has a stronger leader with some less than progressive opinions about foreign policy (remember what he said about torture). He has also expressed less than certain commitment to this coalition.
3. Can we honestly count on the Bloc Quebecois? I mean no disrespect to our true progressive allies in the House, but their commitment is also uncertain because their focus is honestly limited to their own constituency.
4. My leader and party want six cabinet posts and the title "Deputy Prime Minister" for the leader. I think we've sold our soul and independence as the true democratic socialist voice in Ottawa for the illusion of power. Is it worth it in the long run?

Thank you again Prairie Topiary for the intelligent discussion.

Jonathon said...

If the coalition forces an election on this in the new year, Harper's going to come out of this stronger than ever.

We'll see if the kick from the holiday egg nog knocks some sense into the goons on both sides of the aisle.

Ruth Seeley said...

Ha! I love how long some of these comments are.

The threat of a coalition has done at least two good things:

revealed a certain charismatic Albertan (and I do NOT mean S. Harper) to be a sociopathic liar whose pants should literally be set on fire for saying the Conservatives never entertained the prospect of a coalition with the Bloc


shaken Canadians out of their characteristic apathy. I am so ashamed at the voter turnout in the October 13 election I'm thinking of advocating folks be stricken off the voters' list if they don't vote in two consecutive elections.