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September 23, 2009

No election please, we're Canadians

Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel S. AmdurOn hearing of the death of the Russian ambassador, Bismark sat back pensively and commented, "I wonder what he meant by that."  A similar scepticism is needed to understand the current Canadian political scene.  Let’s begin with a look at the Conservatives.

Prior to the last election, the Conservatives had passed through Parliament a law establishing a fixed election date.  However, sniffing the favourable opinion polls and hoping for a majority, they called an election. 

Currently, Democracy Watch is taking them to court asking for a declaration that the election call was illegal because of the fixed election act.  The Tories’ excuse for an election call was that Parliament had become ungovernable.  While they gained a bit in the election, they still lacked a majority.

The newly elected minority government proposed elimination of federal funding for the political parties, a measure which would have a less serious impact on the Tories than on the other parties because the Tories have been more effective in fund raising. 

As a direct result of this proposal, the three opposition parties threatened to form a Liberal-NDP government with Bloc Québécois support.  The Conservatives quickly took this idea from the table, along with other proposed regressive measures. 

They also got the Governor General to call an adjournment, during which the coalition collapsed, when the Liberals pulled out.  The Conservatives’ major contribution to making Parliament work was a handbook telling Tory committee chairmen how to disrupt the work of committees.

When the Liberals made noises suggesting impatience with what they saw as inadequate measures addressing the economy, specifically related to Employment Insurance (EI), the Conservatives and Liberals bought some time by setting up a joint working group to come up with an EI proposal.  The group got nowhere.  Michael Ignatieff then decided to vote non-confidence and precipitate an election.

It is interesting that the Liberals’ trigger issue was EI, as it was Liberal governments that cut EI to such an extent that well under half of the unemployed had a claim to it.  At the same time, with all of those paying into it, EI was a major cash cow for the government. 

But let’s go back to the coalition crisis. 

The Conservatives cried that the minority parties were hijacking the government, opening the gates to the socialist hordes and the separatist destroyers.  Of course, it would hardly be hijacking for the opposition members, who were a majority, to form a government.  However, the general public bought Harper’s alarmist screams.  More to the point, so did Ignatieff, and the coalition died, perhaps along with his hopes of ever becoming prime minister. 

Minority governments, after all, seem likely to be the norm for the near future at least.  When he declared for an election, Harper again raised the spectre of a coalition and Ignatieff promised that there would be none.

The current government’s survival has been guaranteed for the time being by the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.  Jack Layton set out clear signals that he needed an excuse to vote confidence in the government and Harper, who said that there would be no deals with the opposition parties, responded with the promise of some EI sweeteners, sweeteners which were not there when the Conservatives and Liberals had their joint working group. The “no deals” deal did the trick for Layton.

New Democrats had been voting constantly to bring down the government, till it became clear that success might well be at hand.  At that point, Jack Layton blanched.  He saw the opinion poll numbers showing the party down to 12% and he got cold feet.

Gilles Duceppe was first off the mark in agreeing to vote confidence in the Conservative government.  His given reason, that the Bloc Québécois wants the Tory home renovation tax credit legislation to pass, is simply not credible.  The Liberals have pledged to pass the necessary measure if they are elected, so the actual passage is just a formality.  So what gives with the Bloc?  In the event of an election, with Tory fortunes in Quebec on the decline, one would think that they would be in a good position to gain seats at the expense of the Tories.

Mauril Bélanger, an Ottawa Liberal MP, offered an explanation that makes sense.  Bélanger says that the Bloc is not ready, that they still need to round up a number of candidates.  “By the end of the month they should have their slate of candidates complete,” he said.  The Bloc will then have the chance to vote no confidence in October.  However, the NDP will still be propping up the Tories.  A headline in La Presse summed up the situation: “Harper the ‘socialist’ saved by the separatists.”  These were the ogres Harper was threatening us with at the time of the coalition crisis.

Just one word about coalitions at this point.  In a time of minority governments, coalitions offer some hope of stability.  The general public has two conflicting sentiments.  They don’t like coalitions but at the same time they constantly say that they don’t want another election. 

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer based across the river from Ottawa.

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