Liberals feeling their oats

The Mulroney-Schreiber affair has given the party new confidence

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The Gazette, Monday, November 26, 2007

As Stéphane Dion marks his first anniversary as Liberal leader this week, party strategists are boldly talking about bringing the minority Conservative government down in February before the budget, so they won't have to campaign against all the good news and tax cuts in it.

There's only one problem with this - they need an opposition day in the House, and a question of confidence to do it. The government controls the allocation of opposition days, and having read in the paper that the Liberals plan to defeat the government before the budget, the Conservatives won't allow any opposition days before a budget in late February.

Moreover, the Conservatives can have a budget any time they want, as they just proved with their Halloween treats in the Oct. 30 mini-budget, which turned out to be a big surprise package full of $60 billion worth of goodies, much more than just the expected cut to the GST. A budget that's expected in late February can always be moved up to early February.

If this is the big Liberal stealth strategy, they might as well have sent their campaign playbook over to the Conservative war room.

Except the Liberals don't have a playbook yet. They don't have a plane. They don't have much money. They don't have a platform, although they have a leader who is making one up as he goes along.

But they know if they can get to the next election, they can get enough money from Elections Canada to fight one - $1.75 per vote per year for each party's showing in the last one. For the Liberals, that would give them a $18-million line of credit at the bank, and put them on a level playing field with the Conservatives.

The Conservatives enjoy a huge comparative advantage over the Liberals in private fundraising. For one thing, they are in government. For another, with their Reform roots, they have become the party of many small donors, as opposed to the corporate culture of the Grits. The Liberals' problem is that since their campaign finance reforms of 2003 and especially since the Accountability Act of 2006, they're out of the business of fundraising dinners at $5,000 a table. The Chrétien reform eliminated corporate donors, and under the Harper reform, individual donors max out at $1,100 a year. Thus, in the first three-quarters of this year, the Cons raised $12.1 million, while the Libs raised only $2.9 million. Even the NDP, at $2.5 million, has raised almost as much as the Liberals.

A campaign largely financed by public funds is a great leveller, and is a highly tempting prospect for the Liberals. Moreover, the political winds have shifted in the last three weeks, with the explosion of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, which has pushed everything else, including the simmering crisis in Liberal ranks over Dion's leadership, out of the news cycle.

There's no telling how a parliamentary committee will come out on the Mulroney-Schreiber matter - it's likely to be a circus. But the Liberals will do everything they can to pin it on Harper. There's no other reason for them raising such a furor over Schreiber's crazy letters to Harper, letters the Liberals themselves had for weeks, as did the NDP, and did nothing about them. Still, the Conservatives looked to be moving to majority territory only three weeks ago, and they now appear to be falling back to their 2006 number of 36 per cent, and that's four points short of a majority.

As for Dion's improvisations on a platform, they have been mostly lurches to the left. His main policy speech during the parliamentary recess was a call to reduce child poverty. Of course, the interest groups immediately denounced this as inadequate, as did the NDP and the Bloc, which don't like being crowded on the left. Then, the other day, Dion wrote the governor of Montana, asking him to commute the death sentence of a Canadian convicted of killing two American Indians in the 1980s. Previously, Dion was strongly critical of Stephen Harper for not intervening in the case, the insinuation being that the Tories had a hidden agenda for the restoration of capital punishment. While this isn't serious public policy, it's not hard to torque up into an easy headline.

Dion had to be talked into backing off on the Throne Speech because the Liberals so feared a fall election. By February, the thinking is that the Liberals will tire of being ridiculed for abstaining, when the role of the official opposition is to oppose.

The idea is that an election would at least release them from this purgatory, and give them a fighting chance to regain government. There's only problem with this - elections are fought by the leader, and this leader is hard to sell.

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