Harper's reckless game of chicken could lead to election

Opposition could form coalition government only with the Bloc - and that won't happen

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The Gazette, Sunday, November 30, 2008

Are you ready for the election? No, not the provincial election next week. The federal election soon after. I know, we just had one, but that was six weeks ago.

Besides, the Quebec election is boring. The voters, in their wisdom, are going to express their annoyance with Jean Charest for calling the election by rewarding him with a majority.

The federal election will be fun. It will be exciting. There's no telling the outcome. Stephen Harper might be returned with another minority government. More likely, as the economy slides into a recession and Ottawa heads for a deficit, the Liberals will win. No, not under Stéphane Dion's leadership. The Liberal caucus will depose him in a heartbeat, and replace him with either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae, either one of whom will improve the Liberals' standing in Quebec, and restore its place as the leading federal party in Ontario.

There's another possibility arising out of the Conservative government's economic update last week. The government could lose a vote on it and the governor-general could decline Harper's request for an election writ, and invite the opposition parties to join in a coalition government.

This seems somewhat unlikely - there are constitutional niceties involved. You can look this up under King-Byng in 1926, when the governor-general of the day, Lord Byng, declined Mackenzie King's request for a dissolution and invited Arthur Meighen to form a short-lived minority government.

The only constitutional question before the governor-general is the confidence of the House. If the opposition parties formally indicate that they are prepared to work together in a coalition government, then they can make the case that they can sustain the confidence of the House.

There is a precedent for this. In 1985 in Ontario, the NDP (led by Bob Rae, ironically) signed an agreement with the Liberals to form a Liberal government under David Peterson, even though the Conservatives had more seats.

The Liberals and NDP could try the same thing in Ottawa, but they would need support from the Bloc. Here are the numbers. The Conservatives are at 143 seats, 12 short of a majority. The Liberals and the NDP have only 77 and 37 seats respectively, for a total of 114. It takes the Bloc Québécois, and its 49 seats, to prop up a coalition.

But would the Bloc, a party whose agenda is the sovereignty of Quebec, seriously consider joining a coalition to govern the country it wants to destroy? That's one thing for the governor-general to consider in terms of such a government's inherent instability. Gilles Duceppe as minister of foreign affairs? As minister of industry, doling out favours to Quebec?

Stéphane Dion, who has already resigned as Liberal leader, would be the Liberal prime minister in a coalition government. In constitutional terms, it's the party that forms the government. But in terms of political legitimacy, a prime minister, as the head of the government, is chosen by the people.

What has taken the country to the brink of another election, or perhaps a constitutional quandary? It's not about the economic update, or the lack of stimulus in it to counter the effects of the coming economic storm. It's not even about the government's state of denial about the fiscal framework, and its insistence that it can run balanced budgets over the next four years, when all the evidence, and even Harper's own rhetoric as recently as a week ago, point to the necessity of running a deficit to moderate the effects of the coming recession.

It's about Harper's brinkmanship in ending the taxpayer subsidies of political parties, $1.95 annually for every vote. In terms of their present market share, that's $10 million for the Conservatives (38 per cent), $7 million for the Liberals (26 per cent), $5 million for the NDP (18 per cent), $3 million for the Bloc (10 per cent) and $2 million for the Greens (7 per cent). The Conservatives, who raised four times as much, $16 million, as the Liberals last year, can do without the public subsidy. The Liberals cannot. And neither can the Bloc, which receives 90 per cent of its party budget from the country it wants to break up. (What a great country!)

This is why the opposition parties were so incensed last week, and why the Conservatives blinked and folded on this issue, withdrawing the plan to end public party financing from the economic update.

But there's still the matter of the wage freeze for public servants and ending their right to strike for three years. That's not an issue only with the public service and their unions, but for the NDP and the Bloc, which count on the support of those unions.

Which is to say that unless the government folds on that point, too, it could still fall on the vote, unless the Liberals keep a dozen of their members out of the House.

This is an incredibly reckless game of chicken the Conservatives have engaged in at a time that required high-minded and bi-partisan public policy to confront the economic situation. At a minimum, the hoped-for civility of the new Parliament is already a memory and the toxic atmosphere of the previous House has returned.

Who is to blame for this? Stephen Harper. He's a brilliant tactician. But this isn't a time for tactics. It's a time for leadership.

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