Back rooms, front rooms

Don't worry about what politicians say in public; watch the private deals

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The Gazette, Sunday, September 6, 2009

The game is on. Two games actually: the one before the cameras and the one in the back room.

Before the cameras, Michael Ignatieff has left no doubt and no room to climb down from his declaration that Stephen Harper's "time is up." In the back room, the Liberals believe that at least they can no longer be accused of propping up the Conservative minority government, and have successfully shifted that burden to the NDP's Jack Layton.

Before the cameras, Stephen Harper is all business as usual, continuing his constant rounds of infrastructure announcements as part of the government's plan for economic recovery. Canadians don't want an election, he says, but he won't make any back-room deals to save his government.

But in the back room, the Conservatives might be plotting their own demise in the House by putting funding for the popular home renovation program into a routine supply motion that could be called as early as Sept. 17. Supply is money, and money bills are automatically questions of confidence. Take that, Iggy.

Before the cameras, Gilles Duceppe said, no problem, the Bloc Québécois would support such a supply bill, thereby ensuring its easy passage and the government's survival, taking Ignatieff off the hook for being a home reno wrecker. In the back room, the Bloc is very relaxed about the prospect of a fall election, which would probably restore them to about 50 Quebec seats. In a Léger poll in Le Devoir yesterday, the Bloc was at 36 per cent, the Libs at 30 per cent, and the Conservatives and NDP trailed at 16 per cent.

But the key finding was the breakout among francophone voters, with the Bloc at 42 per cent and the Liberals at 26 per cent, while the Conservatives and NDP were at 14 per cent. The francophone vote determines outcomes in about 60 of Quebec's 75 seats. While the Liberals have largely eclipsed the Conservatives as the competitive federalist party outside Montreal, the split of that federalist vote is significant enough to benefit the Bloc in all but a handful of those 50 seats.

As for the 18 Bloc members whose parliamentary pensions don't vest until next June, six years after they were first elected, all of them would be re-elected this fall, so they have no worries.

Before the cameras, Layton is trying a new script, looking to support the government on a case-by-case basis. Iggy handed Jack the balance of power last week, and Layton is taking it out for a spin. In the back room, the NDP is nervous about this. They don't want an election, but supporting the Conservatives isn't their thing. There isn't a single question of confidence since 2006 on which the NDP has supported the government. Then again, Layton has never been in this position before, of holding the fate of this government in his hands alone.

The trick to making minority government work is finding a reliable dance partner, and for the NDP the Liberals are a more obvious match than the Conservatives. In the 1960s, Lester Pearson's Liberals governed just short of a majority for five years with the support of Tommy Douglas and the NDP. The results included the Canadian flag, the Canada and Quebec pension plans and universal health care. Pierre Trudeau and Liberals governed in the precarious 1972-74 minority House with the support of David Lewis and the NDP.

And Layton himself propped up the Liberal minority government of Paul Martin in 2005 by securing a top-up in program spending in the budget. Where Trudeau had arranged for his defeat on the 1974 budget, as a springboard to a new majority, Martin's survival four years ago turned out to be only a six-month reprieve.

While it's notable that Layton has never supported the Conservatives before, it's sometimes overlooked that he and Harper have done business. They joined with Duceppe to topple the Martin government in the fall of 2005. The Liberals are still bitter about that, blaming the NDP for deserting the progressive cause and giving the scary Harperites the keys to the car.

Layton and Harper might well be able to have a dance or two together. Conservatives and Dippers have done it before in the provinces. In the 1970s, Bill Davis and Stephen Lewis got along famously in a minority Ontario House. In the 1990s, the NDP's Gary Doer and Conservative Premier Gary Filmon did very well in a minority Manitoba legislature.

And Doer has just been appointed ambassador to Washington by Harper, a non-partisan gesture that has delighted the NDP.

So, this House could be here for a while yet, at least until the November fiscal update, and possibly until the budget in February or March, which would be the real test of peaceful co-existence.

It doesn't depend so much as what's said on camera, as what's designed in the back room.

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