Wed, Feb
27
2008

The Formalization of the Liberal-Conservative Coalition Government?

Wed, Feb 27, 2008

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Well, damned if I didn’t go and change my mind.

I wrote the last half of this post in something of the heat of the moment. I had just learned that the Liberal opposition leader Stephane Dion had promised NOT to topple the Conservative government over the recently released budget, and I blew a gasket. There were so many reasons I wanted to see this government fall, and this was the last in a long line of embarrassing roll-overs as the government’s lapdog, I’d had enough. But then this article caught my attention

Cities, transit groups praise budget

Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver to benefit from $500-million fund

Municipality and transit associations applauded the Conservative government’s $500-million boost for public transit in Tuesday’s budget, calling the extra money a pleasant surprise.

“It’s a good day for municipalities. We are very pleased with this budget,” Gord Steeves, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, told CBC News.

“Frankly, we didn’t expect anything in this budget on the issue of transit,” he said.

The funds are set aside for construction-ready public transit projects, meaning initiatives either already announced or where municipal commitments were to be made by the end of March.

Projects alloted money include:

  • The Evergreen Light Rapid Transit System in Vancouver.

  • The re-establishment of a rail link between Peterborough, Ont., and Union Station in Toronto.

  • New equipment and upgrades to dedicated rapid transit routes for the A√©roports de Montr√©al.

And all this is new money, committed to projects which have already received municipal and provincial approval. Which suggests to me that Transit City might be getting some. Further, the transfers of the gas tax to municipalities have been made permanent beyond 2014.

Interesting. Very interesting.

The Peterborough-Toronto railroad link is a bit of regional pork on Flaherty’s behalf (the line passes through his riding, although to be fair I doubt there are many stops there), but here we have the Conservatives spending, in an area of the country where they were shut out last election. They’ve made some small steps towards patching up the contretemps with Dalton McGuinty. This may be the good “general direction” that Dion was talking about in stating his reasons for not opposing the budget (and leaving open the possibility of voting in favour of it).

And I’m reminded of how neatly the Conservatives worked with the Liberals to take the Afghanistan issue off the table. While it would be a stretch to call the final resolution a compromise (nods in Jason Cherniak’s direction), it was still an interesting show of give and take that I would normally applaud in a minority government. Save for a couple of barks from the usual attack dogs, the final resolution was reached in such a way that the Liberals didn’t lose face. And that is a significant step out of character from one Stephen Harper.

So, it’s clear, given the suddenly cautious budget, given the nods towards municipal infrastructure, that the Conservative government wants an election as much as the Liberals do — which is to say, not at all. For all their bluster, they’re just as cowardly as the Liberals are. And, why not? With both parties tied and the Conservatives still below the historic low level of public support ever accorded to the most popular party in an election, or Joe Clark, an election now would, at best, simply rearrange the seats in parliament and do nothing to the party standings or, at worst, cost them the prime minister’s chair. They have more to lose.

So the result is a rather schizophrenic Conservative Party, which on one hand seems to want to reach out and shake the Canadian electorate for its blindness to Conservative values and, on the other, operates on the realization that doing so would put them out of power for a very long time. The question is, which party is going to show up on any given day of the week? Which party does Stephen Harper lead? And, if he’s not one of the moderates, what is it that the moderates do that brings him under control?

So, with this realization behind me, I’m left with the question of what to do with this rant that follows. And I’ve decided I should leave it up, and leave it to you to decide whether I should be eating crow for having written it, or if I’m too easily distracted by a public transit bauble. Read and decide.


Original Post: An Embarrassment to the Opposition

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Earlier today, the Conservatives delivered a pretty ho-hum budget, with a low surplus, no major tax cuts and no major spending increases or decreases. And, despite no less than three strong opportunities for this government to fall, it looks like it won’t. Stephen Harper may govern this minority parliament until October 2009 after all.

There are no good words for this, although Dion tries to sugar coat it. This is a surrender and an embarrassment. The Liberal opposition deserves to be ashamed of themselves. They have granted Stephen Harper majority government in all but name.

There may have been some benefit in holding off on an election, appearing to make parliament work in the face of an increasingly belligerent and immature Conservative leadership. There are certainly risks in pulling the plug on this parliament with the two parties effectively tied. But there are only so many times you can roll over when the government challenges you, before you start looking irrelevant.

This is a failure, not just of Stephane Dion’s leadership, but the Liberal Party’s commitment to serve Canadians as her majesty’s loyal opposition. The duty of Dion should be to oppose, to question this government’s record and to call out its mistakes and failures, to give Canadians an opportunity to pass judgement, to give us a referendum on our commitment to Afghanistan. To remind parliamentarians of all stripes who their real bosses are.

And the Liberal reluctance makes no sense to me. As Warren Kinsella notes, “Why does the federal Liberal braintrust believe that waiting will make their prospects any better than they are right now?” There is plenty to call the Conservative government on, from its cavalier and shamelessly partisan attitude to our public service (see the Keen/Lunn affair), to the its temper tantrums at committee, to its backing of badly written laws written for deceitful political aims. But the Liberals are gathering a record of their own too. Each time they duck the opportunity to fight, they reveal themselves to be less and less of a compelling alternative to the government side. How can you hold a government to account when you duck every serious opportunity to do just that? At this point, you become a prop for the government, a supporter of the government, and your voters didn’t elect you to be that.

It’s clear that Stephane Dion is a weak leader. He doesn’t have the strength to marshal the party behind him for a fight. But there’s more to it than that. I don’t see any way that changing the leadership of the Liberal Party would change this situation. Dion is hardly a coward; he has fought Quebec separatists, he has fought a spirited race for the leadership of his party, and he has fought to keep his seat in the face of Martinite indifference. When he alone was responsible for the fighting, he has never backed down from a fight.

But he knows he can’t go into an election campaign without the enthusiasm of major elements of his party, and they’re a bunch of cowards. It’s a nasty self-fulfilling prophasy, since a party with no enthusiasm for an election is unlikely to fare well in an election, and a party unlikely to fare well in an election is unlikely to develop much enthusiasm for one.

The Liberals could still redeem themselves, perhaps after Bob Rae and Justin Trudeau bring themselves to parliament and start to make sparks in Question Period, but the time for the Liberals is running out. They risk losing what support they have the longer they seem afraid of putting that support to the test.

Fair warning.


So, your call. Crow or bauble?


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