Breaking the Log Jam II

Martin and the Sponsorship Scandal

So, the Canadian prime minister spoke to the nation on the sponsorship scandal. Usual stuff: there are problems. I’m really sorry. I’m doing all I can to fix things. Please, please, please don’t rush to judgement, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But this is significant. Because the last time the Canadian prime minister addressed the nation was in October 1995. On the eve of the Quebec referendum. At the heart of a major national unity crisis.

As a result, the best speech of the night came from Jack Layton, with Gilles Duceppe pulling a close second: the sponsorship scandal is a national unity crisis only in the Liberals’ mind. It highlights again the Liberal arrogance of equating party interest with national interest. But it also mars the Conservatives, because it takes two to tango, and Harper’s dancing right along, at the expense of actual issues.

Let’s be clear. Any hint of corruption must be rooted out, but the sponsorship scandal is not the most important issue the nation faces today. The amount of money under investigation represents less than half of one percent of total government expenditure. Yes, it is terrible that the corruption we’ve seen happened under this party’s watch, but we also saw the deficit eliminted under this party’s watch. We’ve seen a decade of strong economic growth under this party’s watch. We’ve avoided a recession that nailed the Americans under this party’s watch. The Liberals under Chretien and Martin are not the most corrupt government in the history of Canada. I can easily rate four other governments who have done a worse job.

And while the Liberal government is tired and overdue for replacement, we have in place a parliament Canadians elected in the hopes of governing the country. And while the current government gridlock is cause for concern, there’s no reason other than political stupidity and overt ambition that the parties can’t set aside the rhetoric, sit down, do the job we elected them to do.

Jack Layton tapped into that. Duceppe did as well, although his protestations come across as a little false given how much the Bloc Quebecois have played the sponsorship scandal themselves. Layton spent a lot of time talking about what government should be about — the only leader to do so. We need progress on a New Deal on Cities. We need more defence spending. We need to meet our Kyoto commitments. We need tax relief. We need a national day care program. These important issues aren’t being talked about because Harper and Martin won’t get the work done.

Layton went as far as to apologize on behalf of all politicians for increasing the level of public cynicism in Canada. It’s unlikely the NDP alone can fix the situation, but finally a politician has understood the real reason we’re sick and tired of being so sick and tired. I appreciated that. I doubt I was the only one.

How to Get Down to Business

Earlier I spoke of a log jam in Canadian politics that was likely to render a second minority parliament if the election was called tomorrow. A similar log jam has locked this parliament into an exclusive focus on the sponsorship scandal. Liberal corruption and ineptitude allowed this scandal to materialize in the first place, but the Conservative focus made this parliament go all scandal, all the time. Even though the Conservatives have been handed a weapon on a silver platter, they are still polling at embarrasingly low numbers for a potential governing party, making me believe that Canadians aren’t moving to the party on the party’s own merits. With the Conservatives not getting the traction they need on other issues, they keep coming back to the Liberals’ weak point.

Short of an early election, that opinion polls suggest most Canadians do not want, the only way to break this logjam is if either of the two leaders decides to focus more on actually governing. I suspect whichever leader breaks this death spiral will be handsomely rewarded when voters are ready to go to the polls. And since the Conservatives and the Liberals look as though they are unable to work together to govern, attention must turn to the two parties that essentially share the balance of power: the NDP and the Bloc. So, what can either party do to secure the cooperation of these smaller parties, ensuring enough stability for the house for measures supported by three out of the four parties to pass?

The Conservatives are in an interesting position: they have the most momentum going into a possible election but they can’t capitalize on that momentum without losing some goodwill. Would it be possible for the Conservatives to move into the governing side using the current seating arrangements of the house? What if the Conservatives secured a deal with the NDP and the Bloc, agreeing to abide by the House’s decision on same sex marriage, for instance, while cutting taxes for the poorest Canadians, increasing defence spending, addressing the fiscal imbalance and committing to proportional representation?

If all three opposition parties teamed up to defeat the Liberals, many would expect an election would follow (Clark’s Tories were thrown out of power sooner and they got an election), but would the Governor General necessarily dissolve parliament on Martin’s recommendation when she has the three other leaders hammering on her door? A new election was held in 1980 as much because there was no stable coalition to replace Clark. A coalition between the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloc would have a substantial portion of the House.

If the Conservatives could pull this off, I think it would be an excellent strategy for them, and good for Canadian democracy over the long term. Right now, throwing the Liberals out suggests a minority Conservative government by the end of 2005. Governing with the cooperation of the NDP and the Bloc, showing Harper’s skills as a leader in tricky circumstances, giving Canadians a sample of Conservative government, could result in a Conservative majority for 2006 or 2007.

The path for the Liberals seems easier. They survived this long by turning away from the NDP and the Bloc, but now the Conservatives don’t look willing to play ball. What can the Liberals do to earn NDP and Bloc cooperation? Layton named his price. The Bloc have been equally clear on their priorities outside of Quebec sovereignty. How about a better commitment on Kyoto, getting down to business on the New Deal for Cities, and addressing the fiscal imbalance? Could that prop up this minority enough for good business to be done before the end of the year? That depends on Martin’s willingness to reach out, and the Duceppe’s willingness to live up to his speech last night.

I think most Canadians would like such a deal, no matter how unrealistic it may seem. We’ll punish the Liberals in our own time. Indeed, we’ve already punished the Liberals considerably. Now we want something a bit more challenging for Harper and Martin: we want them to govern.

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