The Mechanics of Losing Confidence

Michael Ignatieff in Election Mode

It’s fall, the polls are undecided, and there’s a definite smell of an election in the air. Parliament reconvenes this week, and Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals are ready. After standing up and voting with the government on over 70 confidence motions since the last election, Ignatieff seems ready and is making all sorts of noises about pulling the plug.

Just one problem: Ignatieff can’t do it alone. The make-up of this parliament grants the Harper government a stay of execution if just one opposition party offers its support, or abstains from voting against it. And now, Jack Layton is inviting Liberal derision by suggesting — after voting against the government on every confidence motion since the last election — that the NDP might throw its support behind the government on the first confidence measure of the fall session; specifically, changes to Employment Insurance that might offer more assistance to recently laid-off workers.

The Liberal response to this move was swift and to the point:

Hat tip to Warren Kinsella who, as recently been announced, has volunteered to head up the Liberal Party ‘war room’.

As an aside, I think the above advert misses a chance at a little extra subtlety. Instead of calling the NDP “Team Chicken”, they should have changed “Team Orange” to “Team Yellow”. That would have made things a bit more humorous, I think. Even if it’s not really accurate, or possibly wise.

I realize that the leadership of the Liberal Party is eager for an election. I’d like one too. And I also realize that it’s tempting to get one’s shots in early, but I have to wonder if more thought should be put into trying to define the terms under which this government falls. Are the Liberals missing an opportunity to set the theme of the election, in order to bring it about sooner rather than later?

As parliament reconvenes, there are a number of bills facing parliament that affect the lives of Canadians. Should they not be voted on based on their merits rather than whether or not the government falls if they fail? If the proposed changes to Employment Insurance provides relief for Canadians who were recently laid off, then isn’t that a good reason to vote to support it? If the NDP chooses to support the government on this one issue, you cannot accurately call them chicken, unless you can show where the flaws are in the proposed changes, and why the NDP is selling out its principles in supporting the bill in the face of these alleged flaws. And do the Liberals really want to go to the people after voting down legislation that might help individuals stricken by this recession?

There will be other votes of confidence and, more importantly, there will be opposition days, where the Liberals or any of the other opposition parties can introduce a motion of non-confidence against the government, for reasons that the opposition specifically lay out. As there are plenty of reasons to defeat the Conservative government, moreso now than when I wrote the first post, shouldn’t that be the official reason the government falls?

Worried that the government will shift opposition days to the end of the fall session to try and stave off defeat? No problem: accuse the government of clinging desperately to power and win yourself a few extra points in the polls. Worried that the New Democrats or the Bloc won’t back you on the non-confidence vote? No problem: because you have defined the terms of this vote, they now have to explain why they still have confidence in this government in the face of, say, the medical isotope shortage issue, or the shameful treatment of citizens like Abousfian Abdelrazik, Suaad Hagi Mohamud, or Abdihakim Mohamed. That’s when you roll out the rubber chicken. But why hand the government the brickbat of falling because the Liberals voted against, say, the very home renovation tax credit that they supposedly support?

Realistically, how and why this government falls won’t matter in an election campaign. At worst, if Michael Ignatieff gets blamed for forcing this election, it will cost him no more than a percentage point or two in the initial opinion polls — something that can be easily overcome, and then some, depending on how well the Liberals campaign. But in the meantime, there is something to be said for keeping those portions of parliament that are working for Canadians, working for Canadians. Assess each bill as it is introduced on its own merits and vote accordingly. If the government tries to engineer its own defeat by placing something unacceptable inside, don’t be afraid to let Canadians know, but otherwise, pass the bill. You will still have an opportunity to define the terms of the government’s true test of confidence not too long thereafter.

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