Conservative Leadership Change

Having had the pleasure (if that’s what it is) of watching the estimable Count Doctor Professor Michael Ignatieff assume the throne of the Liberal Party of Canada this week, it’s time for Conservatives to turn their heads, while the prorogued Parliament remains quiescent, to a far more important question: who should lead the Conservative Party of Canada going forward?

Let me give you a hint: someone’s who been a former broadcaster, a full professor at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, and a respected figure in intellectual circles in the United Kingdom and the United States isn’t going to as easy to pin down and label as a sociologist trained in France. In other words, back alley bullying isn’t the tactic required now.

Stephen Harper Should Stand Down

When it is time to write the history of this first decade of the twenty-first century, Stephen Harper will be remembered for accomplishing something which appeared to be impossible as the 2000s dawned. He restructured and disciplined the former Reform movement by becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance, then reached out and swallowed hard to accept Progressive Conservative requirements for a merger of the two parties. He then defined the new Conservative Party of Canada and, unlike all the years since Sir John A. Macdonald, taught it the virtue of party discipline. He defeated the imperial ambitions of a self-centred, entitlement-theory Paul Martin, first whittling him down to a minority, then booting him out of Government altogether. Most recently, he built on this, and although a majority eluded him, he gained popular vote and seats for the Conservatives, with an absolute majority of 60% across all provinces not named Québec (and including Newfoundland & Labrador, the only province not returning Conservative MPs).

In other words, he’s built a legacy, and one that can continue. Infighting in public is a thing of the past, as are eruptions that are off-message or detrimental to the party’s success.

The very skills that brought him here, however, are the ones that will sink him in the future. As we saw in late November and early December, self-inflicted wounds are now the result. Although he has taken the steps needed to lower the combative temperatures, some of the prices we as a nation will now pay for his misjudgement as to whether he has a majority or a minority (the per-vote funding cut) will lead to billions misallocated, deficits we will have grave difficulty paying back in an economy which at best is neutral for years to come, and an emboldening of the Opposition to demand more, more, more: a high national price to pay to save Harper’s skin.

Good policy, therefore, requires that Stephen Harper follow Stéphane Dion into history’s books, albeit with a much better write-up.

Why a New Leader is Needed

No man — and no leader — is more important than their party and its chances to govern. (This, incidentally, is something Ignatieff, with his waffling around the coalition, seems to understand somewhat, although if he really “got it” he would not have put signature to paper.) This is as true of those who succeed in leading their party to the west side benches of the Commons as those who fail to do so.

Opinions about leaders decline over time. The person who once was new, exciting, different and dynamic later is seen to be covered in warts. We forget that Harper’s journey to where he is today has kept him in the centre of the national stage now for nearly eight full years. Those who like him may stand by him, or may erode away with one incident after another. But few will be persuaded to set aside negative views, now. Those are cast in concrete.

As with Trudeau — happily booted out in 1979 (and unfortunately inflicted on the nation to do far more damage in 1980 thanks to Joe Clark’s inability to even place a phone call to get the votes he needed), and as with Mulroney, despised long before resigning in 1993 — Harper’s day has now passed. He can step down on the top (more or less) of his game, or he can wait to be booted out by the Canadian people. Perhaps not at the next election — right now it is his to lose — but certainly at the one after that.

But what a surprise if his Christmas message to the nation this year was “My friends, it is time that I went. I call upon my party to schedule a leadership campaign, with a vote in early July 2009, at which point I shall step down in favour of my successor.”

Consider this: an Opposition who topples Harper at this point gets him for one more campaign, and one likely to return a Conservative majority if only because such a move would gain him votes. It would be Trudeau 1980 all over again — and they could be sure that the first bill after the Throne Speech following that election would strip away their funding.

Yet, with Harper going, he is no longer the demon. His face can no longer go up during the Two Minutes’ Hate on a daily basis to rally the troops and prepare for Question Period.

Not only that, but, by resigning, Harper need not give away the store for enough abstentions or votes for the Government’s program so that he survives. That would be good for Canada.

Who Are The Conservatives?

Having just completed a policy convention, a leadership race would allow candidates to finish the job of defining Canada’s Conservatives to Canadians. There will be different views put forward: this is a good thing in the context of a leadership race. (Meanwhile, although it is [at this juncture] to be a thinly-attended coronation, let’s not forget that the Liberals do not have a permanent leader officially until the beginning of May.)

Demonstrating the openness of the Conservative Party to different views — a healthy debate — in the absence of one in the Liberal Party (already damaged by the coalition manoeuvre) — is a good thing. It opens the door for former PCs that went Liberal to consider returning, and Blue Liberals to take another look at themselves and their opponents. This single set of months would do more to complete the task of institutionalising the Conservatives as a broad-spectrum governing party — one that must earn government and not default into it, but that appeals to a majority of Canadian voters — than anything else I can think of.

All it requires is for the Prime Minister to put strategy above tactics, and the good of the nation and the party ahead of himself.

With two new leaders facing each other in the fall session of Parliament — whether there is an intervening election or not — old battle lines would finally fall away. The next decade in Canada will be tough: let’s prepare for it properly.

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Why You and I Are Smarter Than Those Clowns

It seems to be an almost near inevitability these days that we must periodically go through a bout of national agony at the hands of our elected politicians.

From the repatriation of the Constitution (which, despite all the All Hail Trudeau mythology, was not and is not universally acclaimed by Canadians), to the Charlottetown Accord (defeated nationally and sent to referendum only under duress in the first place), to this month’s Coalition attempt at power, Canadians have increasingly rejected the notion that our politicians can fundamentally change power and its distribution in this country without the Canadian people having a say.

In other words, we reject now the notion that MPs and Senators, or Provincial Premiers meeting with the Prime Minister, are our betters, an élite that can decide for us. This is why the polls (Strategic Counsel, Ipsos, Ekos) this week show majorities in favour of (a) the Conservatives, (b) an election if in January the government fails a confidence motion and (c) no coalition politics. Yes, our constitutional practice allows for coalitions, and allows for transfers of power across the aisle without an election. But the Canadian people no longer stand for it.

It is a dead letter, and I believe the Governor-General took that into account, both by approving the prorogation of Parliament this week (a time for reflection and sober second thought and for MPs to hear their constituents’ ire directly) and by, in essence, saying that if we come back in January and the government is immediately defeated out of hand a request for a writ of election will not be dismissed as poor advice.

Would any of us tolerate any government simply nominating a person — or a committee of “wise heads” — and then merely and meekly enacting whatever orders this arbitrary power said were necessary “for the greater good” (or any other mealy-mouthed slogan of your liking)? No — we would rightly call that dictatorship. This is why people like Yesterday’s Bob Rae, who is stumping the country for a transfer of power without our having any say in the matter are yesterday’s people. He was for Trudeau running rough-shod over the provinces and the Canadian people with his mania to change the constitutional framework of the country. He was for Meech Lake and Charlottetown as “élite deals”. Now he is for overriding the decision of the last election (and all those who chant — incorrectly, too — “62% against Harper”) which, whether these “we know better than yous” like it or not, returned a larger number of Conservative MPs with a larger share of the popular vote.

Bob Rae, in other words, like many others on the left in this country, want to take away the decision-making power of the Canadian people. A vote is only “good” when it gives the results it “should”. Otherwise it’s something to dispense with.

That’s why you and I are smarter than these kinds of clowns.

You see, we can be rabidly partisan, but we also recognise something important: the will of our neighbours.

I, for instance, did not see my chosen candidate as MP of our riding elected in October (or during the by-election in March 2008 — and I voted for different candidates in these two polls). But the victor is my MP, because more of my neighbours thought she (a) represented their leader of choice, (b) ran for their party of choice or (c) was personally the best choice.

BC, provincially, has recall legislation: if you can find enough people to join you, you can force a second election for a sitting MLA. This is not dissimilar to what the coalition has tried to pull: “we don’t like the result, so we’ll try and overturn it”. I don’t much like the recall initiative and I don’t like the stunt that was pulled this week.

So while none of us individually may pass muster as smarter or better informed than the person in the Prime Minister’s seat, or in the Cabinet, or even sitting on the Opposition benches, collectively we do. This is what we recognise now, and have since the early 1980s. That’s why élite accommodation is no longer wanted.

This, too, is why Ignatieff’s dancing — I won’t say “no” to the coalition but I’ll drop all these hints I disagree — doesn’t help his cause, either. That, too, is a game played amongst a small circle of players: yet another élite play.

Liberals often wonder why the Conservatives have an advantage in fund-raising. (So do Dippers, but they tend not to muse in front of microphones about it.) When you play élite games, people don’t want to pay into them. Conservatives, because of the great split between the PCs and Reform, had to seriously tone down the playing of élite games. They get the money. Pay attention: it’s not that hard to figure out. (Unless, of course, you presume the power should be yours so that you can play your games out.)

Canadians have ofttimes been declared apolitical — only a very small number of us actually join political parties, and an even smaller number than that work in EDAs. But we’re not: the rallies — both the Rally for Canada and the Coalition ones — attracted Canadians in numbers to stand in the cold, the wet, the dark and express themselves. We are apolitical only because all that’s wanted from us is our occasional vote, our money and otherwise a willingness to go along without complaint.

Those days are over. The West is more than irked with this notion of élites (even while practising it itself provincially).

You and I are smarter than those clowns, too, because we can see that Harper has taken the Conservatives about as far as he can. We may well, if asked soon, return a majority Conservative Government (the attempt to, by élite accommodation, displace the government is a worse evil than Harper’s poor judgement). But we also know that Harper has given us Liberal-light, not fiscal conservatism; waste and slop, not effective programs; prioritised operations and tactics over strategy. In other words, unlike them, who put their personal gain ahead of the country (and in this I include Harper), we can make a decision to accept some bad with the good.

I mentioned my MP earlier, and now here’s why: by being an Opposition MP, were she to break with the coalition, she could represent us. As along as she does what she’s done since her election in March — shout inanely across the aisle and slavishly follow her leader — she’s a toady. If all I can get is a toady, I’ll take a Conservative toady, thank you (better for the country, potentially).

Why people capable of complex reasoning — people like you and me — turn into simple minded gits when they get elected is beyond me. What I do know is this: the clowns no longer have the authority to run the asylum.

We do.

Election Day: 9 March 2009?

New polls show huge Tory gains:
Ipsos CPC 46, LPC 23, NDP 13, BQ 9, GPC 8
Ekos CPC 44, LPC 24, NDP 15, BQ 9, GPC 8
— Bourque Newswatch

So here we are, more or less quietly reposing after Parliament has been prorogued (aside from the Coalition rally in Vancouver tonight, where a tweet decrying the fact that “Conservative staffers are here” was sent out, as though the secret police were listening to the insurrection, and “Big Brother” Stéphane Dion addressed the crowd via video). Yet into the middle of this calm comes two of the national polling firms, showing that the events of the past few days have actually accrued to the Conservatives’ benefit — and significantly so, for 44% is generally considered to be “majority territory”.

Andrew Coyne, in his usual complete way, has detailed some other aspects of these readings of the public mood:

Ipsos numbers show, further, that 60% of the public opposes the coalition, 62% are “angry” with it for trying to take power, while 68% support the Governor General’s decision. The Grits can read the numbers as well as I can. There is no way they will return to this well.

When one looks at the sheer amount of time given to the coalition, and the general presumptions that Stephen Harper shot himself in the foot permanently that have coloured newscasts, opinion pieces and punditry in the media, and that it was inevitable that the coalition would topple the Government on the House’s return, you do have to wonder how much of these numbers is your average Canadian saying “go away, leave me alone: if I have to vote in a majority to get you to stop, then I will”.

I say this because of the reaction today to all this within my own family. Both my wife and my daughter wash their hands of the whole process. “I might vote once more simply to get this to end” was my daughter’s view — and she is anything but a fan of the Conservatives or the Prime Minister. But, like an ongoing thunderstorm, there comes a point where “enough!” kicks in.

One has a greater appreciation of Bob Rae’s foaming at the mouth now. These numbers say clearly “that was your chance”.

In any event, I do expect the confidence motions to topple the Government. At that point I expect the Prime Minister to ask for a writ of election — and if the Conservatives make moves to be conciliatory, I daresay he’ll get it.

The Monday following a minimum length campaign after that fall would be March 9.

This time, I expect Canadians to vote in enough Conservative MPs to put an end to instability. Most of these will probably come in Western Canada, affecting a few Liberal seats and a number of NDP ones. Possibly the rest in Ontario, in the 905 and possibly one in the 416. These will make up for any losses in Québec.

The most interesting variable will be if the Liberals and NDP do not run candidates against each other but divide up the ridings. I don’t see this happening — look at the uproar of running in only 307 ridings last time within Liberal circles — but it is a possibility. Even so, 44%+ is a solid lead.

Canada Dodges a Bullet

Despite the ranting and railing about the failure of the Governor-General to carry on and enable the Coalition of the Really Big Egos to take power after the Liberal non-confidence motion that was scheduled for next Monday, I believe that the Governor-General made a very prudent decision today. Furthermore, despite the wailing that “Harper got his way” (the sotto voce “again” is implicit in the wail), I don’t think he did. This has turned out to be a very good day for Canada and for Parliament, and our Governor-General is to be commended for offering us all a way out of the current game of chicken going on in Ottawa.

That is, of course, if we’ll take it.

Of course, with Layton chanting “Harper can’t be trusted” and Duceppe claiming “Harper’s already lost confidence” it looks as though we’ll have to endure a few more days of posturing.

The 62% Solution: Disenfranchise the Rest

So many of the Coalition’s supporters in the outside world (the Twitter hashtag #coalition, used to mark pro-Coalition tweets, has had more traffic than Christmas in the past few days, and much despair this morning) harp on the fact that 62% of Canadians who voted didn’t vote for Harper. (It’s never “didn’t vote Conservative”; it’s always personalised. They voted for MPs, parties, platforms; we voted for Der Führer.) It fascinates me that they’re quite prepared to disenfranchise — and openly so — all those who didn’t vote “with them”.

Fact: we all voted for MPs to sit in a Parliament.
Fact: none of us voted for a President independently of that.
Fact: we expect our MPs to accept the lead of someone in the House.
Fact: that lead can change without another trek to the polls.
Fact: the responsibility of the MP is to Parliament and Canada’s governance, not party or leader.

You might have balked at the last one, for parties make whether or not to say hello to a fellow MP from another party into a three-line whip matter in Ottawa today. Civility has gone by the wayside — just ask Today’s Bob Rae, with his “I don’t trust anything Harper says” how ready he is to work with all his fellow MPs. Likewise, branding the BQ as “separatists” (“sovereignists” would be a far better English translation) essentially says those MPs are not to be worked with.

Too bad. You might have contempt for Dion/Harper — each gang on the benches has contempt for one or the other of them — but we get nowhere by giving voice to that. On either side of the aisle.

100% of MPs represent Canadians. I didn’t vote for the candidate who became my MP, but for all of that she is now my MP and must represent me as much as those who voted for her. All MPs must take all strands of opinion in their ridings into account, and work with all 307 other MPs when in Ottawa. There is, in other words, no 38% and no 62%, and anyone who says so is wrong.

The Grace of a Cooling Off Period

What the Governor-General did give us all is the grace of over seven weeks to cool off and come at the country’s issues again with a clean slate. Let us remember that the Throne Speech passed: we can work together if we want to.

Politics may be a blood sport, but when annihilating the opposing players becomes the first thought of the day, the last thought of the day and guides everything in between, it’s time to sit down and reflect on who you’ve become. Of this, many are guilty, including all party leaders of the nonce.

MPs should be back in their ridings, gathering input from Canadians. I know I’ll be offering it to my MP. As she is not in the government caucus, I shall be cognisant of what she ran on in October. I will not ask her to set her views in that regard aside. I will ask her to work with others from all parties — not just some of them — to make this Parliament work as it is, to offer suggestions to help reach common ground, rather than treat the first vote on January 27 when the session resumes as the resumption of non-confidence combat. I will tell her that playing coalition games rather than dealing with the country’s business, and carrying out some strange vendetta against the very thought of the Conservatives being in power is not only unworthy behaviour, but that she will motivate me to work for her demise as an MP. In other words, keep your own party leadership’s blood-lust at bay while remaining true to the platform you ran on and working to get some portion of it into the Government’s thinking.

Idealistic? Oh, probably. But one must try. This is the gift the Governor-General gave us: to try.

Leadership Review for Harper

I voted Conservative, but I didn’t vote for Harper. He just happens to be the current party leader. I believe that during this seven week period Harper should put himself forward for review by the Conservative Party.

I really do not care at this point whether he succeeds smashingly in that review, or if the numbers suggest a leadership race should be held. The fact is that he gambled away our support with his own ego play. A blind squirrel could have found the nut labelled “torque the Opposition with withdrawal of their funds and the firestorm is on”: they were apparently looking for a casus belli but, for heaven’s sake, a motion that requires Opposition MPs to support it to pass like that won’t — and any idiot other than one blinded by political blood-lust would have seen it. So it’s time to face the music.

Indeed, doing so could do more than any other act to restore Harper as someone Opposition MPs can respect and perhaps even trust. Not those who stood to gain by the coalition directly, but those with moral fibre and an open mind.

Restore my faith in you, Mr. Harper, and show me it’s not just “all about you”.

Liberal Interim Leader Now

The other side of the coin here is that Stéphane Dion’s willingness to abandon all his principles, all his moral fibre, to become a caricature of the man he abhors (as shown by his coalition dealings) means he is willing to destroy the Liberal Party to save himself. In Dion’s case, of course, he has already resigned as leader and a leadership match is underway. All the Liberal grandees need to do is replace him with an Interim Leader. And they should, immediately.

Fact: he lied outright about the “wise men” committee
Fact: he’s indicated the open Senate seats are spoils to be awarded
Fact: he’s undone future Liberal attempts to marginalise the NDP, a party essential
Fact: he and his advisors are inept — watch last night’s video

Canadians already viewed Dion negatively. This week he’s made it worse. Apparently, to avoid joining Edward Blake in the history books, Dion will do anything and destroy his party for his five months of fame. The damage this would do to the Liberal Party is immense and perhaps irretrievable.

So, Liberals, get him out of there. Oddly enough, it would probably help the acceptance of your coalition should the Conservative Government fall in late January.

The Nature of the Bullet

The bullet we dodged today was not the Coalition taking power. It was the break-up of the country.

I was pooh-poohed this morning on Twitter by a Torontonian, whom I’ll quote verbatim, including her emphases:

la_panique @bas1809 I lived out West for 25 years, and let me tell you, there’s NOTHING more insular and ignorant. #coalition

Western Canadians, like Canadians everywhere, are not a monoculture. We have our leftist ideologues, our socon radicals and the like just as does Toronto, Québec, and the Atlantic region. But Western Canadians share two common threads:

Fact: Québec sovereigntists are not liked
Belief: A belief that they are an economic colony of the Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal axis
Belief: A belief that their interests are generally trodden on by “the East”

The Harper Government, for all its faults, is seen as a Government that at least attempts to include and listen to the West. (When in Opposition entreaties were made to the BQ by both the CA (2000) and the CPC (2005), these were done to in turn deal with a perceived greater evil, the outright misuse of power and theft from Canadians of the Chrétien-Martin governments, but in both cases these were proposals made swallowing hard, because dealing with the BQ was not liked in the West, period.) To overturn that Government for an Eastern one (the proposed coalition holds very few seats west of Ontario) will be seen as a form of legal coup d’êtat.

So the threat is to kick into being a Western separatist movement (and any that starts out west won’t be a hand-out driven “what’s in it for us today” form as is seen in Québec; no, this will be out and out Clarity Act conforming “we’re out of here, good-bye”, pure and simple). The Western Premiers know this: this is why they spoke out for calmer heads and no coalition, at least now.

That a region that has a high percentage of voters valuing fiscal conservatism (and sadly disappointed by the Harper Government) would, in turn, under the coalition, watch billions thrown around while taxes remain high and program spending in Ottawa is not reined in, when they are the only ones paying a surplus into Confederation would act as the trigger.

This, too, the Governor-General has given us a chance to forestall. Let us hope that at the Premiers’ meeting with the Prime Minister on January 16 some of this comes to light and aids him in deciding how to meet the House on January 27.

The Rt. Hon. Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean is to be commended for having considered what is best for Canada, not its politicians, today.

Chirps from the Disenfranchised

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
— Edward Blake (1729-97)

If you look to the right on your screen and scroll down a bit, you’ll find my Twitter feed. Twitter has given me the ability to micro-blog all day — and the past few days have certainly given me more than enough to tweet about.

I have, of course, no way of knowing whether any of these little pixellated blasts of ire have done any good, for anyone. What I do know is this: they have reached others (judging by the feedback), given aid and comfort to those who shared the views; made more than one who didn’t think for a moment; perhaps changed a mind. As days go, not a bad return on work.

Here, however, is where the pieces must be summed up. Die-hards of all persuasions will likely detest the following. Such is life.

No Coalition

One billion for Québec, over and above anything else, plus its share of the bailout and “do something” monies. That’s bad enough. Read (and thanks to Raphael Alexander for this) the concordat of the coalition carefully: it talks about creating a government for Canada and Québec.

Not for Canada and a foreign nation. Not for Canada and a province. Québec treated as an equal: a nation-state in fact. How any Canadian patriot could sign such a document or support it is beyond me, for no province is above the others in the sense of being a co-equal nation-state to the country itself. But this is what “Captain Canada”, le Professeur Dion, and Jack “I never met a bandwagon I didn’t jump on” Layton have signed onto: the de facto separate and equal status of the nation-state of Québec.

And money, too: the BQ and PQ (did you forget there is a provincial election going on in Québec, where the PQ can trumpet the success of the federal separatist wing in time for the vote on Monday?) would have settled for the equal treatment alone.

The coalition is a triumph of overwrought egos, who (according to Jack Layton on Monday) began cooking this up even while the last election was still going on. So much for making Parliament work. The Conservative camp followers may have jumped on the phrase “coup” but, separately, I will call this an attempted peaceful coup d’êtat, complete to Stéphane Dion today telling the Governor-General what she can and can’t do when the Prime Minister visits her tomorrow.

A few people have broken ranks. Frank Valeriote, the Liberal MP for Guelph, has spoken out against the coalition. The “wise men” (who were trumpeted, but not actually asked and confirmed before the press conference) have mostly bowed out. Only the unrepentant Paul Martin, the last Prime Minister to take to the national airwaves to plead for his job (“Daddy so much wanted to be Prime Minister and now I’ve made it, so please don’t take Daddy’s prize away from me”: how embarrassing!) hasn’t clearly distanced himself. Meanwhile, the old meddler, Jean Chrétien, and Ed Broadbent, look to live out their dreams once more through Dion and Layton.

Then there’s the Premiers. Campbell of BC, Stelmach of Alberta and Wall of Saskatchewan are dead set against the coalition taking power without letting the Government get to a budget, at least. Considering that these are the three provinces paying into Confederation at the moment one might think their views would carry weight. No. Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador is neither here nor there, but leans toward no. McGuinty of Ontario has not come out in favour (“just send us money and stop playing games”) and Charest of Québec used the opportunity to reassert his independence of the whole Ottawa scene. Not exactly a vote of confidence, even with Manitoba, PEI and Nova Scotia sitting on the fence.

On the other hand there’s New Brunswick’s Graham, who laid down a multi-year deficit plan today and wants a billion or so as soon as possible. Oddly enough, he’s a Liberal. A precursor of the coalition in office? One wonders…

Then there’s Ignatieff, who’s staying at arm’s-length (and silent). Rae, on the other hand, is happy to join in — and has been lecturing us that those who defend a non-coalition Canada are patriots and thus evil, and that those who don’t support the coalition are unCanadian. Using the tactics of US Senator Joseph McCarthy — or US President George W. Bush, with his “those who are not with us are against us” ideology — to tar and feather anyone who stands up rather than acquiesce is really a page from the Bolshevik school of debate. Of course, he’s on all fours with his leader — and the leader of his former party — on this score.

The leaders of this little venture — which, incidentally precludes (if everyone honours their agreements, a dubious prospect given recent history) an election before 2011 at the earliest and thus no way for us to validate their policy gamble — have drool rolling off their chins, they are so mad to seize power. This issue isn’t “a lack of a bailout and stimulus package”; it’s not even “taking our money away” any more. Now it’s simply “hating Harper” and a lust for revenge upon the Canadian people for not voting Harper out on October 14.

I do not acquiesce to being disenfranchised. Should the coalition take power, count on me at least to be part of your extra-parliamentary opposition. Should my MP (who is a Liberal) not join Valeriote, I will work actively to toss her the next time we are allowed by “our betters” to vote. She did not campaign in September and October on this. As far as I’m concerned, she’s crossed the floor into never-never land.

Face The Music, Mr. Harper

Meanwhile, over on the elected Government benches, the Fearless Leader (for those of you who remember the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons) has flattened his lip by stepping on it solidly with both feet.

Canada does not have the same sort of economic woes as does the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc. Brain-dead middle managers thrive on “best practices”, adopting the solution to a problem someone else faced; real leaders work to solve the actual problems at hand. We should not be copying the G-20 precisely because we are not in the same condition as the G-20. So I supported the tenor of the Economic Statement last week (in fact, I object to the behind-the-curtain stimulus already unleashed in almost all cases).

As for how our political parties are funded, I agree with the Prime Minister: the subsidy on a per-vote basis should go.

Now any half-wit with two brain cells to rub together could have seen that trying to take the mother’s milk of politics away from the Opposition parties, all of whom (and none more than the BQ — apparently Québéçois will vote for a separatist party, but they won’t pay for one) are far more dependent upon those per-vote subsidies than are the Conservatives, even those the CPC, as the primary vote getter in the land, stood to lose the most absolute dollars by this move, would lead to a backlash. Indeed, none of the Opposition parties could support that initiative. It is one for a day when one holds a clear majority — and not before.

Disciplining the public sector unions was a necessary step toward trimming Ottawa further, and was quite necessary.

So the Prime Minister, doing the right thing, stepped in one of the largest cow patties of all time last week.

The resulting explosion — and walking into a long-planned trap — has left Harper scrambling. Personally, I wouldn’t have pulled back everything that he did. (The per vote subsidy, yes: this isn’t World War I, and there’s no need to die for a muddy hill for no strategic purpose.) However, he has risked the Conservative Party and its position in Government unnecessarily. For this, there must be an accounting: not to calm the Opposition, but to face the CPC and its members.

Putting himself under leadership review for this blunder is thus required, and (if a prorogation is obtained) before the House sits again.

Now the Conservative Party may well give Harper a ringing endorsement: a review, after all, is a simple “yes/no” vote on whether to have a leadership contest. If so, atonement is over. If a significant minority wants a review, however, he should face one. Conservative Governments are not yet the norm: to lose one in such a cavalier manner should require him to face opponents.

(Indeed, all the Federal Party Leaders are well past their best-before date. As anyone who’s ever seen a client and an outsourcer fight endlessly over contract performance, there comes a time to turf the faces at the table on all sides, and start again with new people. Ottawa today is in precisely this position.)

I do believe that the Conservative Party has come far enough now that it need no longer be held together by Harper personally. I also believe its members by and large know what the price of failing to support a leader would be. It is therefore quite safe — from a party point of view — to do this. If it sways a few on the East side benches, so much the better. But it is the health of future Conservative Governments which is being cared for here.

I did not vote for Stephen Harper. I did vote for his party — and my local candidate had to measure up to receive that vote, for I have always known I was electing an MP to Parliament, not a Prime Minister. I am a member of the Conservative Party, and proud to be so. Mr. Harper, it is time to account to us.

Election or Not?

The one stream of consciousness through all of this is the abhorrence most Canadians seem to show at the thought of another election. In some ways election 2008 concluded a little prematurely. (One can always demonstrate after the fact that a few more days would have favoured one trend line in the opinion polls or another; nevertheless, with Thanksgiving weekend falling right before the vote, there was a sense of incompleteness going into October 14.) We need to resolve the nature of our Government before further damage is done.

First of all, to those who complain that elections cost too much, shame on you. Some of the people I know who think this way want the coalition, and all the spending, yet they’re unprepared to pay the cost of governing themselves. I would far rather spend another $300,000,000 to handle another vote than drop $30,000,000,000, establish multi-year deficits, increase taxes and then discover it was wasted — a likely outcome! 1% of what’s at stake with these stimulus proposals is hardly unreasonable.

Second, to those who think being asked to go to the polls is such an imposition, I say “sit down and shut up”. How hard is it to go and vote? There are many advanced poll days to facilitate scheduling issues; you are not asked to face a complex ballot. One “X” is all that’s required of you. If you can’t do that, then stay out of the way afterward: your “non vote” said “I don’t care what happens” just as much as it says “none of the above choices, please”. The world is imperfect — and not perfectible — and no candidate or party will ultimately match your personal constellation of moral evaluations and issues of conscience fully. Accept that that is how it is, or give consent by inaction and then be silent.

Third, why on earth should anyone think a second vote in close proximity to the last is “something to be avoided”? Our Parliamentarians are proving themselves unable to share the sandbox, each grabbing the toys and screaming “mine! I get to be in charge!”. We asked them to govern and represent us and they only care about themselves, their egos, their power, their petty rivalries. For heavens’ sake, the chance to toss them out and put better, more mature, “real adult” people in there is not something to avoid: it is something to welcome.

I can understand those still tired from having worked in their local EDAs on the last campaign — who may have been through provincial and/or municipal votes this fall as well — and who know they are the first rank of volunteers this time out too — wanting not to do it all again quite so soon. But no one said self-government was easy. Nor was it meant to be. Just as the left (I won’t use the term “progressive” as it means anything and nothing) deplores the Conservatives’ money (raised, Obama style, a few dollars at a time from many people) and considers it an unfair advantage so, too, the right deplores the media “bias” they think they detect — and the many-on-one experience of campaigning against the left. These are the challenges designed to weed out those strong and mature enough to go to Ottawa on our behalf and act morally and appropriately.

So I welcome an election. Let the coalition partners run and try and convince us to vote for them. Let the Conservative Government run on merit to be given a majority. Or, let the coalition lapse and the individual parties seek to win enough ridings so that one of them governs. Anything but a shadowy deal in Ottawa that locks us out through at least two Prime Ministers (if Dion goes as planned) sitting as people who, against all tradition since 1896, avoid facing the Canadian people.

The Governor-General may well grant a cooling-off period through prorogation of the House, but the BQ should not be a part of any government even without taking Cabinet seats (as they are in the documents sent to Rideau Hall), and thus an election is in order — and should be welcomed.

Let’s find out, not via talk radio and polls, but at the ballot box, where Canada stands.

A Final Word

The other theme that runs through my head is that it is not surprising that it is the urban megaplexes and the have-not provinces that tend to lean toward handout city, and the rural areas and have provinces who are happy with the Conservative Government. Before the 1980 referendum I said that language and culture would never be the breaking point for the country, but that economics would be. Alienating those with money by the ursurping of power by those who don’t have it for their own benefit would lead to those who have ultimately deciding to break off in their own economic self-interest.

I hope not to see this soon, even though there are reasons I think I will see it in about a decade or so. (That’s for another day.) But there is no question in my mind but that Dion’s comments tonight on the television, talking about wedging his green initiatives in with the deficit financing of handouts in the East and adoption of the NDP position on taxation, would be more than enough to trigger a groundswell of Western Alienation and Separation.

The first step toward leaving is to stop participating. That’s over 40% of Canadians. The second is a triggering issue. The third is a champion to carry the day. We’re perilously close to only needing one of the three.

The next Prime Minister has to think of the West as more than a hinterland to be plundered. He or she doesn’t need to come from here: we’re not tribal in the way Quebeckers are (and did you notice all three coalition leaders are born in Québec?). But any hint of colonialism and the clock will be ticking. I’m Ontario born and bred, and didn’t move west until I was 46. Eight years on, and I listen to people in Toronto and Ottawa who go on about how “wrong” we all are because we don’t support their ideologies, and my anger rises. I have become one with Western Canada, and I can assure you I do not being treated as a second-class citizen because of my province of residence, or the way my neighbours and I choose to think or vote.

When the West decides “enough is enough”, it won’t be played for years to see what “benefits” can be extracted. There probably won’t even be a separatist party. Just a joint referendum — or series of them — that adheres to the Clarity Act and sponsored by our provincial governments.

That’s the ultimate dice that are being thrown by the little boys and girls screaming at each other on Parliament Hill today.

Larry, Moe & Curly Size Up the Curtains

So much has been written in the past few days on the whole subject of the Big Switch, as the Conservatives look forward to trooping back to the East Side of the House and the Opposition shifts over to the West Side Government benches in a coalition government, that in one sense it’s all been said, more or less. Still, there are a few things to think about, yet.

The Governor-General’s Role

Much has been made about the reserve powers of the Governor-General, deriving from Queen-in-Parliament. It is the role of the Governor-General to ensure that Canada has a functioning Government — not just a ministry that can act by Order-in-Council, but one which can command and hold the Confidence of the House. This is what gives rise to the generally-accepted notion (seen any major media lately that disputes it?) that the Governor-General will simply have to turn the keys to the Langevin Block and 24 Sussex Dr. over to the coalition as a given.

But, caution! The key word to keep in mind here is “functioning”. Governors-General are not a law unto themselves — they are bound in a web of tradition, common law practice and the like — but they are as near as you can get in Canada, thanks to Section 6 of our Constitution (“The Queen is the sole executive authority in Canada”). This is why we have Speeches from the Throne: none of us elected either a Government or a Prime Minister (or, despite the rhetoric, a “Prime Minister in Waiting”). No, we, each and all of us, only elected a Member of Parliament for our riding. These have been duly sworn in as members of Canada’s 40th Parliament, and have duly elected one of their number as Speaker of the House. That is the constitutional fact-on-the-ground, and nothing beyond it.

By tradition, (s)he-who-was-Prime-Minister-before-the-election is given first chance at meeting the House with a new Ministry, which must seek the Confidence of the House before it is really empowered to act. This the Rt. Hon. Her Excellency the Governor-General has done by accepting Stephen Harper to form that Ministry. It has now acquired the Confidence of the House, with the passage of the Throne Speech vote last week.

Suppose, therefore, that the Government fails the next confidence motion, be that one placed by one of the Opposition parties or on one of its own measures. Former Prime Minister Martin has already established the precedent of simply ignoring a confidence vote and continuing to govern (2005), so if the Harper Government simply ignored an Opposition motion he’d be pilloried — but on ground first tilled by the very parties trying to take him down. (His ground would be far less firm if he ignored one of his Government’s motions declared a confidence matter.)

So Stephen Harper could proceed over to Rideau Hall, and simply say “I shall attempt to regain the House’s Confidence” — and the Governor-General would be well within her prerogatives to accept that. Good-bye, coalition hopes, at least before Christmas.

Secondly, he could go and say “Your Excellency, my Government has lost the Confidence of the House, and I do not believe any other combination of MPs can hold it long enough to pass and implement a budget. I therefore regretfully request a new Writ of Election: let us let the Canadian people decide our country’s future course of action”. Oddly enough, the Governor-General would again be well within her prerogatives to accept this and call an election, without calling on the Opposition Leaders, should she agree with that advice.

Thirdly, of course, Stephen Harper could lose a confidence vote, go to the Governor-General and resign the office of Prime Minister. Now life gets interesting, for the Governor-General could (a) decline to accept his resignation, (b) decline to accept and issue a Writ …

Or, (c) call upon another person to lead a Government anchored in the Conservative MPs. That person need not even be a member of the current Conservative caucus. (It is also not without precedent.)

Or, (d) the Governor-General could invite someone to try and form a Government from amongst any or all MPs, be this a “unity” government (shades of Sir Robert Borden in 1917) or the coalition being discussed so eagerly in the country these days.

But It Doesn’t Matter

Here’s the thing, though. The decisions don’t matter because no alternative to the Harper Conservatives is likely to last through the first Opposition Day Motion (if that long).

Picture a motion, put forward by the (now) Opposition Conservatives, aimed at additional socio-cultural recognition of Québec. (Leave aside the distaste this might leave elsewhere in the country for a moment: we’re dealing now in tactical politics in the House.) The BQ can’t vote against “a Québec interest” — which means they vote (even by abstention) to topple the coalition. At which point we’re back at point (a) again …

At that point the obvious answer would be an election. But, if it’s all that obvious, then it’s that obvious now. This is why I think there’s better than even odds a failure of confidence in the Harper Government will lead directly to another election.

Besides, Who Would Lead Such a Coalition?

Again, the presumption is that Stéphane Dion would lead such a coalition, thus escaping the fate of Edward Blake (the only [so far] Liberal Party of Canada leader never to assume the Prime Ministership). But is this necessarily so?

It’s all very well for Liberals to talk about a premature end to their leadership contest, and an immediate handing over of their party leadership to Michael Ignatieff, thus retiring Dion early, but that doesn’t guarantee the Governor-General would approach a coalition débutant and hand over the keys to the kingdom simply because of internal politics in one party. Remember (c) and (d): the Liberals could change leaders, and the Governor-General could still call on Dion; likewise, Dion could go as the coalition M. le Premier Ministre présumé and the coalition’s opportunity could be handed to Ignatieff … Rae … LeBlanc … even Layton or Mulcair. All of these, of course, are unlikely options, but the power is in the hands of the Governor-General, not the Opposition parties.

Indeed, the Governor-General could ask the Opposition Leaders to attend her and offer their advice prior to answering Stephen Harper. (After all, if you want to use part of the residual powers of the Monarchy for your own ends, you’d better be prepared to accept that all of them may be in play.) So, having heard from the “coalition of the power-hungry”, she may just decide that, yes, an election is inevitable, might as well get on with it…

In other words, Larry, Moe & Curly ought not to be sizing up the curtains in the PMO and planning on the décor changes at 24 Sussex Drive just yet, no matter how encouraging the press is.

And the Results of That Election?

Let’s be clear where I stand: Harper’s tactics in jumbling in the removal of the per-vote subsidy with the economic statement were deplorable — very bad form and a sign of his own hubris — but the removal of that subsidy is actually a plus for Canadian citizenship. Parties (and candidates) should have to work to convince me to pay for them. (Raising the limit from $1,100 per party and $1,100 at the candidate/EDA level to $2,500 at each level should make the work in reaching enough donors worthwhile.) If I had my way, he’d lay that measure before the House Monday and call for the vote — let’s get the Opposition parties on the record in a clear manner regarding this.

Of course, Harper has said “no” to that, and a replacement economic statement and early budget have been bandied about. Malheursement, one error compounded on another.

Still, the platform would be clear:

We’ll invest in tomorrow but not in yesterday;
Canada has been different from the rest of the G-7 for a decade & we’re not in the same troubles they are;
Re-elect us and we will squeeze unnecessary and past-their-prime programs to the max;
We’re looking for no deficits, tax reductions and more focused spending;
Politicians will be hit as much as anyone;
We believe in Canadians, not handouts and make-work programs.

A 37 day campaign — be adamant that the Greens do not belong in any debates (maybe even just outright refuse to debate given how short a time it’s been since the last election) — and get out of the bubble and into the faces of Canadians.

That should be a majority-winning campaign.

Put Provinces in Charge of Federal Elections

I’ve been thinking of late about what we might be experiencing if our current Parliament had been elected under one or another of the proportional representation schemes that have been bandied about. So far, I’ve only drawn three conclusions:

We’d probably still be trying to form a coalition that would have and hold the confidence of the House;

We probably wouldn’t be experiencing the “it’s a crisis” : “no, we can wait” series that’s made the news this week: it would be a crisis, and the issue would be how much to spend and on what, not whether to spend yet;

The resulting Government would probably not last as long as this one will, as the tussle over spoils would topple it.

Nevertheless, there are attractions to choosing the right system of proportional representation to update our system, for as long as first past the post remains our method of election — and appointment remains the way we get Senators (and they stay in office until 75 years of age) — our Parliaments are likely to remain dysfunctional. (FPTP elects an indigestible lump of BQ members, for instance, in Québec; Senators reflect far older Governments and lack the electoral legitimacy to thwart the current one for partisan reasons, yet do.)

However, what works for people in one region may not work for another. So why not allow some experimentation to take place?

To do this, simply put each province in control of federal elections in its territory.

Alberta, for instance, might want to define rules for Senatorial elections — including the expectation that an elected Senator will stand down after so many years and either run for re-election or be replaced by a newly elected Senator.

BC, for instance, which votes on the single transferrable vote system of proportional representation next May, might want to apply STV to federal elections as well — and ask that seat counts and riding boundaries be adjusted to facilitate this (perhaps the provincial legislature might have two MLAs for every MP).

Other parts of the country may wish to try mixed member proportional representation — as was voted down in Ontario a year ago — or still other ideas.

The Federal Government, in turn, could simply choose to double the number of MPs — so that each province keeps its current share of the House, but there are added members available to make various schemes work better. (This would also seriously weaken Prime Ministerial control over a caucus and lead to more free actions: a good reason to do it. MPs are cheap compared to effective democratic control by the citizens.)

This would allow, for instance, the endless debate about complexity (between different systems of PR voting and between different systems of voting in federal and provincial politics) to be tested. It’s not, after all, as though different provinces haven’t tried other voting systems provincially in the past — and federally we have previously had multi-member ridings. We would, in other words, be able to see what results, and either leave it the way it is, or standardize on a particular scheme based on results after three or more elections.

Then, too, provinces that wished to experiment with mandatory voting, Australian style, could do so. Those that wanted plebiscites to express popular will — or, in provincial mattes, referenda to bind legislative action — could do so.

We are so used, in Canada, to having decisions about our future made for us that this probably all sounds radical beyond belief. Yet the enabling legislation for it can have a built-in sunset provision that returns us — without debate — to first past the post unless formal changes are permanently made. We could even put a clause in that eschews renewal of the temporary measures or an equivalent bill being passed, thus safeguarding our current traditions.

But let’s try something new. Minority Governments are likely to be common in our future. We need to find ways to make the system work better with more than two major parties contending.

(While we’re at it, I’d put into effect the German rule that a confidence motion only fails if another motion establishing confidence in an alternative Government passes. This, more than anything else, would avoid the fragility of government found in an Italy or Israel.)

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