A + B + C = Canadian election soon?

Feb 14th, 2008 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

OTTAWA. FEBRUARY 14, 2008. Local party activists, worried about whether or not to rent campaign offices, are having a tough time. Here yesterday, in the depths of what the late 19th century called “the last lumber village before the North Pole,” it seemed a near certainty that there will be a federal election soon. Today it seems less certain. Now, what about tomorrow?

For a while the Harper Tory plot appeared almost clear: A for Afghanistan, B for Budget, and C for Crime – all wrapped up in ominous packages labeled “Confidence Votes.” Last night Don Newman on CBC Newsworld was guessing that A and C were dead. But B was still standing. And it (or he, or she?) was probably going to hit the fan not long after Tuesday, February 26. This morning, the Globe and Mail reported that Bob Rae (who hasn’t even been elected to Parliament yet) had killed B too – maybe, or perhaps, if necessary but not necessarily, etc, etc. Meanwhile the Ottawa Citizen has explained: “Much of Canada dealing with snow fatigue.” And all the actual voters I’ve talked with lately are most worried about more snow.

A for Afghanistan …

At first, Conservative minority government Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to think that his clever Afghanistan policy panel, chaired by former Liberal deputy leader John Manley, had set up the so-called Canadian mission in Afghanistan as a nice election issue at last.

The likes of the Toronto Star might quip “Stephen Harper will be the last George W. Bush Republican left standing.” But the old support-the-troops trick was still rather fresh in a Canada that had never been involved in Iraq. And Afghanistan had already once proved a good enough issue for dividing and conquering Mr. Harper’s main Liberal opposition.

But then the old Central Canadian hard left-wing guru James Laxer was rather gleefully advising: “If Harper wants an election on Afghanistan, let’s give him one.” Then on Canada’s Pacific coast Barbara Yaffe opined in the Vancouver Sun: “An election on Afghanistan deployment would be folly.” (And even very early on in the grand scheme of things, the National Post had reported “PM stakes power on Afghanistan … Election based on mission not good for Canadians.”)

Somewhere around this point, there were media articles with such titles as: “Harper vows compromise on Afghan mission” ; “Compromise could end political stalemate over Afghan mission” ; and “Election fever symptoms ease only slightly … Harper and Dion extend olive branch on Afghan mission … PM lauds ‘important progress’ with Liberals.” And then the Toronto Star was suddenly complaining: “Liberal `compromise’ is really a retreat to Harper’s position.”

At this juncture Don Newman and everyone else here in Ottawa paying attention seemed to have come to the conclusion that there would not really be an election called over the question of Canada’s so-called “mission” in Afghanistan – because neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals really wanted to fight on this ground. And then Le Devoir seemed to sum everything up finally in our other official language: “Afghanistan: un compromis se dessine Ottawa.”

But then this morning the wheels seemed to fall off this train too. The Globe and Mail reported: “Liberals back away from compromise on troops … Party sends mixed signals a day after a deal with the Conservatives on the future role of the Kandahar battle group seemed in hand.” In particular: “The Liberals’ position on Afghanistan became mired in confusion yesterday when the party’s defence critic, Denis Coderre, suggested they want to withdraw the Canadian Forces’ main battle group in Kandahar, but other MPs in his party disagreed.”

Meanwhile, there is one key point in all this that continues to bother me in the Age of the Internet – where you can sample what’s being said in newspapers around the world in a wink of your eye. Back in the old United Kingdom, to take just one illustration, a parallel debate on Afghanistan seems to have a quite different focus. I was very impressed, e.g., by Simon Jenkins‘s February 3 article “Afghanistan is a nasty war we can never win,” and then another piece of his on February 13: “This zeal for intervention is imperialism in new clothes.”

And then on February 13 as well the Calgary Herald back home in Canada published an article on further goings-on in the UK, with the provocative headline “Defeat a real possibility’ in Afghanistan: Ashdown … Breaking up the Taliban by winning over the moderates is a far better route to success than bombing and body counts.'” And on the same day Yahoo Canada was telling us: “British MPs worried by London-Kabul strains.” (And then, on Valentine’s Day, February 14: “Harper talks to Australian PM about Afghan mission” – even though Mr. Harper’s old conservative friend John Howard is gone, and the fellow former self-governing British dominion down under is now under the Australian Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd. )

Personally, I was impressed too by James Travers’s February 14 column in the Toronto Star: The current Conservative-Liberal consensus over Afghanistan in Canada (insofar as it actually does exist?): “solves a political problem worrying leaders readying for an election. Neither Stephen Harper nor Stphane Dion is keen to fight a campaign with Afghanistan asking the ballot box question. Any issue that polarizing and that vulnerable to bad news from the front is best neutered … So closing the gap between suddenly fluid party positions makes good tactical sense. But it comes with the nasty side effect of silencing a debate desperate for a voice. Ottawa needs more international assurances and Canadians need more information before another life or loonie is committed to an uncertain cause certain to cost more of both.”

So…does an Afghanistan consensus among the two major parties in Ottawa still exist anyway? Or are we back to the point where subtle shades of disagreement on this issue could still finally lead to a Canadian federal election soon?

As of 3:53 PM EST on February 14 the Globe and Mail was reporting: “The Conservative government could face a battery of survival tests in two weeks … Tory House leader Peter Van Loan has announced that the first vote on the federal budget will be held Feb. 28, two days after the government’s financial plan is delivered … Mr. Van Loan has also announced debate will open Feb. 25 on another confidence matter – the vote to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan … Those two items are the key tests scheduled for the minority government in this session of Parliament … If they lose a vote on either, there will be a spring election.”

So … as they say, face the facts squarely and decide for yourself. Or, along with all the most highly evolved brains in Ottawa today, just say no one can really hope to know. Socrates was the wisest man in all Athens because he alone knew that he knew nothing, etc, etc.

B for Budget …

For a time, the smartest money in town seemed to be saying that Stephane Dion did not want to defeat Stephen Harper on Afghanistan, but he was itching to bring him down on the almost contemporaneous 20082009 budget issue.

(Here, btw, it is worth noting that the Liberals all by themselves cannot bring the Harper minority government down. If they could, they would of course be the government themselves. They will need the support of the New Democrats and probably the Bloc Quebecois too – since the Bloc by itself can usually keep the Tories in office, as they have on several occasions, for their own twisted reasons. The assumption, however, is that it is the Liberals who will count most on the budget this year, since the NDP and the Bloc already seem likely enough to vote it down. The same might be said about Afghanistan – though not “Crime,” and on this see below. )

For the timing and so forth on the budget vote, see the last few paragraphs of A above. As to whether this Plan B is now any more (or less) certain than the (probably?) failed Plan A, check out, e.g.:

* “Rae urges Dion to hold off on election … Liberal caucus wants leader to wait until at least spring before toppling Harper’s minority government … Mr. Rae urged the party to wait until after four by-elections are held on March 17. The Liberals previously held all four seats and hope to hold onto them, including Toronto Centre, where Mr. Rae is running.”

* “Tories set budget confidence vote for Feb. 28” ; and “Liberals deny planning election over budget.”

On CBC TV tonight there seemed much emphasis on the view that the “parsimonious” budget Mr. Harper’s finance minister Jim Flaherty will introduce on February 26 might not have all that much in it (or not in it) that the Liberals (as opposed to the NDP or BQ) could reasonably get all that upset about – at least to the extent of precipitating a third election within four years. And then there’s the point that if the underlying issue here is just that the economy is getting worse, and needs a fresh (but also more long-term experienced) hand at the tiller, the economy right now is still not as bad as it would perhaps have to be to make this kind of Liberal scenario plausible.

C for Crime ….

Whatever else, A and B still seem to be in some sort of contention as possible fresh election issues. What most wise persons in Ottawa now appear to believe just will not work is the Harper Tory fantasy of asking the excellent Governor General Jean to dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election, because the unelected Liberal Senators are just unconscionably delaying the government’s omnibus anti-crime bill – at a time when many different parts of the country are seething with righteous indignation about growing numbers of criminals in their midst.

For further intelligence on this front, see two articles from February 12: “Harper could dissolve Parliament and trigger election if crime bill gets delayed;” “Liberals walk out of crime bill confidence vote.” (The Liberals’ walkout here was just their way of showing contempt for the latest in a long series of somewhat juvenile and all too ideologically inspired attempts at political tricks that the Harper government has still not quite mastered the art of avoiding. I.e., all parties are of course against crime, and nowadays quite determined to serve the interest of the victims of crime, and not those of the criminals who commit the crime in the first place.)

What about the famous democratic reform of fixed date elections?

As just one final footnote, Plan C has also served as a further sign of just how silly so much of Canadian federal politics is at the moment.

One version of the story appears as a February 13 editorial in the Halifax Chronicle Herald: “SAY GOODBYE to Stephen Harper, democratic reformer, who told us in 2006 he would legislate fixed election dates to stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar simply for partisan political advantage’ … That guy has got the boot from the Stephen Harper who is obsessed with getting an election this spring and who has no problem with partisan calendar-manipulation. Even if it means making a mockery of his 2007 fixed-date law and inventing the flimsiest of pretences for a trip to the polls …

“Canadian prime ministers, of course, have always been able to call elections whenever they thought they could win. And concocting cover stories for this naked self-interest has always been part of the game … But Mr. Harper vowed to give up this tactical advantage. Elections every four years, he said, would level the playing field for all parties and the rules are clear for everybody.’ The only exceptions would be if the government were defeated in the Commons or otherwise prevented from governing’ … So where does the PMO now get off saying Mr. Harper could ask the Governor General for a dissolution of Parliament if the Senate doesn’t pass his crime bill by March 1?”

The same point was made by the blog A BCer in Toronto in a piece entitled “Van Loan admits Conservative fixed election-date legislation meaningless” on February 11: “A rare moment of clarity from Conservative House Leader and smearer-in-chief Peter (only Conservatives are real Canadians) Van Loan, who admitted that the Conservatives’ much ballyhooed fixed-election date legislation is a farce, and not worth the paper it was printed on: … Mr. Van Loan has said the law does not prevent the prime minister from asking the Governor General to pull the plug … There is nothing in the law that takes away the Crown’s traditional and usual prerogatives on this matter,’ he told reporters last week …

“One wonders what the point of the whole exercise was then. This law will prevent a government from choosing the time of its own demiseunless it wants to choose the time of its own demise, in which case there’s nothing in the law preventing that, so just go to town. Maybe it’s only meant to bind Liberal governments?”

To end on a note of historical perspective, ever since the beginnings of the present confederation in 1867 Canadian federal politics has intermittently gone through [sometimes too extended] periods when “laughing to keep from crying” is the only sensible response on the part of the free and democratic people of Canada. There seems little doubt that we are going through another such period at the moment. And we might as well enjoy it. (Because at some point in the not too distant future, there actually is going to be another federal election, and we will all have to go out and vote for somebody.)

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