What’s inside big red tent .. is Ignatieff Liberal majority government even remotely possible?

Sep 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

A movie called The Red Tent (1971), which dealt with a tragic mission to the high Arctic, “was considered a costly box office failure,” but it “did win a Golden Globe for Best English Language Foreign Film.”

“Well, it’s a long, long time from May to December. But the days grow short when you reach September.”

The Canadian House of Commons did not return from its leisurely summer vacation until Monday, September 20 (also the day when “Dancing With the Stars” started its new season in the USA). But even before the leading figures of  federal politics in our time were trying to frame the fall 2010 wilderness narrative — or whatever else you may more wisely want to call it.

PM Harper, eg, “intent on shaping the ballot box question for the next election, was adopting a strategy to gradually persuade voters they have a ‘stark choice’ in the next campaign: a ‘stable’ majority Conservative government, or a ‘coalition’ government of Liberals, New Democrats and Quebec separatists.”

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was not buying this stark choice. He himself was “out to earn a majority government in the next election and” was  “pitching his party — the big red tent — as the clear alternative to Stephen Harper’s ‘politics of meanness.’” In Mr. Ignatieff’s own words: “I grew up under that big red tent and I want the whole country to shelter under it again … We are the coalition. We are the big, broad inclusive tent that wants to get all Canadians in, who want progressive responsible government and that’s the Canadian approach.”

Big red Liberal leader on the streets of Vancouver, June 2010.

Some may be impressed by these words — and the Liberal leader looked quite healthy speaking them on TV. But they can only disappoint those who believe that the most realistic hope for “progressive responsible government” in Ottawa over the next few years probably does lie in some form of emerging Liberal-New Democrat accord (perhaps supported by a not directly involved Bloc Québécois, if that’s what the next democratic election in Quebec requires).

Moreover, as the universe looks right now, when Parliament does return a few weeks hence the first big conflict is not going to be between the united forces of progress on the one side, and the reactionary conservative rear guard on the other. It’s just going to pit the Liberals against the New Democrats — and make it that much harder for the light at the end of the tunnel to keep burning brightly (or even just flicker gently, to keep hope alive).

* * * *

Delving just somewhat into the details, the specific issue of the moment here was  “a third-reading vote in three weeks on a Conservative bill to abolish the long-gun registry, established 15 years ago by the Liberal government of the day. On second reading last fall, a dozen New Democrats and eight Liberals voted with the Conservatives to approve Bill C-391 in principle. Since then, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had announced that he will require his caucus to vote against the bill on third reading on Sept. 22.” But, at the edge of all the big news, the bill could “still pass, barely, if the same 12 New Democrats side with 144 Conservative MPs in support of it.” Here’s how things looked at the time:

“Forget everything you’ve ever heard about heroes. Forget everything you’ve ever dreamed about love. Now there is ‘The Red Tent’.”

NDP leader Jack Layton is apparently not going to require his members to support the long-gun registry. And, as Joan Bryden at The Canadian Press reports: “Forget all that talk about federal Liberals merging or forming a coalition with the NDP … The Liberals now aim to co-opt NDP support and they’re using debate over the long-gun registry to do it.” (And there is some evidence this may work, to some degree at least?)

The big elephant still in the room is that there is nothing in any recent polling numbers (take, eg, Harris-Decima for The Canadian Press or even the Liberals’ own Michael Marzolini — and for today’s latest EKOS results see below)  to suggest that the Ignatieff Liberals have even a remote prospect of forming a majority government all by themselves. Even worse,  as the often astute Don Martin has just explained: “King Iggy starts to live up to the title — but Harper unlikely to be dethroned any time soon.”

The current “big red tent” strategy itself is arguably a bold and gutsy attempt to move the numbers, big time.  And at this juncture in the real world of politics it may still be wrong to dismiss the attempt altogether out of hand.

MuslimFest 2010 volunteer gives Mr. Ignatieff a big hug, Mississauga, Ontario, July 2010.

But there will have to be some quite vast sea change in the polling numbers over the next several months to convince those who believe that, even in the mean and attenuated version of a  “next Canada” Mr. Harper has managed to insinuate over the past four years, it is no longer possible for the whole country to even seem to shelter under the same big red tent that sheltered Michael Ignatieff in his Upper Canada College youth.

The Harper Conservatives do appear off their best game lately. Today’s EKOS poll gives them a mere 29.4% to the Liberals 29.1%. Such recent mild trends toward the Ignatieff Liberals may continue? And on the argument that anything is possible in Canadian federal politics nowadays, maybe the old Grit polling numbers can just keep going up and up and up, all by themselves?

The Red Tent is also “a novel by Anita Diamant, published in 1997 ... It is a first-person narrative which tells the biblical story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph, a talented midwife and proto-feminist.”

Or maybe not.  Meanwhile, Stephen Harper must be happy enough about how the Liberals and New Democrats are going for each others’ throats again. As matters stand, it still seems to us that you have to be considerably more politically partisan and self-interested than most Canadians are to see much realistic hope for “progressive responsible government” in that!

Our best guess remains that the federal Liberals and New Democrats finally need each other, for either party — to say nothing of  Canada, from coast to coast to coast — to move ahead. (And if you want some statistics here, check out the regional numbers for BC in the latest EKOS poll: Liberals 22.2%, Conservatives 25.6%, NDP 31.1%.) This is no longer the same kind of country it was when Mr. Ignatieff’s mother — as he told us somewhat slyly on TV yesterday —  was so pleased with a school report card that said: “Michael plays well with the other children.” (Or was this just an unusually subtle and Mackenzie-King-like way of saying that if Iggy absolutely has to play especially well with Jack and Gilles, always allowing that Gilles has to go home early, that is what he will do?)

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