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Archive for April, 2011

Poll shock and coalitions – how about Conservative-Liberal?

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m beginning to feel like the guy who wrote the famous headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, in the 1948 U.S. presidential election. Harry Truman of course beat Dewey handily, and he never tired of holding up the front page of the Chicago Tribune to show how wrong they were to rely on early returns.

We had a similar occurrence in Canada in 1957 when Maclean’s magazine came out after the election with an editorial written before the voting,  saying the Liberals had been re-elected. The only trouble was that on voting day, John Diefenbaker’s Tories  had defeated the Grits!

My mea culpa comes from a blog I posted a few weeks ago predicting the political death of Jack Layton. Honestly, for all I admire the man, I just couldn’t see him withstanding the physical strain of the campaign. Who would have known?

Now that all the polls are showing the NDP as the only party with momentum, and EKOS having vaulted Layton’s crew into line to become the Official Opposition, everyone is frantically revising their assessments and forecasts.

Based on this poll, either a shadow of things to come or an off-the-wall aberration, Stephen Harper’s minority would be cut to 130 seats, with 100 seats going to the NDP, 62 to the Liberals, 14 for the Bloc, and one independent. I don’t know which is the most shocking — the NDP gain or the Bloc collapse.

If the NDP were to become the Official Opposition, I think the Liberals would be more inclined to swallow another Harper minority than to put Layton into the prime ministership. Playing second fiddle to the NDP would be the end of the Liberals; they’d go the way the Liberal party did in England during the rise of the Labour party. Also, while the Liberals have a left-leaning platform this time, if it came to a fundamental choice for the Grits and the corporate establishment that still backs them, I think there would be more acceptance for a Liberal-Conservative coalition, possibly under someone other than Stephen Harper. This would be especially the prospect if Michael Ignatieff were to stay around for a while.

A Conservative-Liberal accord under a new Tory leader could be sold as a national unity government, the only acceptable arrangement at a time when economic uncertainty is still a fact of life. There’d be many Tory claimants for the top spot, but someone like Jim Prentice, the former environment minister who left Harper for a top banking position, would be an acceptable compromise if he’d come back.

While Ignatieff has failed to do himself much good in this campaign, I think he has been successful (more so than most realize) in crippling Harper’s bid for a majority. I suspect his sharp and pointed denunciation of Harper’s anti-democratic record has stiffened opposition to Harper, even though it’s failed to warm up voters to the Liberals. So the NDP has become the natural beneficiary of Canadians’ continued suspicion of Mr. Harper’s real intentions. That 500-page dossier of Harper’s “problematic” quotes, compiled by his own party, tells you just how much this guy has had to swallow to present himself as deserving of a majority.

The forces at work in Quebec, meanwhile,  differ from those in the rest of the country. I’m disappointed to see Layton take such a pro-nationalist position — promising to open up the constitution, and to put federal workers under Bill 101. If voters in the rest of Canada decide this is just another example of Quebec getting what it wants, it would be a major turn-off for the NDP outside La Belle Province.

I voted Monday in the advance poll, and there was a long line-up ahead of us. Who ever said this was an “unwanted and unneeded” election?

Politics 101 gets everyone excited

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Michael Ignatieff gave Canadians a lecture in Politics 101 the other day — simple facts on how Parliament works — but this may have been enough to derail his campaign.

When he sat down with CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, Ignatieff must have known he’d be asked how he’d handle minority government  if that’s the outcome of the May 2nd election.

It’s a topic of high interest because of Stephen Harper’s hammering on Coalition as a fate to be avoided only by electing “a strong, national Conservative majority.”

The political realist that he is, Harper knows  if he’s returned with less than a majority, he’s likely to fall on the first vote of confidence in the new Parliament. He’s warned he’ll bring his budget back just as it is, and seems reconciled to the Governor General calling on the Liberals to form a government when it’s defeated in the House. The Globe and Mail today puts it this way:

Stephen Harper has no plans to compromise on his next Throne Speech or his next budget if he wins only a minority government, because he believes it wouldn’t matter. “

That circumstance would be a bit of a replay of the 1926 “King-Byng” affair. Prime Minister King asked for an election, Governor General Byng denied him that and called on the Conservative leader, Arthur Meighan, to form an administration. Its defeat within a few days left the Governor General with no choice but to allow Meighan an election. King won by campaigning against the Governor General’s “interference.” In fact, Byng was perfectly justified in what he did, as Bruce Hutchison explains in his definitive biography, The Incredible Canadian (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Ignatieff’s remarks shouldn’t have set off the fuss they did, or given Harper a new opening to demand a majority. Anybody who’s been to high school in Canada should know, as Ignatieff explained, that a government rules only with the consent of Parliament. But that didn’t deter Harper from raising the spectre of Coalition once again. He claimed we’d end up with a government about whose program we know nothing and that we’d be open to higher taxes, another referendum on sovereignty, and whatever other ill wind might conceivably blow through Ottawa.

Of course, Harper’s ravings are all nonsense. The Liberal program has been clearly spelled out in the campaign. Ignatieff has said he would consult with the other parties if he became a minority Prime Minister, which is what Harper should have been doing the past five years, and hasn’t.

The media are nevertheless duty-bound to report whatever is said in the campaign. And so Harper gets another chance to rail against the ghost of Coalition, despite Ignatieff’s clear disavowal of such a course. And while the media are harping on the subject, the Liberal attempt to focus on health care is knocked off the rails.

It says something that both parties are reduced to campaigning on fear. Harper on the fear of cooperation among the Opposition parties. Ignatieff on the fear of what Tory tax cuts could do to the government’s ability to fund healthcare.

Amid it all, support grows for the NDP. I am among those who agree with Jack Layton’s stance on Afghanistan — there’s little we can accomplish and we shouldn’t be there. But the rest of the NDP program makes little economic or constitutional sense, as Jeffrey Simpson notes in this  analysis.

So what do you fear the most?

Ignatieff at the five-yard line

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Is democracy a pocketbook issue? Probably not, which explains why Michael Ignatieff fell short of his goal in last night’s English federal leaders’ debate. He may have gotten to the five-yard line, but he didn’t score.

Ignatieff was hard-hitting and on the money in properly calling Stephen Harper to account for his dictatorial tactics in refusing Parliament a proper accounting of the costs of government legislation.

“This is about the economy, about telling the truth,” Ignatieff said. He reminded Harper that parliamentary debate isn’t “bickering,” it’s the stuff of democracy. “You cannot be trusted with the institutions of our country.”

But it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for the Liberal leader’s performance. The Toronto Star has a good wrap-up here.

The morning after assessment from the media and the blogosphere seems to be that the leaders conducted themselves true to form.

  • Harper, the smarmy, schoolmasterish lecturer telling Canadians they’d better give him  a majority or face “a fifth or sixth election” in the next few years.
  • Jack Layton, the happy warrior, smiling despite the pain he must have felt on his feet for two hours with a fractured hip.
  • Ignatieff, a novice in leaders’ debates but a seasoned TV presenter, dealing all the right sound bites in his criticisms of Harper.
  • Gilles Duceppe , the irrelevant fourth man, there merely to demand more for Quebec. Nonetheless a telling and effective debater; if he’d been a Liberal, he’d probably be Prime Minister right now.

The script fit nicely into Harper’s strategy. Leave me alone and let me have my way or the economy will nosedive and you’ll have to suffer the ordeal of another election. Don’t bug me with bickering. It was more of the politics of fear that Harper has traded on over crime and Coalition. It’s just possible Canadians will be so fed up with not just Harper but the others as well, that they’ll let him have his majority as the price of getting him off their backs.

More than anything, the debate demonstrated the sorry futility of hoping for a rational discussion of a vision  for the country. There’s the glimmer of one in the Liberal platform, but Ignatieff was not especially revealing in how he portrayed it.

There are two weeks plus left in the campaign for Ignatieff to sell the Liberal program to voters. There’s much in it that’s appealing, and the country can well afford the key planks of education support, assistance for home care givers, and help to seniors.

A change of pace

One of the best pieces of reporting in the current campaign is in the Globe and Mail today with an informative, highly readable account of the situation in the two key Kitchener ridings in southwestern Ontario. Traditionally Liberal, they both went Conservative by razor-thin margins in 2008. Anthony Reinhart writes knowingly of what these districts, heir to a long history of manufacturing success and Mennonite frugality, are doing to meet the challenges of a hi tech, global economy. It’s here.

It’s a “private” election – with damn little discussion of the issues

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Something very strange is going on in Canada when election rallies become “private events” and the RCMP give their aid to party operatives bent on keeping citizens away from the Prime Minister.

We expect the Force to provide security to the Prime Minister, but not to engage in political housecleaning. A statement from the RCMP today concedes they shouldn’t have been helping Conservative organizers keep out people from Mr. Harper’s rallies on the basis of their Facebook photos or bumper stickers.

Then the statement goes on to add:

The RCMP is responsible for the security of party leaders. This mandate does not include managing the access of persons attending private events.”

So now Conservative Party election meetings are “private events”?And here we thought, poor us, that election rallies were occasions for Mr. Harper (and other party leaders)to reach out to Canadians by explaining their policies and trying to convince us to vote for them.

In fact, these sessions have been turned into contrived media events, with a few dozen party stalwarts dragged out as props to make it look as if this guy is conversing with the people. Why do the media go along with this charade?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, in view of the fact that the same Mr. Harper has been deriding our exercise in democracy as “an unwanted and unneeded election.” When is an election unwanted or unneeded? Ask the people of the old Soviet Union, or Iran, or Egypt and you might get some interesting answers.

Another disturbing thing about this election is that the two main parties, and even the NDP to a lesser extent, are ducking discussion of any serious issues.

Yes, the Prime Minister needs to explain why he hired as a chief advisor a man with a record of multiple fraud offenses and who is now being investigated for possible illegal lobbying.

But where is the discussion of:

1 – Foreign policy – and the implications of our actions in bombing Libyan targets?

2 – Free trade negotiations with Europe – and what this could mean to our future?

3 – The “perimeter” security and trade agreement Canada is discussing with the United States?

4 – Cost sharing between Ottawa and the provinces of health and medicare when the current agreement expires in three years (and the feds find themselves with a bare cupboard thanks to Harper corporate tax cuts and overspending on jets and jails)?

5 – Our nuclear future – its promise or its threat to energy security and climate change?

Not a peep about any of these from Mr. Harper or Mr. Ignatieff, and damn little from Jack Layton.

And therein may lie the explanation for voters’ apparent indifference toward this election.

Now, to change the tune, here’s a fun Video you might like – “It’s a Book.”

The political death of Jack Layton

April 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Lost — somewhere on the campaign trail between March 26 and May 2 — the political life of Jack Layton, despite a game but futile struggle against the harsh realities of health and politics.

The slow unwinding of the New Democratic campaign, heightened by its leader’s difficult struggle with hip surgery and prostate cancer, stands as the most notable development in the first week of Canada’s 41st general election. This is a story that the mainstream media has been hesitant to touch.

Not all of the NDP’s difficulties are  due to Mr. Layton’s slow recovery, which has forced him to trim his number of daily appearances. It’s also the consequence of the Conservative focus on its quest for a majority to prevent an “Opposition coalition,” and of Michael Ignatieff’s aggressive uptake on Stephen Harper’s musings about a one-on-one debate.

Evidence of the serious struggle Mr. Layton is having with his health can be seen in every TV appearance. He is starkly underweight and walks with difficulty, even with the help of a cane. He looks tired and despite his best efforts to flash his usual sunny smile, the campaign is clearly exhausting him.

While there was some discussion of the NDP leader’s health going into the campaign, reporters have largely skirted the issue, understandably fearful of looking insensitive.  By Friday, however, he was being questioned as to why he was making so few appearances. The small crowds and flat reception Mr. Layton was getting at his rallies was also being noted.

Voters see what’s going on, and the party’s decline in the polls can reasonably be linked, at least in part, to concerns about Mr. Layton’s personal well-being. How can a guy claim to be running for Prime Minister, people must be asking, when it’s pretty obvious what’s happening.

None of this detracts  from Mr. Layton’s decency, his competence, or his dedication to the best interests of Canadians. He has well-earned his substantial approval ratings, but it has to be noted that he’s recently dropped below Mr. Ignatieff in that department.

Mr. Layton and the NDP face difficult decisions in the days ahead. The link between the leader’s health and the party’s standing will never be precisely known, but one must assume that NDP strategists are factoring these considerations into their planning.

One possibility is  for Jack Layton to immediately step down as leader, with the NDP caucus turning the campaign over to Thomas Mulcair, his Quebec lieutenant and the MP for Montreal Outremont.A move as dramatic as this could reinvigorate the NDP campaign, and incidentally help Mulcair hold onto his seat.

Other politicians have recognized the need for drastic action in the face of a losing campaign. Jacques Parizeau, faced with faltering support in the 1995 Quebec referendum, turned the campaign over to Lucien Bouchard. We all know how the charismatic Bouchard came within an eye lash of winning that vote.

There’s another reason for a change in the NDP leadership. If the party’s vote continues to implode the chief beneficiary is likely to be Stephen Harper, who could ride to a majority by picking off key NDP seats in British Columbia, northern Ontario, and on the prairies. At least half of the dozen seats the Tories need for a majority could come in ridings they lost narrowly in 2008 to the NDP. A shift in the NDP vote to the Liberals might not be enough to elect Liberals, but it could do the job for the Conservatives.

On balance, the country could be best served by Mr. Layton making the difficult personal decision to relinquish the leadership and retire to his own seat in Toronto, where he is sure of re-election. It’s a decision better made sooner, when there would be still time for the NDP to regroup, rather than later, when the campaign could be beyond resurrection.

The NDP and the cause for which it stands is greater and more important than any one man. Stepping down now is an option Mr. Layton needs to seriously examine.