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Politics 101 gets everyone excited

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?

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