Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Hubris has led to a great fall for Stephen Harper. Having won a mandate for another minority government, Harper acted as though he had won a majority and gave the three opposition parties the common enemy they needed for an attempt to wrest control from the Conservatives and propose an alternative coalition government.
And Canadians said ... WTF?!
As news of these developments percolated through the Twittersphere, blogosphere and news media, many of us discovered that we understood less than we realized about how our political system works (myself included). I am not alone in spending some time catching up on the nuances of parliamentary democracy lately.
It's not a coup, as some have called it. It's a rarely used but legitimate political option exercised when the Prime Minister really screws up. The last time something like this happened in Canada was over conscription in the First World War.
As you know if you've ever voted (or remember the fundamentals of your high school history), we don't vote directly for our country's leader. We vote for a local representative. The leader is the person who can rally the most support in the House of Commons. This is almost always the leader of the party who won the most seats. This time, the leader of the party with the most seats is also (arguably) the most reviled political leader in Canada. While he did squeak past with a win in the last election, he did not enjoy the support of a majority of Canadians, and he has now lost the confidence of a majority of our Parliament.
I spoke with Burnaby-New Westminster MP Peter Julian today to get his take on the situation, and what it means for New Westminster.
Julian said all this began when Harper failed to deliver on his promise to move quickly after the election to implement a plan to address the economic crisis. While he had pledged to take a moderate approach and work with all parties in the House of Commons, the budget update instead included a number of controversial plans that impacted social programs, public election financing and other issues.
"He basically lobbed a grenade onto the floor of the House of Commons. He took a hard right shift attacking basic principles like collective bargaining and pay equity for women," said Julian. "He used the economic crisis to put forward a very hard right shift, which is not at all what he committed to in the election campaign. He committed to being moderate."
The NDP, Liberals and Bloc response was not what the Conservatives expected. The economic crisis and the threat of another election wasn't enough to bully them into passing the budget. Instead, leaders of the three parties began planning to oust Harper. Our local MPs, Julian and New Westminster-Coquitlam's Dawn Black played key roles in clinching the plan. Black was the NDP caucus representative who helped negotiate the coalition agreement, while Julian worked the phones responding to media queries.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the government will be defeated in the House," Julian declared. "The debate right now is which day."
The Conservatives have a limited menu of what Julian called "procedural games" that they can use to try and forestall or delay losing power to this coalition. The Globe & Mail has a great analysis of Harper's options. None sound terribly appealing. I feel a little sorry for the guy. Another story in the Globe suggests Harper's plan is to prorogue Parliament, which basically means shutting down Parliament and cowering through Christmas with the hope of a fresh start in the New Year.
I asked Julian about his response to the some of the big questions I'm hearing about the coalition. As far as he's concerned, over 60% of those who voted did not choose the Conservatives, and the coalition has the support of all other parties (Green included) and independents. Said Julian, "Everybody has come together except the Conservatives in Stephen Harper's government."
Critics of the coalition are pointing out the irony of depending on the support of a separatist party for the survival of the government, but Julian pointed out that the Bloc is not a part of the coalition itself. The Bloc has agreed not to initiate a motion of non-confidence for at least 18 months. The Conservative government has also depended on the support of the Bloc to pass budget updates, so Julian contends this is a non-issue. According to Julian, while the Conservatives have been accusing the NDP and Liberals of selling out to the Bloc in English Canada, in French it's the Bloc who they accuse of selling out.
"It's fair to say the Conservatives have been masters of manipulation," Julian said.
The economic stimulus plan that will be released soon by the coalition targets improvements for housing, infrastructure, industry and changes to employment insurance programs (removing the two-week waiting period before receiving benefits to spare people's savings, supporting more retraining programs). The strategy seems to be to allocate funds to projects that will improve our communities while creating jobs for both workers on the projects and those who will benefit from those people's spending. Julian mentioned that three mills recently closed in New Westminster, and he estimates the impact is about 2.5 jobs were indirectly affected for each job lost.
The infrastructure investment could be of real use to New Westminster. Like many communities in Canada, we sorely need to do some significant upgrades. Julian estimates the 'infrastructure deficit' across Canada to be worth approximately $100 billion. The proposed stimulus package is only about $30 billion, so we can imagine there could be some squabbling over that pie. Assuming the coalition gets the go-ahead from the Governor General, Julian would sit down with New Westminster mayor and council to discuss infrastructure priorities and then take our ask back to Ottawa. The coalition's plan was not yet online when I spoke with Julian, but when I get the link I will share it so you can read - and decide - for yourself.