Friday, December 05, 2008

Harper, Dion need to go now

Stephen Harper has to go.
That's the biggest message I'd take from the one-week political crisis that was eased Thursday when Gov. Gen Michaelle Jean agreed to Stephen Harper's proposal to shut down the Commons until Jan. 26.
If she had required him to face the House, the government would have fallen. That would have meant a Liberal-NDP coalition or an election, depending upon Jean's judgment about the next step.
Harper and the Conservatives won a seven-week reprieve and some manoevuring room.
But at considerable cost.
Harper provoked this whole crisis stupidly and unnecessarily. Elected with a minority, he promised an end to partisanship. And then at the first opportunity, he launched attacks on the financial supports critical to the other parties, while leaving intact the subsidies that benefit the Conservatives. He moved to take away federal employees' to strike and to limit pay equity provisions. (And tabled a budget surplus forecast that no economists believed credible and offered no actions to address the economic crisis.)
The measures were so important, Harper said, that the government would include them in a confidence vote. If they were defeated, there would be an election.
The moves were so outrageous, even the disheartened Liberals were roused. Harper actually united the centre left way more quickly than he was able to unite the centre right.
Harper defended the measures, then retreated, first saying it wouldn't be a confidence vote, then dumping them.
But the damage had been done; the coalition train was rolling. The Liberals and New Democrats agreed on an economic plan. The Bloc Quebecois didn't join, but agreed not to vote against the next two budgets. As long as those passed, the coalition could survive until early 2011.
A smart leader wouldn't have created this mess. Once in it, he would recognize the need to admit error and move on.
Harper, perhaps because of all those years on the outside fighting governments, went on the attack. He was dishonest about the Bloc's role and seemed to suggest the 38 per cent of Quebec voters who supported the party were somehow second-class citizens. He re-opened the separatism debate, for short-term political gain, a shamefully reckless act.
When the smart - and right - thing would have been to reach out, Harper started punching. Even Thursday, after Jean allowed the government to survive, he wouldn't acknowledge any error.
What should happen between now and Jan. 26 is a new start. The Conservatives should be talking with the opposition, and offering a real chance to be involved in budget preparation. It's a minority government; compromise is needed. Harper seems unable to do that. And at this point, he wouldn't be trusted anyway.
If the Conservatives want a chance to govern for a couple of years and then win a majority, they need a new leader, someone like Environment Minister Jim Prentice. (While Harper was picking fights, Prentice had invited the opposition environment critics to come with him next week to a climate change meeting in Poland on the successor to the Kyoto accord.)
There's a lesson here for the Liberals too. What is Stephane Dion doing as party leader until May?
He resigned Oct. 20. Taking seven months to pick a new leader suggests you don't just care. Canadians were supposed to embrace the idea that he would be prime minister for a few months and then whoever the Liberal party delegates choose would take over.
That's irresponsible. The party should have a leader by Jan. 26. Let MPs and riding associations choose, or move to one vote for every party member, instead of the tainted delegate system. Webcast candidates' debates and provide central locations if members want to watch them together. Allow online voting. Choose.
It's been a destructive, ugly episode. Without real change, it will be replayed at the end of January, to the detriment of Canadians.
Footnote: This might mark a turning point. If neither party can address its immediate leadership problems, that will suggest MPs and party members have lost any influence and power is firmly held by whoever can win the leader's job. The leader was supposed to serve at the pleasure of the party's MPs. No more.


Anonymous said...

I can't think of one word with which I disagree.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear!