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.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

So, are the Liberals ready to do their jobs too?

In the post below I write about the responsibility of Conservative MPs to take control of the party away from Stephen Harper.
Liberals, MPs and party members, have their own test.
Stephane Dion resigned in October. The leadership convention is set for May.
That's simply goofy. If you had a business, and had decided to get rid of a manager for poor performance, would you leave him on the job for seven months - knowing he was going - while you looked for a replacement?
The Liberals should have had a leadership convention at the end of November.
Now they need to find a way to have a new leader before Jan. 26, when Parliament resumes.
That shouldn't be hard. Allow online voting and perhaps 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. The failure to treat this with urgency is bizarre.
How can the coalition claim to be credible when Dion - rejected by Canadians - would be prime minister for a few months before a mystery PM would be selected in a process open to abuse?

So, are Conservative MPs ready to do their jobs?

Conservative MPs face the biggest test between now and the end of January. Go along and keep repeating the talking points supplied by the prime minister's office — which will play well with supporters — or bring their own judgment to bear on what needs to be done to govern effectively for the next couple of years, and win a majority in the next election.
The party has a lot of gratitude, rightly, to Stephen Harper for getting it into power.
But he's failed to win majorities in two elections waged under highly favourable circumstances, messed up terribly in the early days of this government and increasingly appears unable to change.
Will Conservative MPs recognize their responsibility and power to share a decision on Harper's future.
It's also a test of our system, I suppose. Have prime ministers and premiers become so powerful that they, barring disastrous defeats or years of plotting, they are unchecked by their supposed peers?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Conservatives' choice: Harper, or a chance to govern effectively

Blame Stephen Harper for the mess in Ottawa.
Faced with a minority government and an economic crisis, his first acts acknowledged neither.
When the Conservatives delivered their economic update last week, they didn't announce plans to help people worried about their pensions or losing their jobs.
Instead, Harper launched a sneak attacks on his "enemies." In the name of spending restraint, he said, federal government employees would lose the right to strike.
And the government would end the five-year-old public financing of political parties. That arrangement, introduced when union and corporate donations were banned, provides parties that get at least two per cent support nationally get $1.95 per year per vote they received in the preceding election.
The move had little to do with saving money. The goal was to weaken the opposition parties to the point that they could not function and consolidate the Conservatives' grasp on power. The Conservatives raise more donations. The change would have left them with about $19 million a year in revenue - four times as much as any other party.
Vote for the measures, he said, or he'd call an election, likely figuring the bully tactics would work.
It was a stunning blunder. The Liberals, who had been dispirited and content to drift along until next May's leadership convention, were fuelled with moral outrage. The New Democrats reacted in the same way.
Harper did the almost impossible in re-energizing the parties, driving them together and giving them a legitimate pretext for action by failing to respond to the economic crisis with a stimulus package. Dumb, vindictive and arrogant - a disastrous combination.
Within 48 hours, the Liberals and NDP had cobbled together an agreement for a coalition government to rule for 18 months, with the support of the Bloc Québécois. Stéphane Dion would be prime minister until May, when the new Liberal leader would take over. The NDP would get about one-third of cabinet seats.
The opposition parties would defeat the government and advise Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean that they had the support of a majority of MPs and should get a chance to govern.
It's a legitimate legal claim, according to most experts, and Jean has considerable discretion.
But a rickety coalition of parties with little in common but a loathing of Harper is not the government Canada needs at this time.
A critical element in dealing with the economic crisis is stability. Investors, already skittish and cash-poor, are going to shun jurisdictions where policy is unpredictable.
And despite the coalition's manifesto, the situation remains inherently unpredictable. The new government, if it emerges, will only survive if all three parties stay onside.
That includes, of course, the Bloc Québécois, a party with no commitment to the national interest.
The coalition government would also result in a profound sense of betrayal by many voters who were elated by the Conservatives' win, particularly in the West, where the party won almost 80 per cent of the seats. There are lots of references to coups on the letters' pages. They're wrong, but the sentiment is still real.
Harper's response has been to fight. He's expected to ask Jean to shut down Parliament before there can be a confidence vote, which she might or might not do. It will reconvene in January and the Conservatives will use the time to attack the coalition proposal.
Harper is showing bad judgment, again. The campaign probably won't succeed.
And it removes any chance for what's really needed - a Parliament that works, where the Conservatives govern like a party that received a minority of seats and the popular vote.
It's hard to see a ready solution. The Conservatives need to persuade the opposition parties - and Canadians - that the bullying and arrogance will end.
Which means, realistically, that Harper needs to go, to give the party a fresh start.
Now that's a test of leadership.
Footnote: What does it mean for B.C.? The bad news would be the focus on Quebec and Ontario and the overall risk of instability. The good news would be some strong cabinet ministers, aid for forest communities and a government that has to work hard to keep MPs and supporters onside.

Conservatives have to fix Harper's bungling

Stephen Harper has managed, through incompetence, arrogance and hopeless judgment, to create a crisis for the country and his party. Hard to see how long he can stick around.
But a coalition government, based largely on loathing of Harper, is not a useful solution. It will be destabilizing and leave 40 per cent of voters - especially those concentrated in the west - feeling screwed once again.
The Times Colonist offers a useful view of what should happen next here.