Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rattling the cage: Instability on Canada's political and economic scenes

By Grace

On October 14, 2008, Canadians gave Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper a minority government. Six weeks later, there are rumblings that two of the opposition parties, the Liberals and New Democrats, are in the process of brokering a deal to throw out the Tories and form a coalition government with the support of the Bloc Quebecois.

The Conservatives ran on a platform of avoiding running a federal budget deficit, and even went to so far as to claim that under their guidance, Canada would not slide into a recession. Since returning to Parliament, the Tories have reassessed their previous stance and are admitting that a budget deficit may be on the horizon (the great irony being that Stephen Harper himself is an economist), and that a recession is indeed coming. But despite the current auto industry crisis and economic forecasting, Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have yet to craft an economic stimulus package.

The trigger, however, for all the whisperings to oust the current government was a proposal by Flaherty to cut public funding for political parties in a fiscal update bill without putting a stimulus package together. Parties currently get $1.95-per-vote after an election; removing it would "would cement the financial supremacy of the Conservative party and its state-of-the-art fundraising machine." The opposition decries this as a self-serving political and ideological move in a time where efforts should be concentrated on the financial crisis.

Despite winning 37% of the popular vote, a clear minority, Harper has chosen to run Parliament as though he had won a majority: without compromise, on which the longevity of such governments, not to mention good governance, depends. In the face of this new development, rather than, well, compromise, he appeared at a press conference to denounce this move as "undemocratic" and that the parties would rather "take power, not earn it." Well – that's not an entirely fair accusation – the Liberals and NDP together have 44% of the popular vote, and this deal couldn’t be made if there wasn’t a provision for it in the constitution.

What Harper’s press conference has proven is that the opposition has finally made a move, both large and serious enough, to rattle him. It's also clear that he's concerned about whether he can hold onto power or not.

Yesterday, an announcement was made that they would kill the plan to remove public subsidies for political parties. This is all brinksmanship, and this time the Tories blinked first (which may be a first in and of itself). But it appears that the opposition has not been appeased – they still take issue with the absence of a stimulus package and the fact that Conservatives are dragging their feet when calculated but swift action is needed.

Forming a coalition would involve a vote of non-confidence, which would topple the existing government. The Prime Minister would have to approach Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, to request a new election – something she could refuse if she believed that a coalition government would be viable for a sufficient period of time.

It's a huge gamble. If the Governor General doesn't believe that the coalition government would work, Canadians would have to revisit the polls – possibly for the second time in three or four months. It's an expensive proposition when we can't afford needless spending.

Also in question is who would lead the coalition. The Liberals will be at the forefront, but leader Stephane Dion stepped down after the previous election and the party will not choose a new one until May 2009. He remains there as the interim head. The leadership candidates are not good options at this time (it will have an impact on the selection process).

It's all very interesting, but there are too many variables in play. It's a little bit frightening to have instability both in the economy and political arena at the same time – especially now.


Buckle your seat belts, Canucks: It's going to be a bumpy ride.

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