Thursday, April 28, 2011

From Conservative Minority to Majority, Part IV: The Conservative Edge

In Part III, I described why I believed that the Governor General would have little choice but to follow the advice offered to him by the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament, once a Conservative minority government falls on a vote of confidence, orchestrated by the Opposition as part of an effort to form a stable government. I indicated that it seemed to me that, based on Stephen Harper’s past statements, some of which were made quite recently to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, a defeated Harper would ask the GG to dissolve parliament, rather than follow the example of former Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Frank Miller, when he was defeated by the Liberals and the NDP on the throne speech back in 1985. While Harper could advise the GG to turn to the Opposition to govern, I can’t see how he could bring himself to do so.

And that means that we will find ourselves in yet another election before too long. Really, that shouldn’t surprise Canadians too much, in one respect: because Conservative candidates have been saying as much for the past 30+ days on the campaign trail. They’ve been using the threat of another unnecessary election as a reason for voters to give the Conservatives a majority government. Without a majority, Conservatives have said, expect another election.

Yet, if another election, whether it be in June or November (following a prorogation), is precipitated by a request from Stephen Harper to the Governor General, won’t Canadians hold that against Harper, and punish him at the polls?

No way.

If the Opposition Liberals and NDP get together to defeat a Conservative minority government, likely on the first matter of confidence which comes before the House (the throne speech), and Harper feels that he is forced to return to Canadians through an election, it is the Opposition which stands to be punished by voters, and not the Conservatives. In Part III, I discussed the notion of upping the level of rhetoric to an uncomfortable level, some of which we saw back in 2008 during the so-called “Constitutional Crisis”, where terms like “coup d’etat” were being used to describe the Opposition’s attempt to “seize power” from “winning party”.

If you think Harper and the Conservatives have been nasty on the campaign trail during this election when it comes to talking about the coalition, you haven’t seen anything yet. If Canada is drawn into another election, you can bet that the Conservatives will wrap themselves in the Canadian flag, and paint the Opposition coalition as no better than a gang of criminals trying to seize power from the legitimate elected government. If the Bloc Quebecois is involved at all, so much the better from the Conservative’s perspective (and you can bet whether the Bloc is involved or not, that the Conservatives will trot out the separatist bogeyman as yet another reason for voters to punish the Opposition parties).

The Opposition parties will be left with the unenviable task of having to explain a few things to Canadians. First, they’ll have to try to explain why they believed that their actions to replace the Conservative minority government were not only legal and legitimate, but also in the best interests of Canada. And second, they’ll have to explain why they never believed that their actions would precipitate yet another election that Canadians don’t want, given that they ought to have known that an election is exactly where their actions would lead to, given what the Conservatives had previously warned Canadians about.

Of course, the Opposition Parties will be able to claim that Stephen Harper has no honour, that he should have advised the GG to turn power over to them, er, that they could have formed a stable government without an election, but for the bad advice given to the GG by Stephen Harper.

As someone who has been involved with campaigns now on several elections, I can tell you from which side I would prefer to make my case to voters during an election.

At a debate held in Sudbury on Tuesday night, I watched the NDP candidate try to explain the NDP’s position on cap and trade, and how it would work. He couldn’t do it. His response was just terrible. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand the position, though. Only that explaining something as complex as cap and trade in a minute and a half, when put on the spot, is very difficult to do for anyone. Even I would have struggled.

Well, explaining how a cap and trade emissions scheme would work pales in comparison to the difficulty in explaining why the Prime Minister’s advise to the GG was wrong, and how the GG should have used Reserve powers to transfer governance from the Party that won the election to a coalition of parties that lost, and how actually a transfer of power without having an election is more democratic than going back to the voters and why it would have been in the interests of Canadians to allow the coalition to govern in the first place, not to mention why they ever thought they wouldn’t end up right where they did, given that’s where Stephen Harper and the Conservatives said we’d all be.

Ya, cap and trade would be a snap compared to that.

So, the Conservatives would start off by occupying the moral high ground, at least in the perception of many Canadians. Sure, there would be some who would understand what’s really going on, but with a compelling Conservative narrative, I can’t help but think they’d be in the minority. Especially if the Liberals and NDP had to work with the Bloc to orchestrate the defeat of the Conservative minority government. Remember that public opinion during the so-called “Constitutional Crisis” was clearly favouring the Conservative’s position.

Public opinion, too, is sure to be bolstered by the mainstream media. Now, I’m not at all suggesting that the mainstream media is going to get behind the notion that Harper had no choice but to call an election after his defeat (although many in the mainstream media will adopt that approach…indeed, I think I’ve made a pretty strong case for just that in Part III of this series). Why I believe the media will be complicit in selling the Harper narrative has to do with the media’s current and past track record of not actually questioning Harper’s assertions regarding the legitimacy of coalition governments, and whether parties have the right to form them.

Harper and the Conservatives, and indeed Ignatieff and Layton, seem to be able to say pretty much whatever they want to the mainstream media nowadays, and very rarely are they questioned on their assertions. Instead, the media moves on to the next story, before fact-checking the one they’ve just published. Indeed, there used to be a time when fact-checking would have occurred before publication, but in the 24 hour news cycle, who has the time or resources for that? If something truly egregious emerges, such as the Conservatives claim that the Liberals voted for an iPod tax, then the media will likely sort it out eventually, maybe even causing some brief embarrassment to the parties involved. And then the story is forgotten (remember when it was reported that the Conservatives used the words of Auditor-General Sheila Fraser out of context in a report, for which she rebuked them? That was only a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll bet most of you have moved on from this story after Stockwell Day publicly apologized to the Auditor General on national TV. Day, of course, isn’t running in this election, so he’s largely been absent from the media spotlight).

Who, then, will be left to challenge the Harper narrative? If the Opposition parties can’t do it, and the media won’t do it, that leaves only the little voices shouting in the sea of online social media. And trust me, unless someone can explain all of this in an exciting YouTube video, preferably one with singing children or cats falling off of furniture, best of luck to us social media types for getting the word out in a 35-day election.

Finally, let’s not forget what’s probably the biggest factor at play here: money. The fact is the Conservative Party will have enough money in the bank to fight two elections back-to-back, while the Opposition Parties will not. In fact, we can expect the Liberals and the NDP, along with the Bloc and the Greens, to have built up some debt as a result of this election campaign. That’s not unusual, especially since the Parties know that money will be coming back to them in the from of candidate reimbursements (for those ridings where more than 10% of the vote was won) and the per-vote subsidy.

If money is an issue, though, no doubt the Conservatives would benefit from calling a snap election right away, before Elections Canada has a chance to send out any rebates to candidates and parties. Without money in the bank, and with debt from one election, it’s not at all likely that the Opposition parties would be able to run successful national campaigns. This would put them at even more of a disadvantage to Harper’s Conservatives.

To recap: another election on the heels of this one benefits the Conservatives in many ways. The Conservatives will have compelling national narrative to present to the people of Canada in contrast to the Opposition’s need to present difficult, technical information. The Conservatives will continue to enjoy a free ride in the mainstream media, which will fail to ask the difficult questions as to why we’re having another election. And the Conservatives have the money in the bank to pull this off, while the Opposition parties will be broke.

With all of the above acting in favour of the Conservatives, a majority government is almost a certain outcome. A majority government is what Stephen Harper has been craving for a long while now; it’s been something which progressive Canadians have long feared.

In this series of blogposts, I’ve looked at why I believe that an immediate move by the Opposition parties to defeat a Conservative minority government will lead inexorably towards the establishment of a Conservative majority government. In the process, we’re sure to witness a further decline in the democratic health of our national discourse, with political mudslinging on a scale never before witnessed in Canada. Depending on how things play themselves out, we will run the risk of jeopardizing the very Canada that all political parties are intent on governing.

The Canada which emerges from this scenario is sure to be a damaged Canada, and potentially a Canada in crisis. A majority Conservative government will be given a free hand to provide the medicine that it thinks Canada will need in order to heal. For progressive Canadians, we can be sure that the medicine will be the bitterest and sourest on offer, and that it will do more harm than good. We’d call that medicine “poison”.

Given that, around the world, right-wing governments have used crises to tear down social systems and privative state assets, and given that there remains a multi-billion dollar hole in the Conservative’s budget (along with tens of billions of dollars of deficit), the Canada which emerges from the four or five years of a Harper majority after such a wrenching electoral crisis is almost certainly to be one unidentifiable to Canadians today.

Now, all of this may be for naught if the NDP continues to its meteoric rise in the polls, and we all wake up on Tuesday morning to discover that Jack Layton is going to be the Prime Minister. I’ll have to write about the problems with that scenario at another time!

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are more own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


Anonymous said...

Steve, what is your opinion on the massage parlour smear?

It was released on the Friday before the election by an 'anonymous source' through the SUN Media outlets.

This is EXACTLY what happened in the Matichuk election here in Sudbury.

Gerry Labelle said...

Personally i am appalled at such an incident being reported a couple of days prior to the election.This is not the kind of country i was raised in. This is the kind of childish shenanigans we've come to expect south of the border and if if this is what Sun Media views as balanced and honest reporting, they should move south where they would be in good company.

Sudbury Steve said...

I'm with Gerry on this one. Disgusting. At least most people saw through it. It might not even have been one of the other Parties who had this story. I think maybe Sun Media was just sitting on it (as apparently a number of journalists were familiar with the story over the past decade or so), and simply released it themselves, and for their own purposes.

I think that we can expect to see our mainstream media increasingly act on its own, for its own political purposes, just as Fox News does in the States. It's going to be another challenge to add to the growing list of challenges faced by Canadians. And it will turn people away from participating in our democratic processes.

Sudbury Steve said...

Having said all of that, I certainly wouldn't rule out the Conservatives having had a hand in the release of the story. Recall that the Conservatives had just been publicly spanked by Sun Media for trying to plant a picture of Ignatieff in U.S. Army clothing.

And then this story broke. Could have been a little sleight of hand at work: Sun Media saying we're not the mouthpiece of the Conservatives, looky over here, while printing dubious copy slipped to them by the Cons over there.

We'll never know, of course, but I've always advocated following the trend. And this kind of subterfuge appears to be a bit of a trend.