Silver Donald Cameron

The Vanishing Prime Minister

December 7, 2008

I fear it’s all my fault. Six weeks ago, on October 18, just two days before the federal election, I made some innocent observations about the probable results.

“Consider the results of recent polls,” I wrote, “which show the Harper crowd at about 35%, the Liberals near 25%, the NDP around 20%, the Greens at 12% or so, and the Bloc somewhere under 10%. Do the math. If those percentages were reflected in seats, then any two of the first three would have enough support to challenge the Conservatives, and to ask the Governor-General for an opportunity to form a government…. And the centre-left parties don’t have to merge in order to rule. They only need to learn the tricks of coalitions and voting alliances, like politicians in other multi-party legislatures like those of Germany, Ireland, Italy, France and Israel.”

I didn’t know that the opposition leaders read this column so carefully. And now look what I’ve done – pulled the rug from under the government, turned up the heat on the Governor-General, and detonated a constitutional crisis.


What I didn’t predict, of course, was that the Prime Minister would precipitate the new era by popping his own head into the mouth of a lion and daring it to chew – an action rooted in his own cold cleverness and his appalling lack of judgment. (If he had had his way, remember, our soldiers would be fighting in Iraq and Maher Arar would still be in a black hole in Damascus.) This self-inflicted crisis could be a career-terminating move. His main appeal to his party was that he could win. Without that aura, he’s gone.

The government has gained a few weeks of life by persuading the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament – the first-ever use of prorogation as a survival technique. The Prime Minister presumably hopes that the opposition coalition will implode between now and late January – aided, no doubt, by late-night offers of Cabinet posts and Senate seats to any wavering Liberals. Shades of Stronach.

Meanwhile, the Harperites will try to whip up the Canadian public to smite Stephane Dion for trying to do exactly what Harper tried to do in 2004, and Stockwell Day in 2000 – join with the dreaded socialists and the separatists to take power without an election. And if his government is nevertheless defeated in January, Harper might even try to persuade the Governor-General to call another election.

In politics, six weeks is forever, and Harper could yet wriggle through. With a leadership contest underway, the Liberals are ill-positioned to govern, and the cracks in the glue that binds the coalition are easy enough to see.

Still, if the coalition parties can stay focussed on what they share, they may well be able to stick-handle their way to power, and they might make a respectable government. They have powerful incentives to make their partnership work, and substantial common interests in areas like the economy and the environment.

The arrangement is risky for the NDP, which will have to tolerate policies it fundamentally detests, like corporate tax cuts and the Afghanistan mission. But the NDP may be surrounded by what Pogo the peerless possum once called “insurmountable opportunities.”

The NDP’s political achievements – which include policies like pension reform, tax reform and medicare – have always come from controlling the oxygen supply of Liberal minority governments. The trap is that if the policies work, the Liberals get the credit and the NDP gets trampled in the subsequent stampede to majority government.

But a coalition could be different. The NDP would have its own ministers within the cabinet. If those ministers were deft and nimble, they could make a real difference – and also capture the credit for their achievements.

Not the least of their achievements would be ridding us of Stephen Harper.

“You know,” said a friend last week, “I’m beginning to loathe this guy almost as much as Mulroney.”

Hold on now, buddy. That’s a big claim. I admit that Harper has united both the right and the left, strained the fabric of the nation and single-handedly rendered the population bilious and apoplectic. But challenge Mulroney? Buddy, that’s a big, big claim.

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