Monday, February 2, 2009

Flanagan: New Balance of Power on Parliament Hill

This is an interesting article by Flanagan who used to be or maybe still is an advisor to Harper. However, from what I have read elsewhere Flanagan was not at all in favor of the tactics in the economic update!
I think that Flanagan is right about Ignatieffs position being relatively weak. In effect he is doing a Dion and propping up the Conservatives. As Flanagan points out, Harper may introduce some right wing legislation to mollify his core constituency. He could easily make these confidence motions and put Ignatieff in the position of looking even more like Dion if he does not vote them down. As Flanagan notes if these were crime bills Ignatieff would hardly want to campaign on being soft of crime!

The new balance of power on Parliament Hill

From Monday's Globe and Mail
February 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual ..." - Lord Palmerston, Speech to the House of Commons, March 1, 1848
After the collapse of the opposition coalition, federal politics looks like a multipolar, balance-of-power system in international relations. No one party can dominate the others, and no one can achieve much except through tactical alliances. What are the implications for the party leaders?
Michael Ignatieff, a prize-winning novelist, scripted an exit from the coalition designed to make the Liberal Leader look powerful. But in fact, his position is relatively weak. In the end, he had to imitate Stéphane Dion - denounce the Conservatives' budget but let it pass - and, like Mr. Dion, he may have to do it again and again. Stephen Harper, having gotten his budget through, can be sure of getting an election from the Governor-General if he wants one, so he can afford to attach confidence to important pieces of legislation without worrying that a defeat will put the opposition in power without an election. Mr. Ignatieff can try to look imperious, but he can't escape the objective weakness of his party.
Getting rid of Mr. Dion has brought the Liberals up a bit in the polls, but not to a winning position. Although Mr. Ignatieff is a celebrity in London and Boston, he is still largely unknown in Canada, so he will need time to develop his image. He is demonstrating guile and ruthlessness, but he has to do something about his narcissistic fixation with "I" and "me," as in "It's up to [Mr. Harper] to make the right decision and up to me to decide if he made it."

NDP Leader Jack Layton has interesting choices to make. He lost a lot when the coalition broke up, but he gained new room to manoeuvre. With Mr. Ignatieff repositioning the Liberals closer to the centre, the NDP can renew its play for left-wing voters who balance between the two parties. In fact, the party has done just that by starting a radio ad campaign attacking Mr. Ignatieff for "propping up Stephen Harper." TV ads would be more effective but are probably too costly for the NDP at this point.
Beyond attacking the Liberals' left flank, Mr. Layton may reconsider his pout against Stephen Harper (as Palmerston said, "no perpetual enemies"). As the leader of a party standing at 14 per cent in the polls, Mr. Layton can't realistically refuse to deal with the leaders of both major parties. It would be in his interest to look for points of agreement with Mr. Harper to achieve some legislative victories, thus strengthening his new claim to be the "NDP Opposition."
Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois may also want to rethink his position. His jihad against the Conservatives has succeeded so well that the Liberals are emerging as a renewed threat to the Bloc in Quebec. An intelligent long-term strategy for Mr. Duceppe would be to emulate the balancing role that "perfidious Albion" used to play among continental European powers, supporting the weakest and ensuring that no one ever became pre-eminent. The Bloc prospers when the Liberals and Conservatives (and now even the NDP) divide up the non-separatist vote in Quebec, but the Bloc loses seats whenever one of these federalist parties becomes too strong.
Mr. Harper's first priority should be to reconnect with the Conservative base - the donors and volunteers who keep the party alive. These people may understand the political necessity of his budget, but it won't make them like deficit-spending. Volunteers and donors have to be motivated by more than realpolitik.
Mr. Harper needs to show them that he's still a conservative by pushing some non-budgetary initiatives in the House of Commons. He could start, for example, with the criminal-justice measures from the party's platform in the 2008 election. Why not make these a matter of confidence and run them straight at the Liberals? Will Mr. Ignatieff force an election on behalf of criminals? I don't think so.
Reconnecting with the base is particularly important for the Conservatives. The Liberals live off state subsidies, but the Conservatives depend on donors. Conservative campaign doctrine, emphasizing heavy use of prewrit advertising and systematic voter identification, is effective - but expensive. It was the grassroots who put up the money for the ads that took down Mr. Dion, and Mr. Harper has to ensure the money keeps coming in.
Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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