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Canada’s PM Harper Faces Down His Opponents, Undermining Liberal Leader Dion in the Process

Reading Time: 9 minutes“For Stephen Harper, it’s been a rough ride. In early December, his very survival was at stake.”
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Compared to Americans enthralled by an exciting, too-close-to-call election, Canadians were yawning when they went to the polls on October 14. It seemed like yet another unwanted election—the third since 2004—brought on by obscure reasons that only Stephen Harper, the prime minister, knew for sure.

The results were predictable. Harper won a strengthened Conservative minority government, winning 143 seats, a gain of 16. The Liberal Party, which ruled Canada for most of the previous two decades, had its worst showing in more than 100 years with a mere 26.2 percent of the popular vote. The New Democrats, Canada’s left-of-center party, increased their standing in the 308-member House of Commons.

Canadians went back to sleep. They awoke seven weeks later to a series of surreal events that would bring Harper’s government to the brink of defeat and see the creation of an unlikely and precedent-breaking multi-party coalition that included Canada’s separatist party from Quebec, The Bloc Quebecoise. These dramatic developments accelerated the departure of the embattled Liberal Party leader, Stephane Dion, and the appointment of a new Liberal leader the very next day.

Enter Michael Ignatieff: a world scholar, intellectual heavyweight, ex-journalist, acclaimed author of 16 books, and the former director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights. Ignatieff, 61, a political neophyte, returned to Canada in 2005 after more than 30 years abroad to run for a seat in Parliament and then for the Liberal Party leadership . Although he lost to Dion, he was appointed deputy Liberal leader. A replay of the leadership race seemed likely at first when Dion resigned, but Ignatieff quickly and skillfully managed to get enough support to replace Dion.

Out of time and out of ammunition after cracks appeared in the coalition’s armor, the party needed a credible face to boost its fortunes and keep Stephen Harper on his toes.

The face-off between Ignatieff and Harper could come as soon as January 27 when the Conservatives are set to present their budget.

Ignatieff vowed to bring down the government and trigger a new election if the budget didn’t contain measures to “cushion the blow” of a recession, and if Harper didn’t change his “my way or the highway” approach to governing. But he promised to look at the budget proposals instead of killing them automatically.

Ignatieff’s wait-and-see attitude had a calming effect on the crisis. And with just two years under his belt as a Member of Parliament, he’s demonstrated that he can be a “formidable opponent” and that he knows how to play the game, says Nik Nanos from Nanos Research, a polling firm in Ottawa.

Following his loss to Stephane Dion in the 2006 leadership race, Ignatieff has started to look like a politician. As deputy leader, he’s traveled around the country and widened his circle of advisors and supporters—and made a start on changing his image as an elite intellectual who has little knowledge of Canada’s grass roots.

Beneath the sophisticated veneer, the former Harvard professor and journalist can be ruthless. That was underlined by the manner in which he climbed to the top of the Liberal heap this month. With the backing of the party executive, he basically mounted what many observers (some of them admiringly) call a “coup d’état”, propelling himself to the top, ignoring the one-person, one-vote process. The crowning will officially take place at a party convention in May.

By that stage, anyway, most Liberals regarded Dion as a liability. After addressing the country in an embarrassing video-taped speech that some journalists compared to a family home video, Dion—who had originally been rejected once by Canadians as a potential prime minister, slipped unceremoniously out of office with a short press release on December 8.

For Stephen Harper, it’s been a rough ride. In early December, his very survival was at stake. Backed by the Bloc Quebecois, a coalition of New Democrats (NDP) and Liberals vowed to topple Harper’s seven-week-old minority government in reaction to the lack of a major economic stimulus package in his November 27 economic update.

As polls showed public opinion was against the coalition, except in Quebec, the prime minister became defiant. In a national television address, an unapologetic Harper promised to never allow an “illegal” coalition government to do “backroom deals with the separatists.”

Never mind that he had once considered a similar alliance with what he now derided as the “anti-democratic” Bloc Quebecois to topple then-Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government. Still, it was a persuasive argument in a country less than happy about the prospect of a new election, particularly in the dead of winter. (Canadian winters are a political campaigners’ nightmare). And in predominantly-French-speaking Quebec in particular, Harper’s efforts to resurrect the specter of a separatist threat backfired.

Across the country, the idea of a “coalition government” got little traction. Editorials and talk shows in Calgary, Regina and Vancouver sputtered with outrage.  One Calgary resident warned it would be a “nightmare” to have a government made up of “NDP socialists and Bloc separatists.” The Coalition’s hopes of taking power were finally ended, when Governor-General Michaëlle Jean—Canada’s head of state—approved a request from the Prime Minister to suspend parliament until January 26. That effectively rescued Harper’s government. Most observers believed that he would have lost the no-confidence vote, which the Coalition was preparing to bring to Parliament.

A Long Time Coming

Among the hemisphere’s governments, Canada is normally the least likely candidate for the kind of instability it experienced over the past month. So how could events in Canada’s grey stone Parliament buildings get so messy?

The fault rests with Stephen Harper. His style is autocratic; he doesn’t like to be contested and he quashes dissent. It doesn’t help that he has had a long-standing chilly relationship with the Ottawa press corps. Harper, a trained economist, is philosophically to the Right of most Canadians. He has been an opponent of the kind of socially-conscious welfare-state government that has characterized Canada since World War II and has only moved to the center when he merged his small right-wing party with the former (and nearly defunct) Progressive Conservatives. Many of his critics argue that he never really moved to the center at all. Following the U.S., market meltdown, Harper commented there “were probably some great buying opportunities out there.” And then he seemed to confirm his detractors’ worse fears when he proposed—in the financial statement that set off the latest uproar—measures such as temporarily banning strikes by public service unions. 

Despite promising after the election to set partisanship and harsh attacks aside and to work with the other parties to address the deteriorating economic situation, he seized the opportunity to destroy his already weakened opposition parties. His November fiscal update tersely announced that he would cut about $30 million in public subsidies to all federal political parties. What was billed as a move to lower government spending was, in effect, a naked attempt to bankrupt his opponents.

Widely seen as a partisan tactic, the elimination of the $1.95 per vote subsidy to political parties—provided they win at least two percent of the popular vote in a federal election—would have crippled the opposition parties’ ability to fundraise. The Conservatives earn $10 million in subsidies (37 percent of total revenues), compared to $7.7 million for the Liberals (63 percent of total revenues). Harper wanted to go back to the old system where large corporations could donate to political parties, a system that has worked in his party’s favor.

By the end of November, even Harper recognized he had gone too far. On November 29, he backed down on both the civil-service strike ban, and on his plan to end government financing of political parties. That allowed him to survive. But the question is whether Harper himself has foreclosed his own ambitions to lead a majority government.

Future Outlook

At best, if Ignatieff’s Liberals force a new election, Harper can expect to win a third minority government. That will put him in bad odor with his own party, where there are now rumblings about Harper’s leadership. Harper had instituted fixed-term election dates in Canada, fulfilling one of his early campaign promises (and which he went back on when he called last fall’s election).  David Taras, a communications and current affairs professor at the University of Calgary says Harper had the moral support “to govern for three years without an election.”

That moral support has evaporated. And although no one would go on record, Harper’s dealings with his own caucus are tense. One former Conservative MP, Bill Casey, kicked out after voting against a budget, told reporters Harper’s leadership style was “not working.” He said most Tory MPs would have told Harper the cancelling of public subsidies to political parties was a bad idea had they been consulted. “He doesn’t understand people. He doesn’t get that you can only push people around for so long before they push back,” Casey said.

Harper’s miscalculations have certainly cost him critical support in Quebec. The Conservatives had been slowly building support in the province, which was crucial to the party’s hopes for an eventual majority government.  “The trust has been broken,” says Jean-Marc Leger of polling firm Leger Marketing in Montreal. Without Quebec, the Conservatives’ support outside their strongholds in Western Canada looks increasingly flimsy. They are trailing badly behind the Liberals in Toronto, and in Montreal, they were unable to elect a single candidate.

Possibly the worst long-term effect of the winter turmoil is a revival of independence sentiment in Quebec, as a result of Harper’s attacks. The Bloc Quebecois had already won five extra seats in the October election for a total of 50 of the 75 possible seats in Quebec. During provincial elections which were held on December 8, in the midst of the crisis, the local separatist party, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) did better than expected, going from 36 seats in 2007 to 51—almost depriving the governing provincial Liberals of a majority. The PQ won 35 percent of the popular vote, its best showing since 2003.

Tempers have cooled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. But it’s hardly business as usual.

The power balance has now effectively changed.  The Liberals under Ignatieff are now the crucial players, forcing the Conservatives to consider the kind of financial stimulus package once considered anathema by Harper, if they want to avoid a new election, which they could use.

Time is on Ignatieff’s side. After three minority governments in Ottawa, the political tide is turning back toward a more moderate centrist approach. There’s an “opening there for the center-left,” says pollster Jean-Marc Leger in an interview with americasquaterly.org. Faced with an economic crisis and the “excesses of capitalism,” Canada just like the U.S., is now open to a less confrontational approach and “a charismatic leader,” he says.

If Ignatieff plays his cards right, even a majority Liberal government is not out of the question down the road. But it won’t be easy. In Western Canada, especially in oil-rich Alberta, the Liberals are still being punished for a national energy program in the 1980s that redistributed petrodollars to the rest of the country. In Quebec, it will be an uphill battle where the party has been decimated following a damning 2005 report about a kickback scandal that implicated prominent Liberal Party insiders. But in Ontario, the powerhouse province that has long been the manufacturing heartland of the country, voters are hurting. The financial crisis south of the border, particularly the troubles of the U.S. auto industry, is hitting hard at Ontario plants that are deeply integrated with U.S. automakers.

Ignatieff’s first order of business, he told La Presse, a Montreal daily, will be to rebuild the Quebec wing of the party by forging a closer alliance with Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest who won a majority government on December 8. “I’m convinced we’ve become the federalist option in Quebec,” he said. “Harper’s lost a lot of credibility with Quebec voters over the last few weeks and months.”

But Ignatieff also has some distance to travel before being accepted by Canadians as a credible alternative. He still carries the albatross of having supported the United States’ 2004 invasion of Iraq, which he along with many neo-liberals in the U.S. defended as a humanitarian effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s human-rights-abusing regime. He has since recanted, in a widely quoted New York Times Magazine article in 2007, conceding that “good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.”

But in Canada, memories are long. The Liberal Party, under then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, reached the height of its popularity when it sharply criticized the U.S. invasion and refused to commit Canadian troops to the effort. Canada has since been deeply involved in the Afghan conflict, one of the few NATO countries to send troops, on the grounds that it fit the nation’s self-described mission of nation-building. But after suffering painful military casualties, 104 deaths as of December 27, and rising doubts around Canada about the mission, Ottawa will pull out its troops starting in July 2011. The Harper government adopted the conclusions of a bipartisan commission on the future of the mission chaired by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley. It recommended that Canada extend its military presence in Afghanistan until 2011 on the condition that NATO commits 1,000 extra troops by February 2009. Ignatieff stood out from the Liberal pack initially by supporting an extension of Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Can the new Liberal leader rally people around him? Although Ignatieff is a forceful and unusually knowledgeable speaker on foreign policy, and a defender of Canadian federalism, his economic views are still unclear to Canadians. Revealingly, a late December Ipsos Reid poll showed that 44 percent of Canadians trust Harper, an economist, when it comes to managing the economy in “challenging times,” compared to 32 percent for Ignatieff.

The new Liberal leader’s challenge will still be to connect to ordinary Canadians after his long sojourn outside the country.  Ignatieff’s respected lineage makes him a charter member of the Canadian establishment. He’s the son of a Canadian diplomat who roamed the world, the grandson of the last Minister of Education under the Russian Czar and the nephew of legendary Canadian historian George Grant, author of Lament for a Nation. Nevertheless, he can come across as too smug.

“Michael will have to practice not presenting himself as the new coming of ‘The Royal Prince Michael of the House of Ignatieff,’” one blogger wrote. This particular aspect of “Iggy,” which regularly presents itself in public, poses problems for him to identify with “ordinary Canadians.”

It could all boil down to who is the “safest choice in these terrible economic times,” Taras told americasquarterly.org. After the weeks of crisis however, those outsiders who used to believe Canadian politics was boring will have to think again.


Huguette Young is a veteran journalist and blogger in Ottawa, Canada.

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