Thursday, November 27, 2008

Questions of Tactical Brilliance Are Irrelevant

If this is about electoral strategy, then this is wrong

A recent move by the federal government to stop the flow of federal subsidies -- at a rate of $1.95 per vote received -- was bound to attract the outrage of Canada's opposition parties.

Even the staunchest supporters of the Conservative party have sufficient cause to wonder whether or not this is a strategic move on Harper's part.

Those who have subscribed to the notion of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a power-mongering ideologue for whom winning a majority government is all-important, this makes sense. For those who see Harper as a principled conservative looking for a way to prevent unncessary spending during a time of economic crisis may be impelled to see the move as more of a symbolic move, akin to cutting the bonuses and expense accounts of MPs and government bureaucrats.

Some, however, can't seem to resist the urge to assess the strategic virtues of the move. In a Full Comment blog, Ian MacDonald muses on this very topic:
"Had the Conservatives been returned with a majority in last month’s election they had every intention of cutting off public financing of political parties, and they would had the means and the muscle to do it over the howls of opposition protests. Now they’re doing so anyway, touting it as part of Ottawa tightening its spending in yesterday’s economic update.
But all three opposition parties, who live on the Elections Canada annual subsidy of $1.95 per vote, were instantly outraged and will ferociously oppose it, which means if they defeat it in the House, the government will fall on a question of confidence.

And Stephen Harper said he was hoping for a more civility in the new House. Forget it, Prime Minister. This is a declaration of war. It’s tactically brilliant, but could prove fatally flawed. Harper does not want an election with the economy sliding into a deep recession and the government falling into a deficit. But he should not assume the Liberals will go into a snap election with St├ęphane Dion as their leader. The Liberal caucus will not allow it, and would step in to elect either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae.
Of course, any snap decision in leadership will inevitably produce significant rifts within the Liberal party.

Not to mention the fact that Dion himself may insist on fighting this election. Should he force the party to remove him before the leadership convention, the blood on the floor of the Liberal party will almost certainly attract some sharks -- from both within the party and without.
"The move would save taxpayers about $27 million a year. That’s chump change in $200 billion of federal spending, nothing more than symbolic gesture of Ottawa doing its part. But for the opposition parties, it’s their lifeblood -- $7 million for the Liberals, $5 million for the NDP, $3 million for the Bloc Quebecois, and nearly $2 million for the Greens. The Conservatives get about $10 million based on their current 38% share of the vote, but are much less reliant on the public subsidy than the other parties -- last year the Conservatives raised $16 million on their own, four times as much as the Liberals.

But it’s the Bloc Quebecois, the party that wants to break up Canada, that is the most reliant on the federal subsidy. While its provincial cousins, the Parti Quebecois, are worse than broke and went into the current Quebec election $800,000 in debt, the Bloc is flush with cash. The $6 million the Bloc would receive over the normal two-year life of a minority Parliament is more than 10 times what it would raise on its own.
Which is precisely what one should expect from a party that wants to break up the country, and so can only fundraise in the portion of the country it wants to excise -- in this case, Quebec.
"One of the reasons the PQ is effectively demobilized, as well as broke, is that many of its best people are on the Bloc or federal government payroll, in 49 parliamentary and riding offices. Like the NDP and the Liberals in the House yesterday, the Bloc screamed that the cuts to party allowances were an attack on democracy itself, although to all appearances democracy functioned quite well before parties were subsidized in the 2003 campaign finance reform, which banned corporate and union donations as the tradeoff for the public subsidy.

In the House yesterday, Harper replied to a fulminating NDP Leader Jack Layton that “protecting the entitlements of political parties is not going to do anything for the Canadian people.”
And he's right -- they won't.
"And here’s his closing argument in English-speaking Canada. Should the taxpayers of Canada finance the separatist movement? Answer: no.

But Harper should also beware of what he wishes for. In the toxic atmosphere he has instantly created, his government could fall. And in the ensuing election, in a steep economic downturn, he could lose to either Iggy or Bob.
That is, provided that either Iggy or Bob can unite what will almost certainly be a very divided party behind them in time.

Then again, there is still the other side of this issue -- the one that is actually more important.

The strategic virtues of this move are actually irrelevant. If this move is really about political strategy, then this move is just plain wrong -- and Canadians should judge and reject Stephen Harper and his party based on that.

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