First Stephen Harper united the right; now he has succeeded in uniting the left. However much he backtracks from his horrendous miscalculations of last week's hyper-partisan economic update, the damage has been done. With yesterday's inking of a formal agreement among the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois to defeat the Conservatives next Monday, Canada is careering toward an experimental and unstable government at the time it can least afford one. Thank you, Mr. Harper.
To leave Canada's response to a global economic crisis in the hands of an opportunistic coalition of also-rans led by Stéphane Dion is to invite great risk. With the opposition poised to defeat the Conservative government in less than a week's time, it may require great selflessness – if not from Mr. Dion, then on the part of Mr. Harper – to prevent it.
For some Canadians, the apparently imminent defeat of Mr. Harper's government might evoke memories of Joe Clark's ouster nearly three decades ago. But Stéphane Dion of December, 2008, is not Pierre Trudeau of December, 1979. Mr. Clark was defeated on a budget seven months after the election that brought his Tories to power. He asked Edward Schreyer, then the Governor-General, for a dissolution of Parliament. Mr. Schreyer, quite properly and according to constitutional convention, asked the Liberals, under Pierre Trudeau, whether they could govern with a working majority in the House of Commons. Mr. Trudeau passed, and the Liberals won the ensuing election.
The contrasts are many. Mr. Dion is not an experienced former prime minister returning to challenge a blundering successor. He is a humbled and defeated party leader serving on an interim basis until a replacement is chosen in May. He has never earned the right to govern. Mr. Dion's Liberals did not narrowly lose the recent election, as Mr. Trudeau's had in 1979 by a 22-seat margin; instead they received their lowest share of the popular vote since Confederation, and barely half the number of seats of Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Finally, Mr. Dion is unwilling to ask voters to choose between him and Mr. Harper, as Mr. Trudeau did with Mr. Clark, but wants to form an unwieldy coalition government alongside New Democrats, with the co-operation of the Bloc Québécois.
It is debatable which is a more dangerous prospect: to place members of a left-wing, labour-beholden party that has never tasted the discipline of power in charge of major economic portfolios, or to hand a gun to a separatist party with the singular goal of advancing the interests of Quebec, and not of Canada. Either scenario would be intriguing for political scientists, and might make for good spectator sport. But a time of economic uncertainty, in which Canadians' jobs, homes and life savings are all in peril, is no time for political games or experiments.
A stronger case for the coalition might be made, were the Liberals able to expedite their leadership process. But the party has not deviated from its plan to wait until next May for a leadership convention. Michael Ignatieff, believed to be the front-runner, understandably did not push to lead a hastily assembled three-party alliance into a recession, recognizing it could prove fatal to his long-term aspirations. But Mr. Ignatieff must understand that, contrary to the assertions he made yesterday alongside his fellow leadership candidates, Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc, installing Mr. Dion as a placeholder prime minister is not an acceptable option. One way or another, the successor to Mr. Dion as Liberal leader will have to wear the consequences of this extraordinary drama, and those consequences could prove grim for the Liberals in the long term.
Mr. Dion made notable contributions to his country as intergovernmental affairs minister under the Chrétien government, but his skill set is entirely wrong for the immediate challenge. He lacks economic bona fides, and more to the point he was just resoundingly defeated by voters in part over a confusing and ill-conceived wealth-transfer scheme dressed up as a carbon tax. His inability to explain that plan – and his admitted failure to sell himself to Canadians – demonstrate a lack of communication skills, making it impossible for him to ease Canadians' apprehensions about his novel experiment in governance. Perhaps of greatest concern, he is a notorious lone wolf who has been unable to rally even his own party behind him, and whose stubbornness irritated many of his colleagues during his career as a cabinet minister. How could he possibly be expected to forge consensus among three parties with highly disparate views of how the country should be run? It might work for a few days, weeks or even months, but how truly stable would such a government be?
It is also necessary to consider the message that Mr. Dion's sudden ascent to the office of prime minister could send to much of the country. Contrary to silly Conservative claims of a coup d'état, coalition-making is entirely within the boundaries of parliamentary democracy. There is no constitutional impropriety here. But there certainly would be a political one. Owing in large part to his now defunct “Green Shift,” Mr. Dion has proved highly unpopular in Western Canada – particularly in resource-laden Alberta and Saskatchewan. What would voters in those provinces make of his elevation to the prime ministership less than two months after they overwhelmingly rejected him? Expect the Conservatives to pour fuel on the resulting regional resentment.
These many factors should weigh heavily on some, perhaps a good number, within the Liberal caucus: on Liberals with a longer view, on Liberals who want to defeat Mr. Harper not in Parliament but in an election. The NDP will not back out of the coalition – not when their most fervent dream, real federal powers exercised from within the cabinet, is about to be realized. The Bloc Québécois similarly will wield substantial power under such an arrangement, but cannot be expected to look out for the best interests of Canada outside Quebec. Having made the ill-advised decision to allow Mr. Dion to serve as interim leader until his replacement is chosen, Liberals should not now go one better and permit him to take office as interim prime minister. Liberals must ask themselves: Is this really the best hope for the Liberal Party of Canada, or of Mr. Dion? Is it, indeed, in the best political interests of the Liberal Party of Canada, or of Mr. Dion?
If the Liberals are truly set, however, on defeating Mr. Harper, and every indication suggests they are, then the responsibility for averting this politically illegitimate coalition shifts to the Prime Minister. Mr. Harper is ultimately responsible for this unhappy state of affairs. It is the byproduct of his machinations, and the product of a failure of his leadership. The opposition parties, especially with the Liberals busy licking their election wounds, were not out to pick a fight in the new Parliament. Mr. Harper gave them one anyway, turning his government's economic update into a partisan document aimed less at strengthening Canada's economic position than at undermining their ability to compete in the next election.
In so doing, he sent the message that even if he backs down in this instance, he has no interest in making the current Parliament work. His conduct since then – epitomized by his blustery and provocative statement last Friday, and his party's disturbing act in eavesdropping on a private NDP conference call this past weekend – has only reinforced for the opposition the necessity of defeating him while it has the opportunity.
If Mr. Harper wishes to act in the best interests of the country, it may be time for him to consider removing that imperative from the table. With a different Conservative leader in place, the coalition could lose some of its lustre – or at least its urgency – for the opposition parties. For Mr. Harper, who has built his government's image almost entirely around his own and controls nearly every aspect of its operations, relinquishing power would be a terribly bitter pill to swallow. He is the type who would rather fight than switch.
That is his prerogative. But switching to another Conservative leader may at this point be preferable to a legacy as the man who gave Canada Prime Minister Stéphane Dion.