The secret plot to destroy the Liberals

What's with all the back-scratching between the Tories, the NDP and the BQ? 'We want to remove the Liberals from the game board,' says one MP.

Course à la chefferie du PLC

The first week of Canada's 39th Parliament was the latest instalment in the endless fight between the serious and the frivolous in Canadian politics. For once, seriousness had a good week. The new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, set a brisk tone and tempo for his new government. Senior ministers set about their work with diligence and good humour. Parliament set to work with a minimum of fuss.
And the least qualified of the prominent candidates for the Liberal leadership abandoned the race -- although Belinda Stronach managed to insist with a straight face that the party had failed to meet her standards, rather than vice versa. The victories of seriousness are almost never complete.

Stronach's surreal, half-hearted concession to reality notwithstanding, it was also a bad week for the Liberal Party of Canada. The party that governed Canada for the last 13 years (and for 33 of the last 46) is in greater danger than it seems to understand, with more enemies than its leaders seem willing to count. Harper's Conservatives are the government, but it is the Liberals, under the temporary new management of Bill Graham, who are alone with their backs to the wall. Much of the week's drama came from watching this startling new dynamic on display. Much of this Parliament's drama will come from seeing whether the Liberals understand their peril and can find any way out.

The fun began with the Speech from the Throne. On Tuesday I made my way up Parliament Hill with a colleague from the Toronto Star. We were startled by the bellow of cannon fire. With my eyes I followed the plume of smoke down to the ground.
There. Just west of the Centre Block, behind the statue of Diefenbaker. Soldiers. With guns. In our cities. I'm not making this up.
They were firing the traditional 21-gun salute to mark the opening of a new Parliament. Little else about the day went by tradition. Instead of the usual indigestible stew of projects for every conceivable branch of government, Harper had Governor General Michaëlle Jean read a reiteration of the canonical "five priorities" that defined the Conservatives' campaign and will guide their first months in government.

By now almost everyone within three blocks of Parliament Hill can rattle off the five priorities as a party trick: cut the GST, restore accountability in government, crack down on criminality, mail child care cheques to all parents of preschool-age children, and provide a wait-time guarantee for health care. Even in more elaborate language and in Mme Jean's languid cadence, reading them took barely 20 minutes. Printed copies of the speech indulged a visual pun: they were published on pages half the size of Liberal Throne Speeches.

If there was any surprise in this Throne Speech, it appeared on the last page, a catch-all listing plans that don't fit under any of the five priorities. These range from the almost meaninglessly vague ("significant international treaties" will face votes in Parliament), to the vague but probably meaningful (the government will promote a "more competitive, more productive Canadian economy," a half-sentence that will probably drive most of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget decisions) to the specific and baffling. Why did this government, knowing how spectacularly the Liberals failed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, promise that it would succeed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions? Why lead with your chin?
The mystery would have to wait. On Wednesday Harper sat in the Prime Minister's hot seat for his first Question Period. The format seems to give him little trouble. He offered kind words of praise for each of the three opposition leaders who tried to grill him. He swatted away the Liberals, when pressed on almost any file, by saying that they had not managed in 13 years of trying to clean the problem up. And he showed the self-deprecating humour that has made him more endearing to some voters than they ever expected. Had he seduced David Emerson to abandon the Liberals for a Conservative cabinet seat? "I don't think I've ever been accused of seducing anyone. Even my wife."

Not that the Conservatives enjoyed a bump-free week. As is proving to be the case with some frequency, David Emerson provided many of the bumps. The Liberal refugee on the Conservative benches remains politically tone-deaf. At one point Chuck Strahl, the agriculture minister, joked that thousands of farmers protesting outside had every right to expect action from a Conservative government "because they certainly didn't get any from the last government."
Strahl's colleagues gave him a standing ovation. Emerson joined the ovation. Basically Emerson was applauding the assertion that he belonged to a do-nothing government. Later he professed to "shake my head at the hypocrisy" of another MP. He will provide barrels of fun for a long time to come.

Over the course of that 45-minute session, and another like it the next day, the contours of the emerging parliamentary battlefield became clearer. It quickly became almost as interesting to watch the NDP and the Bloc Québécois as to watch the two larger parties. Something big is afoot.

Here is Harper's response to NDP Leader Jack Layton's first question: "The NDP managed to substantially increase the number of seats that [it] won in the last election. As we know, it is important to everyone, including the government, that we have an opposition party that is both national in scope and principled in its approach." Don't we have one? Apparently not: "We wish the member well in building that kind of opposition," Harper said, before adding the punchline. "As long, as, of course, he remains in opposition."

Ho ho ho. The Prime Minister could simply have been making mischief. Except the odd connivance of the Conservatives and the NDP continued throughout the week, with occasional assists from even the Bloc Québécois. Here is the first part of the Layton question that drew Harper's lovey-dovey response. "Mr. Speaker, 13 years ago a Liberal government was elected on a commitment to build child care spaces across the country. Three majority governments, eight surplus budgets, and not a single child care space was built."
A day later, Layton was on about the Liberals' environmental record, "from head-of- the-line to environmental delinquent." Soon it seemed like more than a trick of geometry that had the NDP sitting on the same side of the House as the Conservatives. Indeed, there were moments when the Bloc seemed to want to cross the aisle too, leaving the Liberals alone to the Speaker's left.

Benoît Sauvageau, a Bloc MP, reminded the House that his party has demanded for years that election-day scrutineers be non-partisan appointees, not party hangers-on. Would the new government do what the Liberals never had and listen?

Up popped John Baird, the Treasury Board president. "Mr. Speaker, I'm very happy to work with my colleague from Quebec," Baird, an Ontarian, said in French. "I can tell him the answer to his question is yes." Applause from the Bloc.

Curiouser and curiouser. The new Prime Minister gave more hints about what's going on when he rose on Wednesday afternoon to deliver his speech in reply to the Throne Speech. (Ottawa is the kind of place where there are often speeches in reply to other speeches.) "We recognize in a minority the necessity of working with others," Harper said. "I note that the New Democratic Party and Bloc Québécois have already availed themselves of that opportunity." And the Liberals? "I will have a bit of time to speak about the Liberal party in a moment," he said ominously.
Harper continued with the routine business of thanking friends and family for his election victory, then circled back to the Liberals. Bill Graham had given a good speech on that party's behalf, Harper said. "However, to hear him speak, we would think that Jan. 23" -- the Liberals' election defeat -- "had never occurred." Where were the apologies for "the waste, the mismanagement, the corruption?" Or for "the campaign of fear" the Liberals ran? When could Canadians expect "the tens of millions in taxpayer dollars that were misappropriated over the course of the sponsorship scandal?"
So if Harper's government had a relatively smooth first week, it is because for much of the week, Harper's government was almost nobody's target. I don't want to overstate the scale of the plot against the Liberals -- it is normal for a long-serving and recently deposed government to continue to take bodychecks from its long-time opponents even after it ceases to be an immediate threat. And very little of last week's jousting was noticed by anyone except CPAC addicts and a single Maclean's columnist.
But none of this is an accident. There is a lot of quid pro quo going on. The Bloc got its non-partisan scrutineers. Later Harper reversed himself and threw a considerable bone to the NDP by announcing that there will be a debate, albeit no vote, on the Canadian Forces' deployment in Afghanistan. Everyone is scratching everyone's back except Bill Graham and his crew.
Just because the Liberals are prone to paranoia, in other words, does not mean that everyone is not out to get them. Paul Martin began the 2006 election campaign by recruiting Buzz Hargrove as Pied Piper to lure NDP voters to the Liberals. He ended the campaign expressing astonishment that Layton was luring Liberal voters the other way.
Many Liberals continue to believe their betrayal by leftist voters and a thoroughly uncooperative NDP was fundamentally illegitimate. That belief will be one of the two or three defining themes of the Liberal leadership race. The poster boy for Liberal indignation at the NDP refusal to fold its tents -- although that characterization sells his other qualities short -- is John Godfrey, the patrician Toronto MP.
After Thursday's Question Period I buttonholed Pat Martin, an NDP MP from Winnipeg, and asked him to confirm my hunch that the NDP and Conservatives have formed an alliance of circumstance against the mutual Liberal foe. "John Godfrey told me -- I said, 'Why are you running for the leadership?' and he said, 'To get back the million and a half votes we lent you,' " Martin said.
"But I'm not sure that's your game," I told Martin. "I think you'd like to keep going."
"Oh, absolutely," the New Democrat said. "We want to do to the Liberals nationally what we did to them in Manitoba: remove them from the game board."
Wishing, of course, does not make it so. Conservative sources say Harper has, on occasion, privately encouraged Layton to try to overtake the Liberals, but has long considered Layton a woefully slender reed for such a formidable task. And yet. On Thursday the Environics polling firm released a public-opinion survey that suggests the Liberals did not stop running out of trouble when they were run out of 24 Sussex Drive.
The poll, taken in March, showed the Liberals down eight points since election day, with the Conservatives up five, the NDP up three and the Bloc holding steady. These results put Harper's party at 41 per cent in popular vote -- majority government territory -- and the Liberals and the NDP only a point apart, at 22 and 21. The poll put the Liberals at fourth place in Quebec, commanding barely one vote there for every three Tory votes. In Ontario, the Liberals have lost the five-point lead they enjoyed on election night to fall 11 points behind the Conservatives, a 16-point swing. There is no part of the country where Liberals command more than 30 per cent of the vote except Atlantic Canada and the Greater Toronto Area.
I know, I know. Polls outside election periods catch distracted voters who haven't been thinking seriously about politics. You can't put much stock in them. And the Liberals are between leaders -- except that parties between leaders often rise in the polls because respondents can imagine an ideal leader without any baggage. Free of Martin and Jean Chrétien, the Liberals are still close to historic low voter support.
I asked a long-time Liberal strategist whether he realized the party is being double-teamed, and he said, "Sure." But the collapse of Canada's governing party "ain't gonna happen." This would be more credible if the Liberals hadn't lately had to witness a lot of events that used to dwell in the realm of ain't-gonna-happen: the unification of the right; the loss of Paul Martin's once-legendary mojo; the utter collapse of the Liberal vote in Quebec; and the election of Stephen Harper.
A party facing serious challenges, then, has little time for greasy kid stuff. Almost the only good news for the Liberals last week was the departure of Belinda Stronach, who would make a perfectly credible senior staffer in any minister's office but who seems to think she is owed the keys to 24 Sussex Drive. She could not have quit the embryonic leadership race in less graceful fashion if making an ass of herself had actually been her goal.
She pronounced herself a candidate without any flaws worth considering. "I could have run a very competitive campaign and had a chance of winning. I was blessed with some of the best field organizers in the business, a growing consituency among women and youth. I could have raised the money." Even her French was not a problem. "Mon français est mieux que vous le pense," she said, reading from notes and still managing to mangle the verb. The reporter interrogating her took pity and switched to English.
Sadly, the party is letting her down. "The Liberal party really needs a much more profound overhaul." She would rather stay out and talk about her "inspiring ideas."
Despite repeated invitations from a room full of reporters, she was unable to identify a single idea, inspiring or otherwise. "I won't be trapped in politics," she said. Yet her extended tantrum amounted to one long complaint that she has been barred from signing up truckloads of instant Liberals and that she found real Liberals too tough a market to convince. She will run again for something, someday, and be taken too seriously once again.
I fled to Montreal, where Stéphane Dion announced his own candidacy on Friday morning. The good professor smiled lopsidedly at a small room of supporters, very few of whom were wearing the well-cut suits of the Liberal power elite. Dion's stump speech is a bit of a fixer-upper, but the author of the Clarity Act and the most heartening comeback kid of the Martin era had a good answer when a reporter asked whether he wasn't pursuing a lost cause: "Everything I've succeeded at in politics was presented, when I started, as being impossible."
Michael Ignatieff's campaign launch in Toronto later the same day was far bigger and more polished. But I was happy I had driven east from Ottawa to see Dion, instead of west to Ignatieff. Nobody in that little room at the Palais des Congrès was there because they thought Dion will be prime minister. They were there because they thought he should be. Their simple optimism had the virtue of novelty.

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