Globe and Mail Update
A week ago, last Thursday morning, all was politically calm in Canada.
The Conservatives were governing, with no threat to their position. The Governor-General was abroad. Canadians were enviously observing Barack Obama's administration take shape in the United States. The Prime Minister had attended an uneventful meeting of Pacific leaders in Lima, Peru. An economic statement was anticipated later that day from the Harper government to signal its response to the deteriorating economy.
Today, five working days later, the economic statement and its aftermath have created a political crisis with a coalition of parties determined and at least now having enough votes to defeat the government, a possible constitutional crisis involving the Governor-General and the beginning of a nasty national-unity crisis.
To have created three crises – or dangerous situations, if “crisis” is too strong a word – for the government and for the country in five working days represents a lack of judgment by a prime minister rarely, if ever, seen in Canadian history.
Even if Stephen Harper escapes and slays the rickety coalition of Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois arrayed against him – an entirely possible outcome – he has so tarnished his reputation that it is hard to imagine him ever winning a majority government. He has signalled to all those who worried about what he might do with a government majority that those worries were not necessarily misplaced.
Last night, the Prime Minister went on national television to attempt to deal with these three crises simultaneously. He did not even acknowledge those worries, nor speak to Canadians about their own economic worries. The same lack of empathy that characterized his initial response to the economic tsunami was back.
Once again, however, he was aided by his best weapon: Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, whose message looked as amateurship as aspects of his own leadership, a film that appeared to have been shot by a high-school student. It could only have reminded those Canadians who might have forgotten the election campaign why so few of them wanted him to lead the country.
The Prime Minister spoke softly but offered strong words and no new ideas. He neither apologized for nor softened anything he has done or said in these five days.
Mr. Harper insisted the economic statement had appropriately responded to Canada's challenges. He repeated his promise that further measures will be taken in a Jan. 27 budget. What the other parties proposed, he warned, would overturn an election result. The proposed coalition would endanger Canadian unity through a supportive arrangement that the Liberals and NDP have made with the Bloc.
Knowing his government faces parliamentary defeat early next week, Mr. Harper will ask the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament. She is almost certainly obliged to respect his wishes, since the government has won a confidence vote on its Speech from the Throne. But everyone will know prorogation is to save the government from defeat in order to give the Prime Minister precious time to squeeze his way out of political trouble.
Mr. Harper said he would use “every legal means to protect democracy,” thereby equating his own government's survival with that of the maintenance of democracy. The inference was clear: What the opposition parties propose is “anti-democratic,” and must therefore not be allowed to happen.
Whatever “legal means” he chooses, Mr. Harper has certainly set off a national-unity firestorm by his political means. Anti-Quebec sentiment has been inflamed by the coalition's arrangement with the “separatists,” as Mr. Harper calls the Bloc. In Western Canada, in particular, Mr. Harper's arguments about “separatists” resonate, as does the notion that the “Central Canadian” parties in the coalition are depriving the Conservatives of their right to govern.
By contrast, many Quebeckers, including those who are not Bloc supporters, are recoiling in the face of the insults being hurled at the province on open-line shows and elsewhere outside the province. For a prime minister who declared that he had reinforced Canadian unity, his attempt to hold power by turning public opinion in English-speaking Canada is reigniting latent tensions.
Beyond “legal means” lie the Conservative Party's political apparatus, its fundraising acumen, its large membership lists, its capacity to advertise on radio and television, its ability to organize well-attended events and to mobilize its coalition. The Prime Minister will need every means to survive.