Stephen Harper’s bully pulpit

It takes a special kind of immaturity to look at an economic crisis — one that has people worried about their jobs and their homes and their life savings — and consider only how it might be turned to your advantage. But then, for all his ideological roots, [Prime Minister] Harper has demonstrated time and again that nothing interests him so much as cementing his hold on power. He may have evolved in terms of openness to pragmatic policies when they suit his political interests. But this is a leader who very clearly sees politics as a game, and who sees government — rather than what you do with it — as the ultimate victory.

That’s Adam Radwanski, writing for the Globe and Mail. I say “Amen!” to every word of the paragraph.

I expected that the next couple of years would be an interesting time in Canadian politics. But I didn’t think things would get this juicy this soon.

Canada’s Prime Minister is a bully. We’ve seen it repeatedly during the two years that Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have held office.

In the recent election campaign, the Conservative Party tried to soften the Prime Minister’s image. But voters weren’t really buying it:  Stephen Harper has been a public figure for some years, and voters long ago took the measure of the man. Advertisements featuring Mr. Harper in a sweater vest weren’t very likely to change the public perception of him.

Stephen Harper uses the Prime Minister’s office as a bully pulpit. He takes great satisfaction in manoeuvering political opponents into a corner. In particular, he has succeeded in humiliating Liberal leader Stéphane Dion several times.

But this time the Prime Minister has overreached. The opposition is now standing up to him — which is the only appropriate response to a bully.

Yesterday, the Government announced (as part of a fiscal update) that it will end public financing for political parties. Currently, each party gets a subsidy based on how many votes it received in the previous election. The arrangement was introduced as a kind of consolation prize when a previous government banned corporate donations to political parties.

It was the Liberal Party (under Jean Chrétien) that introduced public financing. And it is the Liberal Party which has suffered most under the new arrangement. The Liberals traditionally relied on corporate donations, and so far they have failed to build a substantial base of individual supporters.

In the meantime, the Liberals are making do as best they can with public financing.

In other words, the Prime Minister is using the economic crisis as a pretext to eliminate public financing, knowing full well that it would have a devastating impact on the main opposition party. That’s what Radwanski means here:

It takes a special kind of immaturity to look at an economic crisis — one that has people worried about their jobs and their homes and their life savings — and consider only how it might be turned to your advantage.

The Prime Minister figured he had the opposition backed into yet another corner. They can’t possibly vote against the ways-and-means motion, can they? To do so would trigger another election, barely a month after the previous election ended.

Alternatively, the opposition parties could band together to form a government. But that would require cooperation among all three parties:  one of them the separatist Bloc Québécois, which fields candidates only in Quebec. Moreover, the arrangement presumably would make Stéphane Dion our Prime Minister. But Dion is widely viewed as a political disaster:  surely the opposition parties couldn’t unite behind the cringe-inducing figure of Prime Minister Dion.

Surprise, surprise! The three opposition parties are seriously considering a vote to topple the new Government. According to the Globe and Mail, one option is to let Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House Leader, stand in as Prime Minister. Another option is to let Dion assume office temporarily, with a promise to step down as soon as the Liberals can choose a replacement.

(That’s how the system works in Canada. We don’t choose a Prime Minister by electing someone directly to that office. Instead, the leader of the party which elects the most Members of Parliament serves as our Prime Minister. If that party changes leaders between elections, the Prime Minister changes, too.)

The Globe and Mail reports:

By noon, however, there were indications the federal Tories had begun looking for ways to avoid a showdown.

Sources told The Globe and Mail that senior Tories have reached out to members of opposition parties in an effort to find out what compromise might be possible. It’s the first sign the Tories are nervous that their economic package, which so incensed the opposition, needs to be altered in some way so as to avoid the government being toppled.

This time, it seems, Prime Minister Harper’s bully tactics have backfired. And it looks good on him!

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