Harper Unlikely to Force a Vote

Stephen HARPER needed to do no more than stroll into the National Press Theatre to shift election speculation into high gear. His surprise news conference last week in the facility just across the street from the Parliament Buildings was, after all, this first there since he became Prime Minister.

Harper Unlikely to Force a Vote

Stephen HARPER needed to do no more than stroll into the National Press Theatre to shift election speculation into high gear. His surprise news conference last week in the facility just across the street from the Parliament Buildings was, after all, this first there since he became Prime Minister. Nobody imagined he had casually opted for detente after prosecuting a 20-month cold war with the parliamentary press. After starting off by saying he was merely making himself available to answer questions, he quickly moved on to the pointed message he had undoubtedly come to deliver. He demanded the opposition "fish or cut bait": either force an election by voting down his Oct. 16 Throne Speech, or agree to pass all the legislation that flows from that new Tory policy blueprint. Since the opposition parties could never concede him such a sweeping mandate, many concluded the Prime Minister must be itching to go to the polls.

But there's another way to interpret the bellicose tone Harper set for the Throne Speech debate. Some veteran Tory strategists, along with their Liberal counterparts, were soon privately parsing his comments beyond what was quickly labelled his "ultimatum" to the opposition. They saw signs that Harper might be trying to gain as much room to manoeuvre in the House as possible, rather then truly pushing the opposition to the brink. And to grasp why he might prefer to avoid an early election, all you had to do was take him at his word. "From our narrow partisan interest," Harper explained, "the longer the government governs, the more it gets done, the more it has to run on in terms of re-election, the better that is for the country and for us. So I'm in no hurry."

Even if he was, though, it's not easy to see how Harper could orchestrate a moment of truth in the House that would let him fall on his own terms. He seemed to be goading the opposition into defeating him, if they dare to, by voting against the broad thrusts of the Throne Speech. If they take that bait, however, it will be a surprising first. Liberal researchers point out that no federal minority has ever been voted out of office on a Throne Speech. The reason is tactical. Throne speeches are broad-strokes sales pitches, invariably built around initiatives the government fully expects will be popular. So a party voted out of power over one could look forward to spending the resulting campaign reminding voters about all the most appealing items that were killed. That would leave the other parties having to explain to voters how they meant to reject, not the whole package, but only certain unpalatable items.

Far better, then, for Harper's enemies to wait to bring him down on some narrow bill, preferably one on which the Tories emphatically don't want to run. This is exactly the strategic calculation LIBERALS, in particular, are now making. The NDP and the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS have already laid down such stringent conditions for supporting the Throne Speech that they are widely expected to vote against it no matter what. That puts Stéphane DION on the spot. If his Liberal MPs vote against it too, they will be thrown into a campaign at a moment when Dion looks badly off balance, especially on his home turf in Quebec. But voting in favour of the Throne Speech would amount to Dion signing on to the broad direction of a government he is bound by House tradition and partisan necessity to battle at every turn.

He has a third option, though, and one he said this week remains open. Liberal MPs might not vote at all, allowing the Tories to outvote the NDP and Bloc contingents. Although ordering Liberal MPs to sit out the Throne Speech motion wouldn't be a proud moment for Dion, he wouldn't have to look far back in history for a near precedent. During Paul MARTIN's brief stint as prime minister, Harper's Tories abstained from voting on the 2005 Liberal budget, which included funding for major health and daycare deals with the provinces. Harper chose not to cut short Martin's minority and risk entering a campaign fighting those policies.

The notion that Harper expected to shame the opposition into accepting the Throne Speech and everything that flows from it seems far-fetched. The fact that he was taken seriously at all testifies to his mastery of the political moment. He staged the news conference when Dion's office was in disarray, making the Prime Minister's aura of cool control all the more striking. He confidently parried questions from reporters who were evidently surprised to see him sitting in front of them. And if he displayed braggadocio in his demand for a free hand in the House, he was far more nuanced and measured on particular pressing issues.

Consider the thorny Afghanistan question. Some observers had been assuming the Tories will bluntly bid to extend the Kandahar mission beyond the current February 2009 exit date. But Harper wouldn't be boxed in. "We want to deal with the question of extension of the Afghan mission in a responsible way," he said, "look at the options, make sure they are fully considered, take a responsible position."

His main point was that it is too early now to know if conditions will be right in early 2009 to pull troops out of the combat zone. Arguably the biggest unanswered question is whether any other NATO country will agree by then to step up if Canada sticks to its current timetable for withdrawing from the front lines. On that score, Harper said the future of the world's most important military alliance hangs in the balance. "We've been clear other countries have to do more," he said. "I think the future of NATO does hinge on this mission ultimately being successful."

Equally dramatic was his interpretation of Canada's responsibility to Kandahar. The former Liberal government sent troops in on what was supposed to be a limited one-year mission. Harper declared it was really always more than that. "They weren't offered a choice of 'You can take this province now and you get to change your mind later if it turns out to be too difficult,' " he said, adding: "We think we have a moral responsibility there."

Overall, it didn't sound like Harper was setting the stage for a head-on collision with the opposition over when to withdraw troops. Instead, he seemed to be bidding for time to coax NATO allies into the field, and to assess the situation on the ground in Kandahar. That will be harder for the opposition parties to flatly reject than a blunt proposal to keep troops fighting longer.

When Harper summed up his core themes, though, Afghanistan didn't make his short list. Perhaps that's because he wouldn't really want to run a campaign on extending the mission. The items he did highlight sound more promising as election fodder. "We have important initiatives," he said, "on the economy, on the environment, and on crime." He was firmer than ever in promising a "significant tax reduction," a clear change from last summer, when he griped after a caucus meeting that Tory MPs seeking big tax cuts tended to undermine their own case by also pleading for spending hikes. With multi-billion-dollar surpluses continuing to pile up on Ottawa's balance sheets, Harper may well have concluded there's enough money to do both. But any showdown with the opposition on economic policy is more likely to come over details in the 2008 budget debate, not when general aims are sketched in the Throne Speech.

Fighting crime is another favourite Tory platform plank. A senior party strategist said that, of all the potential clashes on which the opposition parties might defeat the government, a tough-on-crime law could be the most advantageous for Harper. But the Liberals haven't made it easy for him to claim ownership of the issue. Despite Tory complaints about delays in passing crime laws, opposition MPs worked with government at the House committee level in the last parliamentary session to hammer out agreements to pass a raft of justice bills, from eliminating conditional sentences for serious offenders, to cracking down on street racing, to imposing stiffer penalties for gun crimes.

It's hard to imagine the CONSERVATIVES crafting a new law-and-order bill with big voter appeal that the opposition wouldn't find a way to approve, rather than exposing themselves to being painted as soft on crime. Avoiding being portrayed as soft on terrorism could prove trickier. Controversial post-9/11 anti-terrorism powers that lapsed earlier this year - including detaining someone suspected of being about to commit a terrorist act, and conducting closed hearings to force witnesses to testify in terrorism investigations - were introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks with a three-year sunset provision. The Tories sought to extend them, but the opposition parties refused, citing civil liberties worries. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has vowed to introduce legislation to restore the powers, setting the stage for a confrontation with the Liberals, Bloc and NDP. This is one file the Tories just might be willing to fall over.

The third policy file Harper lists as fundamental, the ENVIRONMENT, is Dion's signature issue. But Tory strategists argued the Liberals have made themselves look doctrinaire on climate change by clinging to the Kyoto accord. "Dion is in a bit of a box saying we've got to go back to Kyoto," said one. "Nobody buys that anymore." That might leave Harper an opening to position the Tories as the only party offering a realistic plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Like Afghanistan, though, GLOBAL WARMING doesn't play to the Conservative brand's strengths, and would thus be a risky policy for Harper to use as a campaign springboard.

Whatever the issue, the Tories' willingness to gamble on being defeated will rise with their standing in the polls. A Harris/Decima opinion survey for Canadian Press this week put Tory support up a notch at 35 per cent, as the Liberals slumped to 28 per cent. That broke what had been a long string of polls showing a near deadlock between the two parties. Still, the Tories remained a point below their popular vote in last year's election, and a long stretch from the 40 per cent or so they would need to secure a majority. For Dion, the new numbers looked far worse. Along with slipping nationally, his Liberals stood at only 14 per cent in Quebec. Meanwhile, NDP support was 17 per cent nationwide, and tied with the Tories at 26 per cent in Quebec.

Shifting fortunes in Quebec are preoccupying campaign planners for all the parties. In three closely watched by-elections in the province last month, the Conservatives took one seat from the Bloc Québécois, and the Bloc barely held in another. That boosted the Tories' confidence about grabbing more seats now held by the separatists, to build on the breakthrough 10 Quebec MPs Harper managed to elect in 2006. The Liberals lost one riding, Montreal's Outremont, to the NDP, sparking fears that the NDP might make a serious bid to capture more of the scant 11 Quebec seats the Liberals still hold. So two momentous changes are now conceivable: Harper restoring Brian MULRONEY's old base in rural and small-city Quebec, and Dion losing more of what's left of the Liberal bastion in Montreal, jeopardizing his party's historic claim to being a permanent bridge between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

The new NDP MP for Outremont, Thomas Mulcair, is at the centre of debate around Quebec's changing partisan landscape. Opinion is split about what his victory meant. He's a popular former environment minister who quit Jean CHAREST's provincial Liberal government. That makes him one of a kind, argue federal Liberals, an exception whose triumph the NDP will never be able to replicate. But NDP officials, not surprisingly, say Mulcair's unique stature will allow him to spearhead recruitment of precisely the sort of high-profile candidates they need to upset incumbent Liberal MPs. Mulcair told Maclean's he is courting at least a half-dozen NDP candidates famous enough that Quebec voters will instantly recognize them when they pop up on TV. "People are going to be surprised by some of the names," he said.

Mulcair freely admitted that in rural Quebec, the election battle will be "bleu against bleu," or Tories fighting Bloquistes. He said the NDP will be competitive in Quebec City and take seats from Liberals in Montreal. But Dion has taken steps to regroup since his by-election setbacks. He named a new principal secretary, Johanne Sénécal, a former adviser to Jean CHRÉTIEN on Quebec and before that a senior political aide to former Quebec Liberal premier Robert BOURASSA. It's too early to assess what impact Sénécal's two decades of organizational experience might have on Dion's rattled Quebec operation, but Liberals are betting heavily on her abilities.

Some Tories privately argue that Dion can only pick up his game if he's given time. Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, is reportedly among the senior Conservatives arguing for an early election. Exactly where Harper's top advisers stand on the question is a more closely guarded secret. Tory campaign chairman Doug Finley has put the party organization on election standby, but it would be odd if he hadn't, given that it's impossible to confidently predict the Throne Speech's outcome. An argument some Tories make for delaying a campaign is to let splits among Liberals exposed by the by-election losses fester. "The PM has been very good about letting the Liberals fight amongst themselves," said a Conservative strategist. "An election would only unite them."

Dion promises no less. "We have learned from our mistakes," he said in his own visit to the National Press Theatre this week. "I know that we'll be reunited as Liberals." As for Harper's demand that he be allowed to govern as he sees fit, Dion dismissed that as a bid to "take Parliament hostage." It seems the government will try to govern and the opposition to oppose. Harper himself seemed to anticipate the usual give and take, even accepting the possibility of opposition amendments to the Throne Speech, if its core is left intact. "As you go on, there will be items that fall on and off the agenda," he said. "We all know that." And that sounds like a Prime Minister hoping to run the country a little longer before he runs for re-election.

Maclean's October 22, 2007