In the high stakes poker game that is Canadian minority government politics, Michael Ignatieff has just gone all in. Ignatieff’s recent announcement that his Liberals can no longer support the Harper government opens the door to a forth federal election in five years. In front of his cheering caucus, Ignatieff announced yesterday that “Stephen Harper’s time is up.” On the surface these are fighting words, but the decision isn’t Ignatieff’s alone to make – he needs the support of the Bloq Quebecois and the NDP to force an election. Of those two the NDP is decidedly the short stack, and Ignatieff’s posturing against Harper is almost certainly a scheme to render Jack Layton and company an even more obscure element in the federal political landscape.
Under Ignatieff, the Liberals have yet to distinguish distinct policy alternatives to Harper’s Conservatives. In April Ignatieff made the strategic mistake of publicly suggesting a Liberal government would have to raise taxes in order to reduce the multi-billion dollar federal defecit. When the media ran the story, Ignatieff said they misunderstood him. What he meant was that he wouldn’t raise taxes, a position he and the Prime Minister share.
In late June Ignatieff was interviewed by Gary Mason of the Globe and Mail about Liberal party prospects in Western Canada, specifically in Alberta. Employing one of the most clever metaphors our politics have seen in a while, Ignatieff defended Alberta’s Oil sands development:
This is a national industry. It’s pumping something like $8-billion into the federal treasury. So it’s slightly bad faith to beat the goose that lays the golden egg over the head with a stick. The goose is a little messy. The goose needs to be cleaned up. The goose needs to make better use of the yard, but let’s make this a sustainable industry that all Canadians can be proud of.
Oscar…er, Genie! A commendable performance, and one close enough to the current government’s stance to be palatable to voters in Alberta, assuming any of them are listening.
Ignatieff’s most forceful and frequent attack against Harper has focused on the slumping economy. But despite job losses numbering in the hundreds of thousands since late last fall, the Liberals are unwilling to make Employment Insurance a ballot issue. One senior Liberal recently said EI is not a “defining issue” worthy of a fall election. Given that Canadians are experiencing the most serious job losses in decades, and that many of the jobless do not even qualify for EI, one wonders what issue could be more pressing.
Of course, issues don’t necessarily dictate election calls or campaigns. If you’ll remember, the previous election in our country had to do with a thing called “leadership,” which denotes the ability to shout across the aisle of the House of Commons in comprehensible English, the ability not to lose debates outright, and the ability to look statesmanlike in a sweater vest. While most would agree that it isn’t hard to follow Stephane Dion’s leadership performance, Ignatieff has also failed to convince Canadians he is sweater vest material. A recent Ipsos Reid poll suggests not only that Canadians think Harper is a better leader than Ignatieff, but also that he is better suited to improve the economy and represent Canada’s international interests.
So what’s it all about? It’s about the NDP who, despite a provincial vitory in Nova Scotia last month, have far less money, support and momentum than the Liberals. In most of the pre-election standoffs in recent years, Layton has enjoyed the luxury of declaring his intention not to support the government even before it proposes anything. This time Ignatieff has acted first, leaving Layton to either support Harper and jeopardize credibility within his own party (Layton has clearly distinguished himself from Harper on EI, the oil sands, taxation, Afghanistan and many other issues) or force an election for which the NDP is ill-positioned.
It would be the first election since Layton led the charge for opposition parties to form a coalition to replace Harper. Canadians, to say the least, didn’t respond well to the idea, and Layton would have to hope they’ve forgotten how hard he fought to see it through. As political commentator Andrew Coyne also pointed out in an interview today, the NDP must now fundraise to find a replacement for outgoing Manitoba premier Gary Doer, whom Harper has smartly appointed as Canada’s ambassador to the United States.
Once again, our politics is being defined by opposition weakness rather than government popularity. Most people in this country want someone other than Harper to lead, but the number of opposition parties and the first-past-the post voting system makes the prospect of change unlikely for now. Time will tell if Jack Layton wants to gamble on an election, or attempt to strike a deal for his supporters that would extend Harper’s rule. By any standard, he’s been dealt a tough hand.