In the early 1940s, I worked as a delivery boy and then as a clerk at Oretzki’s department store, which was then a North End institution. After the holidays, and with the doors closed to the public, we were all assigned to taking stock. The entire inventory had to be counted, because without such a count it was impossible to be accurate as to what kind of year the business had.
In the Oretzki’s tradition, then, it seems appropriate at this time to take stock of the political scene in Canada. In order to determine where we are going, it is necessary to assess just where we are now and how we got there.
We are presently in an unprecedented situation on the federal scene. We elected what we thought was a reasonably stable minority government. The Conservatives had enough seats to outvote their rivals, the Liberals and the NDP. The Bloc Québécois had as many seats as it could hope to win and could only lose by precipitating an election.
No one would have predicted the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc would enter into a formal coalition and then claim they should be called upon by the Governor General to form a government without an election being called.
If they had campaigned on such a platform in the 2008 fall election, they would have been trounced and we would now have a majority Conservative government.
What brought about this extraordinary sequence of events?
After the election, the Conservatives seemed to be comfortably in the seats of power. A looming financial crisis caused the government to introduce a relatively modest package of proposals to create a stimulus package. Normally, this would have subjected the government to the usual perfunctory opposition criticisms. But the government proposal included the one feature that terrified the combined opposition as no other proposal could have done. The Conservatives called for an end to the public financing of political parties.
Since the separatists are one of the main beneficiaries of this policy, and since they would financially die without taxpayers’ money, there was suddenly common ground created between the separatists and the other opposition parties.
They brazenly announced they would defeat the Conservatives in the House of Commons and simultaneously asked the Governor General to call upon Stéphane Dion to form a government that would include NDP cabinet ministers and would be guaranteed the support of the separatists.
What made the scenario especially attractive is that it could be accomplished without seeking the support of the people in an election, an election the combination knew it could not win. The Governor General did not create a government out of this hybrid monstrosity and for all intents and purposes the dust has settled. But the storm clouds are still there.
The Liberals have dumped Dion and have chosen Michael Ignatieff as their new leader. They blame Dion for losing the last election and also hold him responsible for the refusal of the Governor General to anoint the coalition.
Ignatieff shows less public enthusiasm for the coalition but continues to hold on to it as a card that might be played if circumstances warrant. He has made public noises indicating a willingness not to topple the government depending on the budget that will be presented to Parliament. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has expressed a willingness to work with the opposition and has asked it to submit proposals he has promised to consider.
Both Harper and Igtnatieff are play-acting. If Ignatieff saw a reasonable chance the defeat of the government would result in him being called upon to form a government without an election being called, he would seize the opportunity.
The notion that Harper is willing to govern at the sufferance of the Liberals and NDP can be held only by those who understand neither government nor Parliament. To give the opposition a veto power or to implement only proposals acceptable to them is an abdication, rather than the exercise, of power.
Insofar as Parliament is concerned, this is not a forum for working out and reconciling the conflicting views of political parties. Parliament is a political battlefield, with the government supporters working to generate public support for their party while the opposition, with the exception of the Bloc, is trying to oust the government and replace it with a government of their own party.
So what can we expect between now and the end of January when Parliament resumes? Harper and Ignatieff will continue to jockey for position. Each of them will assume postures designed to suggest that the other of them is responsible for the inevitable impasse.
Ultimately the moment of truth will arrive. Ignatieff will have to decide whether he will move a vote of non-confidence in the government. He would surely do so if he was certain the Governor General would call on the coalition to form a government. If he thought the Governor General would call an election, he would not defeat the government since it would be an election the coalition could not possibly win.
The public will not vote for a government composed of Liberals, New Democrats and separatists and Ignatieff knows it.
Nor would the public support the continued public financing of political parties, the measure that created this crisis in the first place.
Ignatieff would be taking a tremendous gamble if he chose to combine with his strange bedfellows to bring the government down. He would be gambling that a nominal monarchy, occupied by a single person whose function is regarded as being ceremonial, would use that position to create the greatest political controversy ever witnessed in this country.
Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.