Saturday, November 29, 2008

Patience Liberals, Patience

After the last election I washed my hands of the Liberal Party because I believed they had made a massive error in beginning a leadership contest at this time. I believed that it would be handing Stephen Harper a big victory in the next election, despite him leading a government during a recession, because the new Liberal leader would be unknown to Canadians, the Liberals would be broke and they would still be suffering the hangover of what is going to be a hard fought leadership contest. Canadians would take one look at that and stick with the Conservatives as the lesser of two unpalatable choices.

All of the above was premised on the assumption that Stephen Harper would play it smooth for the next few months and not do anything really stupid. Well, wasn't that a bad assumption to make.

Stephen Harper has just damaged himself very badly. The Conservatives were destined to have trouble as a result of being the government during a recession. However, that was going to happen gradually as the economic bad news piled up and be mitigated by the silliness of a Liberal leadership race. Stephen Harper has just accelerated that trouble and that leaves the Liberals with a huge opportunity to make that trouble have a more immediate and longer lasting impact on the fortunes of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

The first step in that process should be presenting a proposal to the Conservatives early this coming week on how to make the economic statement acceptable to the Liberals while downplaying the idea of forming a coalition.

That proposal should include the following major provisions:

  • The government bring forward all of the money that has been earmarked for infrastructure for expenditure in this fiscal year. In addition the government increase Employment Insurance benefits, including the loosening of qualification requirements, the increase in the amount paid out per payment and the extension of the time people can receive the benefits.
  • The government subsidy for political parties be reduced to $1.50 per vote but the donation limit be increased to $50,000 and the restriction on unions and corporations donating to political parties be eliminated. As well, this issue is to be dropped permanently.
  • The government admit the existance of a deficit.
  • This package be approved by Parliament before the end of January 2009.

Of course the Conservatives will balk at these proposals so the Liberals just need to state that, if the Conservatives make it necessary, they will just implement these proposals themselves when they take over a coalition government. All of these proposals would be supported by the other Opposition Parties. So, Stephen Harper who is looking at the very sudden and humiliating end to his political career would give in after some negotiation. So the final negotiating position of the Liberals should be:

  • 60% of the infrastructure money spent this fiscal year and at least one aspect of the Employment Insurance program being enhanced.
  • $1.75 per vote, $10,000 donation limit, elimination of restriction on donations by corporations and unions. Issue not to be revisited for at least two years.
  • admission of deficit.
  • package to be approved by Parliament by end of January 2009.

Providing the Conservatives a little bit of a lifeline provides benefits to the Liberals in the short, medium and long-term.

In the short term, they would be the only party on The Hill who would look like adults and who would look like they wanted to make THIS Parliament work. As well, they would immediately take the sting out of the Conservative attacks on the idea of a coalition as it would be clear that the only way it would come about was Conservative stubbornness. No matter what the Conservatives do their credibility will be badly damaged.

In the medium term Liberals would be able to take alot of credit for the implementation of both an economic stimulus package and increased assistance to those Canadians who are victimized by the coming recession. As well, they would level the playing field somewhat in the fundraising game.

In the long term they would be able to leave a badly damaged Conservative government in place to take the full brunt of the political fallout of the coming recession.

This week, if they stay calm and focused, the Liberal Party could set up a majority government victory for themselves in 12-24 months and further solidify in the minds of Canadians, for at least one political generation, that Conservatives cannot be trusted with the economy. If you ask me that is not a huge price to pay for a little patience.

A coalition if necessary but not necessarily a coalition

The signs of a deep world wide recession are all there. The US is already in their recession and many of the European states are showing similar signs. Even the Chinese have seen their economic growth slip from 11% to 7%, which in relative terms is a recession for them.

The residual strength of the oil patch has so far kept Canada out of a general country wide recession but the slip in oil prices and the increased difficulty in acquiring credit will bring the recession to Western Canada, resulting in Canada joining the rest of the world.

History has conclusively proven that governments cannot prevent recessions. They cannot reduce their length and they cannot do anything that provides more than just fleeting relief from their effects. History has also conclusively proven that recessions kill governments. No matter what governments do it is never effective and the inevitable failure of their actions just causes them damage that is fatal to their chances of retaining power.

The recession that is descending on Canada at this moment will be no different. It will kill whichever government is in power over the next 12-18 months. No amount of stimulus provided by that government will change that. Recessions have a life cycle and the only thing we can do, as citizens, his hang on and try to survive to the other side. Unfortunately, we are at the beginning of that life cycle so we have a long way to go before things will get better.

All political parties can do is hope that they do not have to govern during a recession. The sweet spot for political parties is to watch their chief opponent self-destruct during one and then win power just as the recession is ending. Then they can take credit for the recovery. Jean Chretien managed to get re-elected twice doing just that.

That is why I urge caution from Liberals in taking power by coalition. Do not believe your own hype. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin did not pull Canada out of a recession in the 1990s. It was already over when they took power. All they did was exploit the recovery to the advantage of Canada and the Liberal Party.

Circumstances are much different now. In a year or so whichever political party that is in government will be down substantially in the polls. That situation will be irreversible as the vicseral fear Canadians will feel as their jobs, pensions, and wealth disappear will turn into anger at the government that has failed to prevent it. If it is all the same to you I would prefer to see the Conservatives in that situation than the Liberals. If it were the Liberals they could potentially suffer the same fate as the PC Party of Canada in 1993 considering their already weakened state. And if you think I might be overstating that I would remind you that no one expected the virtual destruction of that party in 1993. Even in the days leading up to election day in 1993 commentators and pundits were saying the Conservatives would lose but retain Official Opposition status.

The Liberals should keep the idea of a coalition on the table and they should be serious about forming one if the Conservatives force their hand. However, they should be working over the next week to prevent it. I would suggest they put out feelers to the Conservatives to gain concessions from them in the economic update. The consession they should demand are early investments in infrastructure. The money is already there so just bring it forward. Of course, that infusion of cash in the economy will barely make a dent in the recession but infrastructure renewal is long overdue and squeezing this concession from the Conservatives is a way to finally begin that process while allowing the Liberals to claim victory. And I might add leaving the Conservatives on the hook for wearing the recession.

To those Liberals giddy with the idea of taking power in the coming weeks and to those Liberals who would think my suggestion would be a sign of weakness stop thinking in terms of days or weeks and begin thinking in terms of months. By this time next year the events of this week and next will be wiped out from the collective memory, washed away in the flood of bad economic news that will be flowing over the planet at that time.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Liberals need to be careful not to overplay their hand

Stephen Harper is in full retreat. The Liberals and the other opposition parties have effectively taken his gambit to strip them of public funds and turned it against him. For whatever reason, Mr. Harper was not prepared for the fallout when he should have known it was coming and had a communications strategy ready. The one I mentioned last night in my blog would have been an obvious one. Most people would be able to understand the concept of everybody making economic sacrifices during hard economic times more than they would understand that eliminating government funded party financing would be a threat to democracy. However, that was not forthcoming and Mr. Harper is now paying the price.

What the Liberals have to be careful of now is not to take things too far. Although, all the events of yesterday and today are causing quite the stir on the various blogs it is probably just confusing and confounding ordinary Canadians. So, far all of the negative impacts have landed squarely on the shoulders of the Conservatives but that could change if the Liberals get too aggressive over the next few days in their quest to further punish the Conservatives. They need to balance that aggressiveness with some conciliatory actions. They need to be certain they do not fall into the same self-inflicted trap that the Conservatives find themselves in by being overly partisan.

It would appear that Stephen Harper has taken the party financing provisions out of the economic update so the immediate cause for replacing the Conservatives has been eliminated. Now that leaves the economic update itself and that is what the Liberals should be focusing on in the coming week. They made their point with Mr. Chretien and Mr. Broadbent talking to each other but if those talks continue to be prominent in the coming week they leave the Conservatives the opportunity to reverse the trap and accuse the Liberals and NDP of plotting to overthrow the elected government, for cheap partisan reasons, during an economic downturn. Of course it would be an extreme case of the pot accusing the kettle but we all know that the Conservatives are not above that kind of attack and that they can be very effective when they are making those kinds of attacks. Indeed, if they governed as well as they attacked their political opponents Mr. Harper would have no worries about a non-confidence motion at the moment.

Put the coalition talks on the backburner or at least put them firmly in the backroom. By all means keep the possibility out there but in the context of forcing the Conservatives to actually give into the demands of the opposition for some sort of stimulus in the economic update.

When that happens, and it will if the Liberals and the NDP play the next week well, declare victory and move on from any talk about coalitions governments.

I maintain that the Liberals want no part of government just yet. A weak and unstable coalition is not what they want to be leading just as the biggest recession in at least two decades is descending upon us. No matter what they do they will be blamed for all of the negative economic fallout of that recession if they are the government. Let the Conservatives wear that.

Fortunately, Mr. Harper appears to be desparate to hang onto power so use that fact to squeeze out as much from him as you can, declare victory when he does, keep hammering this newly weakened government until Stephen Harper is just an oily spot on the House of Commons floor and then bring his government down.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Big Blue Machine, ooooooooh scary

Judging by the reaction from the Liberal blogsphere today regarding the proposal to cut off all public funds to political parties you would think that Mr. Harper has declared martial law or something else equally heinous. We are hearing accusations of threats to democracy and labels like Vlad Harper being thrown around.

What silliness.


If you do not believe me just ask Mr. Turner, Ms. Campbell, Mr. Eves, Mr. Martin and Mr. Peterson. They all lost despite heading big, rich and slick political organizations while facing poorer and less organized opponents. For that matter you can ask Mr. Harper since he had the most money and the best organization in the last election and it only bought him an extra 20 seats and a second minority government.

What Liberals are forgetting are the voters. They will eventually grow tired of the current government regardless of how much money they have or how organized they are.

Indeed, that could already be happening. Mr. Harper is not very well liked by Canadians to begin with and he will be fighting his fourth election during the next go round. Not even Jean Chretien risked a fourth election. He will be leading a party that is not well trusted and that has very thin talent. And he will be leading this government during what is shaping up to be a recession that is at least worse than the one in the mid-80s (which helped lead to John Turner's loss) and perhaps as bad or worse than the recession of the early 90s (which helped lead to the demise of the Federal PC Party and directly destroyed the Rae government in Ontario).

So what should the Liberals do about the proposal to cut off public funding for political parties?

Well in the immortal words of James Carvell: "IT'S THE ECONOMY STUPID"

The Liberals should ignore the proposal and they should be facilitating voter fatigue towards the Conservatives by focusing on

  • the fact the Conservatives have brought the country's finances into deficit BEFORE implementing a stimulus package. Yes, yes I know the economic update states we will have a slim surplus this year but this is Jim Flaherty. He cannot be trusted on this issue.
  • the fact the Conservatives are sitting on their hands with regard to providing Canadians with assistance during this economic downturn. Not that a stimulus package will do anything to prevent a recession or end one and any benefits it might have, if any, will be fleeting. However, this is politics, not reality, so the Liberals should be hammering the Conservatives on this.
  • hammering the government every time there is a bit a bad economic news, no matter how minor. Yes, yes, some would say that the Liberals are trying to take advantage of the bad economic times for political advantage. To which I say, well duh! And your point is what exactly?
  • demanding what the Conservatives intend to do about the economy. Demanding answers and a plan. Accusing the Conservatives of hiding things from Canadians when they refuse to provide that plan.
  • demanding what the Conservatives are going to do to keep any deficit at least manageable. Demanding what the Conservatives plan to cut and accusing the Conservatives of hiding things from Canadians when they refuse to answer.
  • improving their fundraising. It has been a problem for awhile and now they have an added incentive to make it better. Indeed, they say that necessity is the mother of invention so I would say they now have a great need. So invent!!!

I am certain that Stephen Harper would like nothing better than the spectacle of the Liberals and the other opposition parties bleating about losing government funding during an economic downturn. It would serve nicely to change the channel from the above and give him the ability to claim the high road.

The Liberals should not vote to bring down this government and they should not seriously suggest they want to lead a coalition government. Not with that coalition in this economic climate. Force Stephen Harper to wear this recession and to come up with ways to help Canadians through it. I can tell you that helping Canadians in tough economic times in not in his DNA. He would very much prefer to let this shake itself out with the minimum of input from his government. That lack of conviction will lead to him doing things that are not helpful, maybe even harmful, and wind up having his government painted as being incompetent during an economic crisis. (The kiss of death for any government, even ones with lots of money). In fact, we are already seeing this approach.

When this economic update comes up for debate the Liberals should propose some amendments. I have noticed alot a good ideas but I would reject any thought of trying to keep any public funds going to the parties, even if it were being phased out over time. I really like the idea of an amendment to bring the spending limit down. That would really put the Conservatives into a bit of a bind. To risk bringing down their own government over an issue like that would not be a good idea.

When it comes to any confidence votes regarding this update the Liberals should make certain that 15 of their members have urgent business elsewhere. That will allow them to vote against the measure without bringing down the government. That includes any amendments that they propose. That is the silver lining of the Conservatives being only a dozen seats short of a majority. The goal of the Liberals in the short term should be to keep the Conservatives on the hook for the economy. Allow them to stew in the cauldron for awhile and allow the full weight of their economic incompetence to set in with Canadians.

Of course many in the Liberal blogsphere will howl with outrage at that suggestion bringing up the past Liberal practice of abstaining during the last session of Parliament. To which I say the political dynamic has changed. To claim that the Liberal abstentions had anything but a minimal impact on the last election is dubious to say the least but such a claim in the current economic climate is nonsensical. Very few Canadians pay close attention to the minute workings of the parties in the House of Commons when the economy is booming they will pay even less during a recession.

The Liberals need to keep their eyes firmly on the big picture. They cannot allow themselves to be distracted by the Conservatives. Even this early the Conservatives are demonstrating that they care more about symbolic gestures and lofty rhetoric. This will only work for so long and then they will have to actually make real decisions and take real actions, all of which will piss off a great many voters, regardless of what they are.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

So Mr. Obama won, what now?

I find that I am unable to get really excited about the victory of President-Elect Obama last night. On an intellectual level I can appreciate the historic nature of his victory. He is after all the first African-American to ever be elected president of the United States. On an emotional level, nothing.

Part of that is because I really do not care about the skin colour of anybody. As far as I am concerned it is no more or less important than their hair colour. For me, what is important is the person not their appearance.

Another part of that is because I have serious reservations about Mr. Obama. It should be noted that I had more serious reservations about Mr. McCain so I am satisfied with the results of last night's election, but I cannot say I am ecstatic.

I have reservations because people have put Mr. Obama on a pedestal and have almost elevated him to godhood. Look at the response of folks on TV and even most of Liblogs today and you see a pattern of belief that Mr. Obama is going to transform the United States and its government. Talk about unreasonable expectations. Any first year political science student can tell you that government institutions and their bureaucracies can outlast any politician regardless of their personal popularity and drive for change. The byzantine nature of the US Federal government virtually guarantees that Mr. Obama will be unable to substantially change the US government so in turn he will be unable to substantially change US society. I wonder how people are going to react when that reality finally sinks in? In all likelyhood it will not be positive and many will blame President Obama for that failure.

Added to this is the fact that Mr. Obama has inherited a country and an economy that has been profoundly broken by George Bush and his gang. It took the Bush Administration 8 years to make this happen. It is the height of wishful thinking and arrogance to believe that Mr. Obama will be able to fix that damage in less time. We all know it takes longer to build something than to tear it down.

Finally, Ms. Clinton and Mr. McCain both claimed that Mr. Obama lacked the experience to be president. Although they made these statements for partisan reasons they were not totally wrong. If you look at Mr. Obama's experience both in and out of government it is not much better than George W. Bush's when he won the White House the first time. For me it is still an open question as to whether Mr. Obama can grow into the job while getting started on solving the many issues that need to be solved and meeting all of those astronomical expectations people have for him. I hope he can but I do have doubts.

From the Canadian government point of view it was funny to see all of those government cabinet ministers falling over themselves today trying to snuggle up to the new President-Elect.

They probably know that their job just became a little more difficult. For one thing Mr. Obama's style and message are ananthema to that of the current Canadian government. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper and his government both are widely popular in Canada and the government cannot be liking the idea of Canadian comparing and contrasting the Harper government and the Obama administration. Mr. Obama will probably come down to earth eventually but probably not before Mr. Harper has to face the electorate once again. He really should have won that majority. Oh well, sucks to be him.

As well, no one should believe for a second that Mr. Obama or at least some of his advisors have forgotten about the blantant interference of the Harper government in the Democratic primaries last year. That interference almost derailed Mr. Obama's race for the White House before it really got started. That could very well manifest itself in Mr. Obama avoiding Canada for awhile and if that does happen I wonder how long it will be before someone reminds Canadians of Naftagate as a possible reason for that situation.

Then again, it could be interesting to see who President Obama appoints as ambassador to Canada. Mr. Bush had no problem appointing men who had no problem meddling in Canadian politics. The Bush representatives were largely ignored because they were, well, Bush appointments. Considering the high regard Mr. Obama is held in Canada any statements or actions of his representatives would probably be better received even if they are meddlesome.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is a truly historic occasion. However, it is still an open question as to whether he will be a successful president or a dud. As well, his election could have a profound impact on the Canadian political scene, particularly if Mr. Obama or one of his advisors decide to let our current government know that they did not appreciate their actions a few months ago.