Dec. 10, 2008 - Issue #686: Merry Christmas and Happy New Dears
Small earthquake in Canada, not many hurt
The view of the political crisis from across the pond
“Small earthquake in Chile, not many hurt” is legendary in journalistic circles as the most boring headline of all time. Well, there has just been a very small political earthquake in Canada, leaving no visible casualties at all. So why did 77 per cent of Canadians who were polled on the subject last week say that they were “truly frightened” for the future of the country?
Canada is the safest country on the planet. It is best placed of all the G-8 countries to weather the coming recession: its governments over the past decade consistently produced small budget surpluses and paid the national debt down. It is far enough north to be largely immune to the negative effects of climate change. It has no dangerous neighbours, and no borders under pressure from refugees. Maybe Canadians were just bored.
The man who shook Canadians out of their boredom and gave them the opportunity to be outraged and scared is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a politician so hyper-partisan that he is widely believed to lie awake at night dreaming up new ways to humiliate and crush the opposition parties.
Harper has never actually persuaded Canadians to give his Conservative Party a majority in Parliament, but in government he has always behaved as if his minority were a majority, defying the divided and under-funded opposition parties to unite against him and risk an election they would probably lose. Last October he forced an early election himself, and sure enough the Conservatives increased their seats in parliament—but not enough to form a majority government.
Nothing daunted, Harper ignored the parliamentary mathematics and launched a headlong attack on all the opposition parties at once. In his fiscal update late last month, he announced that he was cancelling the federal subsidies, calculated on the basis of how many people voted for each party, that keep the opposition parties in business.
The Conservatives have perfected the art of raising funds directly from their supporters, and have little need of federal subsidies. Perhaps the other parties should have done the same, but they didn’t. If the subsidies were suddenly withdrawn, they faced insolvency. It was typical of Harper‘s aggressive tactics, but untypical in its sheer stupidity.
By threatening the three opposition parties with political extinction, Harper forced them to unite and take him down—which they had the parliamentary numbers to do. Within days the Liberals and the New Democrats had formed a coalition and got a pledge of support for 18 months from the Bloc Quebecois.
Having been scorned and brutalized by Harper for years, the opposition now had the bit between their teeth, and insisted that they would vote the Conservatives out as soon as Parliament reconvened. So Harper refused to reconvene Parliament, first postponing it for a week until December 8 and then persuading Governor General Michaëlle Jean into “proroguing” it for almost two months. Liberal MP Justin Trudeau compared it to “pulling the fire alarm before going into an exam you know you’re going to fail.”
Harper will spend the next two months waging a demagogic propaganda campaign damning the “unholy” Liberal alliance with the “socialist” New Democrats and the “separatist” Bloc Quebecois (which never mentions the word separatism these days, since that option is virtually dead in Québec).
He may succeed in poisoning the wells as he retreats, but he still faces a parliamentary confidence vote in late January or early February. If the coalition does not break up in the meantime, he will still lose. Which matters scarcely at all.
Canada is not in an economic crisis. Its economy is still growing (unlike that of the United States), and the Bank of Montreal recently predicted that unemployment would only rise to 7.5 per cent next year (from the current 6.2 per cent). Any emergency economic measures that are needed will merely be to align the Canadian response with that of the incoming Obama administration in the United States, Canada’s biggest trading partner. They would be about the same whether the Conservatives or the new coalition were in power.
It is a very small earthquake, and nothing has been hurt except people’s feelings. Still, it will help to keep the blood flowing during the long Canadian winter. V
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His column appears each week in Vue Weekly.
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