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An unexpected challenge for the prorogator Harper

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The Facebook organized anti-prorogue demos across Canada Saturday exceeded the expectations, even of the twittering classes. I was among the 3,000 or so in Ottawa, and although I met a number of friends and colleagues, this was for the most part a non-partisan outpouring including more than a few who were singing along with the Raging Grannies for the first time.

The issues were many, but the shame and anger felt by so many Canadians after Copenhagen, was particularly evident. With environment and Afghanistan simmering below, what seemed to bring this movement together above ground was the shared perception of imperial arrogance by the Harper government. The hand made signs played on the "rogue" and "anti-rogue" themes of an out-of-control government. Many signs also attempted to answer the conventional wisdom that no one cares if Parliament is working or not. He (Harper) doesn't care, but we do, was scrawled in various ways.

The unexpected prorogue movement appeared not coincidentally with a series of January polls showing Harper's numbers retreating to barely more than 30 per cent, and raising the question once again of what kind of minority government may replace the present one.

Harper has reason for concern, but I doubt there is panic setting in yet in the Langevin Block. The opposition is showing no signs of finding a way to exploit the government's weakness. Time is on Harper's side, as he moves past the four year mark as a minority Prime Minister.

The power of incumbency is the ability to define electoral questions and set a political agenda to which others must respond. Harper's cabinet shuffle last week showed that the question he intends to impose will be designed to split the opposition in classical fashion by an attack on government itself. Hence the unusual publicity generated by the appointment of the Treasury Board minister, Harper's Reform Party predecessor Stockwell Day.

Typically, the Treasury Board is a non descript role for some kind of politician-banker with little to say and even less personality. Not so in this case, as the appointment of Day was trundled out to make a definitive point about the government's agenda. As John Ivison put it in the National Post, "he has now put in place his first truly conservative government -- that is a ministry that has been told to limit spending increases to a rate lower than its Liberal predecessor."

The signals are loud and clear that the Conservatives will define a fiscal restraint agenda, with an attack on social spending and public sector jobs and wages.

Harper's famous miscalculation of not responding to the financial crisis with a stimulus package created the conditions for a united opposition to demand a new government that would respond to the crisis. Now, only 16 months later, the PM's gambit is that the Liberals will be internally divided and unable to present a coherent alternative to old fashioned budget slashing. After all, their own record of vicious cuts to public spending to tame the deficit is an article of faith in Liberal circles.

Tough guy Day will make public sector jobs and salaries a matter of national interest, perhaps going further than the 1.5 per cent wage controls already imposed on federal government workers until 2011. The expectation is that Liberals will be no opposition, and the NDP and the Bloc will be in no position to do much.

The Facebookers who came out this weekend are evidence that the bloody minded calculus of the Harperites can meet unexpected obstacles and surprise endings. It was pulled off with youthful exuberance and idealist commitment to goals that the strategists were convinced no one really cared about.

Our opposition leaders have about six weeks to change the story line and challenge expectations of how the next Parliament will open. Perhaps by closing it down over the very issue that is intended to divide and conquer us again.

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