Bringing the curtain down on Harper

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Federal Liberal party delegates arrive in Vancouver this week to elect Michael Ignatieff as leader. It is a long way to come just to vote in an election with only one candidate, so the convention focus will probably be election readiness.

Shortly after the party executive appointed him party leader at the end of last year, Ignatieff turned down the opportunity to become prime minister of a Liberal led coalition with the NDP. The man the party caucus and executive chose to lead them proceeded to back the Harper Conservative government.

Coming out of Vancouver, with the choice for leader ratified by delegates, the Liberals will be looking for the right time to bring down the Conservative government in the House of Commons, and force an election. First, however, the Ignatieff Liberals must decide to end the informal Liberal-Conservative coalition that now dominates the business of the House. And, bringing down the curtain on the Harper government is not a matter Ignatieff, or the Liberals, can decide alone.

Both the NDP and the Bloc have enough seats in the House of Commons to ensure that the Conservatives survive. Should Stephen Harper decide to hold off facing the electorate, he can continue to govern provided he negotiates conditional support with either the NDP, or the Bloc.

The trick for Harper is to be ready to deal, and reach a compromise, with Gilles Duceppe and/or Jack Layton.

The Bloc campaigned saying a vote for the Bloc can prevent a Conservative majority, and they delivered on their promise. It was Bloc wins in Quebec that did prevent a Conservative majority.

Now the Bloc can argue that a minority parliament provides them with the leverage to bring in changes favourable to Quebec. For instance, when the Liberals decide to break with the Conservatives, the Bloc can demand changes to Employment Insurance in return for leaving Harper in charge.

After watching a Chrétien government succeed a Mulroney government and see more of the same, only worse, on social policy and the economy, it makes little sense for either the Bloc or the NDP to accept that an Ignatieff Liberal government would be better for Canadians, than a Harper Conservative government.

Once in power the Liberals governed like the Conservatives because they listened to the same people: big business. The Ignatieff Liberals supported the 2009 Conservative budget because it was Bay St. friendly. The Liberals rejected a coalition with the NDP because Bay St. opposed it.

NDP supporters understand why Conservatives and Liberals govern alike, but still find the Harper brand of right-wing populism super offensive. Thus, it will be difficult for Jack Layton to prop up the Conservatives, unless he gets something of significant importance in return, such as a referendum on proportional representation, or an overhaul of Employment Insurance.

While it is in Harper's best interest to keep the Bloc and the NDP divided, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe can work together behind the scenes to exact concessions from Harper, and forestall an unnecessary election.
No real politician ever brings down the curtain on himself. So why would Harper allow the opposition Liberals to determine the date of the next election? Another year (or two) of power is a better scenario for the Conservatives than the election of a Liberal minority government, which would be the most likely result of an election this coming fall.

The Liberals are betting that a new leader, and a sagging economy, will be enough to bring them an electoral majority. But, so long as the Bloc and the NDP hold on to their current seats, a majority government (either Conservative or Liberal) is an improbable election outcome.

Two likely scenarios await the Liberals following the next election. In the first, the Conservatives win more seats than the Liberals. One lost election, being one too many -- call it the Dion rule -- the Liberals would then organize yet another leadership convention to find a replacement for Ignatieff.

The second scenario would see the Liberals form a coalition government with the NDP.

While delegates to the Liberal convention try to figure out how to replace the Conservatives, party insiders will be debating how to govern without a majority of seats.

Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver.

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