Liberals make the right move

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Grumbling to the contrary, Michael Ignatieff has done the right thing -- or at the very least, the necessary thing -- by threatening to pull the plug on the Conservative minority government.

Despite what seems like a vaguely acceptable status quo in Canadian politics, with a distracted public not wanting an election and not wanting to face complex issues, a shakeout is actually inevitable.

Whatever heat the Liberals face for doing this, they had no choice. To continue supporting the Harper government would have brought even more heat, and in fact made them look like soft-headed fools in time for the next standoff a few months down the line. That's a simple fact of life.

Their move has had a first effect in that it has brought Jack Layton and the NDP to the fore, with an offer to support the Tories in exchange for backing on a short and reasonable list of issues.

Inspired by the Nova Scotia NDP's role during the John Hamm minority, Layton has been preaching (in vain) that minority government can and must be made to work, if that's what we're stuck with. True, and a useful message which will be doubly important if a new Parliament brings a new minority.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rejected the offer with the usual bravado. If that rejection sticks, then the key to the shakeout is this: whether or not the Conservatives can be put on the defensive at last. It's time.

The Liberals, with new funds coming in, are said to be preparing hard-hitting ads.

Their target is huge. It's just that it has been obscured until now. The Harper government's manipulative and vindictive style, with its barrage of low blows inspired by U.S. Republican party tactics, has successfully kept public attention on the deficiencies of the Liberals.

The question is now whether the Liberals can pull it together and effectively assault what adds up to very poor government.

It's symptomatic that one of the very few instances where Harper was seen to rise above his usual habits was in naming Gary Doer -- a New Democrat -- to the post of ambassador to the U.S. There was also a magnanimous apology to native peoples for the residential schools.

And some regular business may work well enough. But on big issues that relate to the Prime Minister's Office, the picture is grim.

In foreign affairs, except for our troubled presence in Afghanistan, our role in the world has become an embarrassment. Our disappointed traditional allies have come to see us as retrograde partisans of the discredited Bush/Cheney world view, and now we're being accused of racism because of what appear to be cases of consular attempts to treat brown-skinned Canadians as non-citizens.

Another big thorn is the environment, and that one too has some troubling implications, even beyond Harper's characterization of climate change, before he became prime minister, as a "socialist plot."

The main pillar of his support is Alberta, where even fewer people than elsewhere vote and where the majority instinct seems to be to keep the tar sands going to the max, regardless of the fact that they constitute the dirtiest project on Earth, one that puts Canada on the global first ranks of pollution pigs.

There's other stuff, such as Harper's near dictatorial instincts: the Bush-like attempts to control information, even of independent officers of Parliament, including the auditor general; the insult to democratic process in the form of a 200-page handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees; and a number of other things far beyond the usual hypocrisies of politics.

There must be a reckoning for all that. If not, our democracy is more profoundly on the skids than we care to admit.

Ignatieff and his Liberals are right to confront all this, despite their own limitations. Indeed, if they fail, or if the whole thing ends in another acrimonious minority muddle, a deeper and more sinister question will be raised: Is the country increasingly ungovernable?

As in the U.S., which seems to be drifting into a situation where a small right-wing insurgency can keep anything from being done, here we have the Bloc Québécois in particular, but the immovable Alberta Tory bloc as well, both seemingly impervious to the larger interests of the country, and quite willing to keep the entire country from working properly if it's in their interest.

In the end, the challenge is to voters, a whiny bunch who seem keen to avoid their responsibility. And the challenge is to face the fact that after four years of Harper, it's already time for a change.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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