Monday, February 11, 2008

The Fat is in the Fire

All minority governments eventually engineer their own downfall. Stephen Harper has indicated that, within the next two months, the House of Commons will be presented with three no confidence motions. The budget, by definition, is one such motion. But why bring the Afghanistan mission to a vote, and why now? Likewise, does the Senate's attempt to revise the government's crime legislation merit the no confidence threshold?

Mr. Harper will claim, of course, that all three pieces of legislation are matters of principle. But the truth is that the clock has been ticking on the Harper government for a long time. Moreover, this government has lasted longer than the average eighteen month tenure for minority governments in Canada. The simple fact is, as James Travers pointed out in The Toronto Star on Saturday, the tide is turning against Harper. The economic downturn in the United States is about to hit us -- in Ontario and Quebec's manufacturing plants it already has -- and the political tide, which long ago went out on George W. Bush, is now turning left. Mr. Harper will find it harder to deal with the next American president and Congress.

And, besides, the political war room which the Conservatives established a year ago has been given precious little to do -- except to produce attack ads against Stephane Dion. Those ads are going to be the chief weapon in Mr. Harper's arsenal. And, truth be told, the awkward Mr. Dion is a ripe target for parody.

Even if France provides enough troops to meet the reinforcement threshold recommended in the Manley Report, those troops will still not be enough to turn around the situation in Afghanistan. And there will not be a significant shift in NATO troop deployments until after the American election. The decision to extend the mission does not have to be made now. If an extension is needed immediately after the American election, that extension can be for six months, not two years. The British and the Russians knew something about invading Afghanistan -- but Mr. Bush and his enablers disregarded their experience, then left NATO holding the bag. Mr. Harper seems to feel that there is something heroic -- like Horatio at the bridge -- in holding that bag.

The crime bill, which echoes American sentencing guidelines -- and has led to one of the highest rates of citizen incarceration in the world -- is also a flawed piece of legislation. And the budget, as many economists have pointed out, makes paltry investments in human capital and infrastructure. Instead of investing the surpluses of the last several years, Mr. Harper and Company have reduced taxes in an across the board fashion, rather than targeting areas which require government support to secure the nation's future. Government investment in the Conservative lexicon is an oxymoron. The textbook says that investment is the job of private entrepreneurs.

For the Prime Minister, a true believer in Milton's Friedman's Revolution, holds fast to the economic dogma of the last thirty years, even as the evidence of its failure mounts. All he can offer in its defense is a set of personal attacks, which he has used most recently against Linda Keen -- and which he will use against his political opponents. His confidence belies a deeper sense of desperation. What he wants is a majority government before he is declared irrelevant. The next few months will determine whether or not he gets his wish.

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