NATIONAL

DON’T ASK ME THAT

JOHN GEDDES November 28 2005
NATIONAL

DON’T ASK ME THAT

JOHN GEDDES November 28 2005

DON’T ASK ME THAT

NATIONAL

The polls say we're headed for another minority governmentand that raises issues neither Martin nor Harper wants to address

JOHN GEDDES

Nobody expects politicians heading out on the campaign trail to talk about what will happen if they lose. That would make them sound like, well, losers. But with the fall of Paul Martin’s govern-

ment expected as early as this week, many federal Liberals and Conservatives are just as reluctant to discuss the most likely scenarios in which they win the coming election. They’re more than happy to describe the great things they would do with a majority. The problem is that opinion polls suggest another minority, either Liberal or Tory, is what’s really in the cards—

Oand that leads to unwelcome questions. For Conservatives, it opens the taboo issue of whether Stephen Harper would try to govern with the support of the separatist Bloc Québécois. For Liberals, the prospect of Paul Martin needing to count on the NDP again to control the House raises the awkward matter of how soon Liberals, accustomed as they are to ruling outright, might begin conspiring to oust him.

Asked about these unpleasant possibilities before the campaign has even started, supporters of both Martin and Harper cry foul. Don’t they get a chance to at least head out on the trail and make their case for a decisive democratic victory? Normally, sure, because majorities have usually been a strong possibility in federal elections. But these aren’t normal times in Canadian politics. The sustained surge of the Bloc in the wake of the sponsorship scandal has put about 50 of Quebec’s 75 seats, according to many observers, all but out of reach of the parties that would actually like to govern Canada, rather than tear it apart. And taking Quebec largely out of the equation makes it harder than ever for either of the big national parties to score more than half of the 308 seats in the House. “A majority is essentially impossible,” says University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston, a veteran analyst of federal voting patterns.

Unwelcome questions about the implications of a minority are bound to plague Harper most during the campaign. After all, the Liberals have experience in undermining him by raising the spectre of a ConservativeBloc coalition. Last year, when he was still running for the Tory leadership, he tried firing back by drawing an analogy between a Conservative government propped up by the Bloc and a Liberal minority that relied on NDP support. “I do not see us making a deal with the separatists,” Harper said at the time, “and I think Mr. Martin should rule out making a deal with the socialists.” But equating the two situations is, to say the least, not quite how most Canadians see it. In fact, Darrell Bricker, president of the Ipsos-Reid polling firm, says past opinion surveys have found that the Liberal-NDP governing combination is the most favoured potential election outcome with voters, while the Conservative-Bloc combo is the least preferred result.

Still, Bricker sees potential for Harper to turn the prospect of a minority win to his advantage. Many voters who might consider turning to the Tories in order to punish the Liberals over the sponsorship scandal are worried about how far Harper might push a right-of-centre agenda. The likelihood that he would have to rely on backing from other parties in the House, suggesting a check on the Conservatives, tends to ease those concerns. “A minority works for him a bit if the proposition is he could come in and clean things up, like with his ethics law, but not, say, change the law on abortion,” Bricker said. “Even if it is with the Bloc backing him up, there’s some sort of control over what he could do.” But UBC’s Johnston predicts the Liberals will stoke voter uneasiness over a Tory-Bloc link, especially if efforts to demonize Harper personally don’t show signs of working. “They are going to focus on the consequences of indulging yourself, so to speak, by voting Conservative,” he said.

There’s a certain logic to the notion that Harper’s sympathy with provincial politicians who yearn for more money from Ottawa, and more autonomy when it comes to spending it, might dovetail with Bloc demands for more power and cash for Quebec. But it is far from clear exactly what policies he might put

Past surveys have found the LiberalNDP governing combination is the most favoured potential election outcome with voters

forward as prime minister that would have much hope of winning Bloc votes to pass in the House.

After all, beyond wanting to take Quebec out of Canada, the Bloc generally sits somewhere to the left of the NDP on policy. That sets up an obvious ideological clash with the Tories, to go with the huge political danger Harper would face if he offered the slightest hint of making common cause with the sovereigntists. Those pitfalls leave Conservative strategists musing about other ways a Tory minority might survive—even including a period of Liberal co-operation. “I think the reality is that if Stephen Harper forms a minority government, his biggest support for the next two years will come from the Liberal party, because they’ll be in a leadership fight,” says B.C. MP John Reynolds, co-chair of the Conservative campaign. “They won’t want an election.”

The notion of Liberal backing for a Harper minority is a novel hypothesis (although politics can produce strange bedfellows, as the recent coalition in Germany between the conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats shows). Not buying it? Reynolds has others. He reads subtle signals of willingness to play ball coming from the New Democrat dugout. “Even Jack Layton has said he could work with Harper,” he said. And what about this risky business of turning to separatist MPs for the votes needed to pass Tory legislation? Reynolds doesn’t rule it out, and even hints that Harper might be willing to make minor concessions to secure the necessary support. “The Bloc is not going to want another election before the provincial election in Quebec, which is in about two years’ time,” he said. “So you’re not going to have to give up a lot [to the Bloc] in order to stay alive.”

While Harper must brace himself to face lots of campaign-trail questioning about how closely he might work with the Bloc, the implications for Liberals if Martin wins a second minority are more cause for whispering inside the party. If that’s the outcome, Martin, now 67, would have to be prepared to go into another election within a couple of years— still seeking his elusive majority as he nears 70. Would the knives be out before he got his third shot at the big prize? Opinion among Liberals and outside observers is split. Just about everyone agrees, though, that he would not exit willingly. “This has nothing to do with logic,” Bricker says. “It has to do with legacies and lifelong ambitions.”

Assuming Martin wanted to stay on to fight another day, no potential successor at this

A Tory minority would raise a taboo question: would Harper try to govern with the support of the separatist Bloc Québécois?

isn’t even in Canada to cultivate a leadership machine. And other possible candidates for Martin’s job are glum about their chances of stirring up Liberals for a leadership war. “We can’t afford to go through another two or three years of what we went through between Chrétien and Martin,” said one Liberal who is widely viewed as aspiring for the party’s top job. “And if we’re in a minority, an election could occur at any moment. We’ve got to be ready.”

The chances of a movement to depose Martin would be much greater if Harper won with a minority. But some Liberals predict that even then, Martin would hang on in opposition, for a chance to try to return to 24 Sussex Drive whenever the Tory regime

point appears to have anything near the organizational clout to put serious pressure on him to go. Martin’s takeover of virtually every important component of the Liberal Party of Canada apparatus during his long struggle against Jean Chrétien puts him in an extraordinarily dominant position. Arguably the top contender to be the next Liberal leader, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Frank McKenna,

would be defeated. His close-knit team, who know every trick in the book after their years of feuding with Chrétien, would be tenacious about fending off any rival Liberal faction that arose. “That’s what the Martin guys specialize in,” said one insider.

Despite the lack of aggressive internal rivals, some Liberal MPs do expect Martin to face pressure to bow out if his showing in the coming election is weak. “I’ve always been a supporter of Paul’s,” said Thunder Bay, Ont., MP Joe Comuzzi, who gained a certain elder statesman stature when he resigned from cabinet on principle last June to free himself to vote against the government’s same-sex marriage law. “But I think you’ve got to produce successes. I hate to say it, but this is a blood sport.” He said Martin needs to deliver a majority, or at least a more stable minority with more Liberal seats. “I think if we lost seats, there would be real difficulty,” said Comuzzi, 72, who had not yet decided last week if he would stand for

re-election. “I suspect that people would start looking around for someone else.”

If Martin sensed that the craving for a new leader was growing, he might try to put his minority on a more secure footing by negotiating a formal coalition agreement with the NDP. University of Waterloo history professor John English, who is himself a former Liberal MP and is currently working on a

'The chances of a movement to depose Martin would be much greater if Harper won with a minority'

major biography of Pierre Trudeau, predicts a working arrangement like the 1985 accord struck between Ontario’s Liberal Premier David Peterson and Bob Rae, then the provincial NDP leader. “If the Liberals can form a majority with the NDP, there’ll be a deal along those lines,” English said. “Then we’ll see a Liberal minority that will last a long time.” Given the chance, Layton would have to make a strategic judgment: would forging such an alliance strengthen him, or Martin? The lesson from the Ontario experience is mixed: Peterson was rewarded with a majority in the 1987 election after a two-year partnership with the NDP, but Rae bounced back to win the 1990 vote.

Of course, there’s always the chance that a superb campaign might lift Martin or Harper into majority territory. The Liberals would need to add 22 seats to the 133 they now hold. The Conservatives would have to return 67 more MPs than the 98 who now sit in their caucus. Recent polls make either outcome look unlikely, though the Liberals are far closer. An Ipsos-Reid poll last week put their support at 36 per cent of decided voters, well above the Tories at 27 per cent and the NDP at 16 per cent. Typically, about 40 per cent is needed to win a majority in the House. While Liberals don’t look so far from that threshold, Bricker said voter resentment over the sponsorship scandal will make it hard for them to build support. The Tories, meanwhile, aren’t even close. Which makes the coming campaign look like a contest over who forms the next minority, a race in which defeat, as always, looks awful, but with a twist—victory for Martin or Harper might turn out to be not much fun either. M