Flaherty to end campaign welfare

On November 7th, I argued that we should end government-subsidized campaign welfare in this country and follow the example set by President-elect Barack Obama and amend our electoral system to eliminate our $1.95-per-vote subsidy received by political parties each year. During the US Presidential campaign, Obama did not take a single dollar of public financing and went on to win the election. On a panel for the Public Policy Forum yesterday, I suggested to my Obama-obsessed co-panelist Judy Rebick that Mr. Hope and Change had set the wheels in motion for the elimination of public money for political campaigns.

In my post earlier this month, I suggested that such a system implemented in Canada would cause parties to actually appeal to the electorate and work for donations rather than put their hand out for a per-vote subsidy for being the least offensive option. The theory goes that if our politics inspires (Yes We Can) rather than demonizes (No They Can’t), people will show additional financial support that parties should depend on rather than be the public cash-receptacle of successful fear mongering campaigns that they are. How many Quebeckers these days actually support the Bloc Quebecois on its principles (they’ve all but abandoned sovereignty these days) rather than voting for that party to “block” the Conservatives or the Liberals?

I argued that we should end party welfare to motivate parties to appeal on their own issues.

In the past couple of hours, we’ve learned that in Jim Flaherty’s economic update tomorrow, the Conservative government will move to do just that in the name of showing that even politicians can tighten their own belts.

I may have been a bit of a tongue-in-cheek cynic by using the Obama magic to suggest removing critical funding from two parties of the left. The Bloc Quebecois, as mentioned, has depended on their status as those that could block Liberal corruption in 2006 and the Conservative Party’s… er conservatism in 2008. The Liberal Party on the other hand has depended upon what they are not. Specifically, they have warned Canadians of the Harper hidden agenda and what the Conservatives would do if they had a majority. In this spot and in relative comfort, the Liberals have relied on their per-vote subsidy. Under the new proposed financing cuts, the strength of the Liberal brand won’t matter as it is veritably without substance as conservatism is represented by the CPC and progressive politics is claimed by a resurgent NDP.

CTV reports that under Flaherty’s cuts, the parties could stand to lose up to:

* Conservatives: $10 million
* Liberals: $7.7 million
* NDP: $4.9 million
* Bloc Quebecois: $2.6 million
* Green Party: $1.8 million

Late this evening, I’ve learned that the per-vote subsidy stands to be reduced in full.

In this, the Conservatives aim to level a strategic blow to the Liberals as Conservative fundraising efforts — rooted in the Reform tradition of passing the hat in legion halls and church basements — has remained strong. Buoyed by detailed supporter databases, the party is set to compete on an advantageous — despite it’s now mutually diminished — footing with other parties. The Liberal Party still has not mastered grassroots fundraising and with an expensive year ahead with another leadership convention, Liberals will need to determine how to appeal (and fast) if they are to survive as a viable organization.

Quebec as nation policy resolution scrapped

I’ve learned that the Conservative Party scrapped a motion before the convention that sought to affirm as Party policy the status of Quebec as a nation within a united Canada.

Political observers remember that last year, in a move of political brinkmanship against the Bloc Quebecois, the Prime Minister pre-empted a Bloc motion of Quebec’s nation status by including the distinction that Quebec as a nation exists within a united Canada.

Policy officials of the convention didn’t want to have a policy resolution go to the floor in plenary which would be voted up by Quebec delegates and voted down by Western Conservatives that some observe as resentful of la belle province for not delivering more seats for the party during the previous election. People close to the process concede that such a move could have been political dynamite and may have had the deleterous effect of putting shockwaves through the national media and within the province of Quebec.

As one policy official told me, the gain would be minimal and potential damage significant. The policy itself was redundent as the party itself moved and passed the similar motion in the House of Commons.

Obama sets example for Canada

The election of Barack Obama is historic in many ways, most significantly in the progression along the troubled history of race in the United States. On Tuesday, Americans turned out in record numbers to give Obama a decisive win and vault the first African-American into the highest office in that country. The Obama team also set new records along the fundraising front and may indeed set a precedent for the financing of elections in the future.

According to opensecrets.org, a website on money in politics run by the Centre for Responsive Politics, Senator Obama raised $639 million during the 2008 Presidential election cycle with 91% of that sum coming from individual donations. Comparatively, Senator McCain raised $360 million, 54% coming from the same type; the majority of the dollars from each candidate’s campaign came from people making personal donations to their favourite candidate. A striking difference between campaigns was Obama’s refusal of public funding. The Illinois senator took $0 of public financing while his Republican counterpart from Arizona took over $84 million to make up 23% of his campaign’s spending power.

We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory. — President-elect Barack Obama, Chicago November 4th, 2008

In Canada, the Reform Party under Preston Manning started a tradition of passing the hat in church basements and legion halls during rallies, speeches or simple administrative meetings. A donation of $5, $20 or $100 was passed on to bring change to Ottawa. The tradition continues today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, though in a much more sophisticated way and one that is buoyed by databases and telemarketing. Conservatives have historically raised an average individual donation of about $100 while Liberals used to depend on fewer but larger sums. Jean Chretien –perhaps to kneecap his long-coveting Prime Ministerial successor — changed the way election financing was done in Canada by banning corporate and union donations. Chretien replaced the private financing of political parties by special interests with public financing by government. For each vote that a party earns during an election, that party receives $1.75 per year from the federal treasury.

On the surface, this reconfiguration of campaign financing seems to rebalance the funding equation from powerful institutions to those that ought to have the first and last word in any democracy. Indeed, voters are empowered not only when they give campaigns their vote but also when they do so with the knowledge that instead of corporate or union backing, there is a small financial sum that comes with each ballot cast that sustains parties instead. However, while Chretien’s system solves one problem, it creates another.

In Quebec where a province defaults to the inert rather than the principled, a problem exists with Chretien’s model of campaign financing. The Bloc Quebecois, doing all it could to supress its core principle of sovereignty for that province, rather stood against — indeed, as a block to — Conservative ideas in the 2008 general election and against Liberal corruption in 2006. In the first half of this year, the Bloc raised just over $70,000 but received $1.5 million in public financing. Donations are a result of direct support whereas that larger windfall comes from standing against something rather than offering something better. The Bloc Quebecois would not exist if it had to rely upon direct non-governmental financing from supporters.

This summer, I met a member of the Obama campaign’s senior staff in New York City. Discussing the presidential campaign and some Canadian politics, I was told that the Liberal Party had approached the Obama campaign to attain some insight into their fundraising capacity and to create a similar system in Canada so that a large number of small donors could fill their campaign war chest. The staffer told me that after initial discussions, the Liberal Party never followed up in any significant way.

A tried-and-true election strategy for the Liberal Party has been to strike fear into the electorate about what a Conservative administration might mean for Canada. In the last election we were warned that a Conservative majority would allow Harper to finally implement his hidden agenda. Yet the Conservatives in power have not been innocent of taking this lower path either. Defining Stephane Dion as a weak leader and scaring the electorate as to what his “tax on everything” would mean to the economy took a negative track and suggested people vote against, rather than for the Conservatives. People are goaded out of fear to vote against and they often hold their nose for the not-as-offensive choice they end up “supporting”. Since money comes from support, we should break the model that rewards false support and strengthen one that challenges parties to offer ideas rather than fear. Government subsidization of political parties hurts Canadian politics.

The motto of Barack Obama’s campaign for President was “Yes We Can”. Under the current Canadian system, we give welfare to parties for being best able to convince Canadians of the other parties, “No They Can’t”. If we made politics about the positive (Yes), responsibility of self (We) and enablement (Can) rather than the negative (No), what one’s opponent would do (They) and a need to stop them (Can’t), perhaps we could reduce voter apathy both at the ballot box and when parties pass the hat. If we gave voters more power to finance those they support rather than sustain those they least detest we could shift Canadian politics for the better.

On Tuesday, American politics changed. It is time to end campaign welfare so that we can replace politics that scares with that which inspires.

Yes we can.

New NDP ad – going negative on the Bloc

VOICEOVER: Un vote pour le Bloc Québecois… bloque l’environment, bloque les familles moyennes, bloque l’économie, mais surtout, bloque l’avenir du Québec. (A vote for the Bloc Québecois… blocks the environment, blocks average families, blocks the enconomy but more than anything else, blocks the future of Quebec.)

JACK LAYTON: Un seul geste pour débloquer les choses. Joignez vous a nous, votez pour l’NPD.
(One single gesture to unblock things. Join us, vote for the NDP)

This ad carries a theme that the Conservatives initiated last election; like the Conservatives, the NDP are focusing on the decreased mobility of Quebeckers and their province when they vote for the Bloc Quebecois. We see a similar image in the bicycle with square wheels. Comparatively, during the 2006 campaign, the Conservatives showed an image of a bicycle with one wheel in cement as a cyclist tried with futility to move forward.

This campaign is seeing a few new developments in Canadian politics. During the last week of the campaign, the NDP usually runs out of cash and can’t finish with a heavy ad buy during this critical time. Now that they plan on spending the limit (something past their reach previously), the NDP is able to buy critical air time for ads right up to election day. However, I question the value of the NDP buying ads in Quebec. Even behind a surging Bloc and resurgent Liberal Party, the NDP still runs fourth behind the Conservatives. Close races for the NDP will be won or lost in BC and Ontario in this final week. Perhaps the NDP is making a long term investment in Quebec to establish a beachhead to show that Mulcair’s byelection win wasn’t a fluke.

Speaking to a senior NDP official in these past couple of days, the NDP has confirmed to me that they are planning an ad buy specifically targeted against Dion’s 43 abstentions in the House of Commons and these missed opportunities for the opposition to bring down the Conservative government.

The NDP could become a spoiler and this is evident in their focus during this last week of the campaign. At first, Layton said he was running for Prime Minister — a theme he will still carry this week though muted. This message served to wedge the Liberals to provide Canadians with a choice between left and right between the NDP and the Conservatives. Now that it’s crunch time, we’re seeing the NDP focusing regionally and against left-wing opponents in order to fight among a crowded field, against the inevitable perennial Liberal call to think twice to stop Harper and against the Bloc for progressive voters in Quebec.

Election’s a go

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General for the dissolution of Canada’s 39th Parliament and Her Excellency will ask for the return of writs in 37 days. All five major party leaders made television appearences to either give speeches, take question or both. Here are my initial impressions.

Stephane Dion started by saying that in this election there will be “two stark differences”, that between the Liberal Party and the Conservatives. Stephane Dion is picking up right where Paul Martin left-off. No, I’m not talking about a firesale where all seats must go, but rather by trying to define the election as one of two choices. Unfortunately for Mr. Dion, this election is crowded on the left and will see attention given to NDP, Bloc and even the Liberal-proxy Greens which may end up being more trouble than benefit for the Liberals. In modern elections, Liberals have always had to strike out against their main Conservative opponents while taking time to suppress NDP gains on the left. By defining “two stark differences”, the right may be well-defined but there is a low signal-to-noise ratio on the left. Dion also made a point of saying that he “loves Canada” and took a minor tangent and regaled people on his love for our country. You’ll remember that Stephen Harper wasn’t so explicit when asked by a reporter/plant during the last campaign on this topic. It took the then-opposition leader by surprise and his answer wasn’t prepared. This may be significant because of the similar backdrops of the House of Commons; Dion gave his launch speech in exactly the same location that Harper did in December 2005. The Liberals may be trying set the scene quite literally for a contrast video piece on “loving Canada”.

A reporter asked Dion if he accepts the premise that this election is defined by leadership. Dion stumbles by accepting this directly and says that he leads on the environment, poverty and a whole list of Liberal policies. The Conservatives would like nothing better than the national media to accept leadership as the ballot box question and define the rest of the race through this lens through which the Conservatives have already focused their message for almost two years since Dion won the leadership race in late 2006. I also think that it was a disastrous mistake for the Liberals to lead with what is their de facto main policy plank months before this election. Questions have arisen even among Dion’s own MPs about the implementation, the regional differences and even the concept of the Green Shift itself. Canadians are aware of the Green Shift, so how does Dion plan to re-launch it? A reporter asked about the “carbon tax” and whether its a good policy for Canadians. Dion responds without redefining the question about the “Green Shift” and answers it instead in the context of a tax. These were two significant mistakes by Dion; to accept this election as a referendum on leadership and taxation.

Jack Layton addressed supporters from Gatineau along the banks of the Ottawa River overlooking Parliament. The speech was somewhat annoying because his crowd of supporter either wasn’t big enough, or didn’t translate on the microphone well enough to sound big. The camera shot also featured a somewhat disheveled looking lady and a guy in a bucket-hat. While his supporters applauded every speech point (which were many and frequent), Layton defined this election for himself; Jack Layton is running for the job of Prime Minister. Layton is taking a bolder and different track this time around and doing (what he may argue) Dion cannot. By echoing the same message of a choice between two visions, Layton is trying to drop the Liberals from the game. How can NDP voters go Liberal to stop Harper when Liberals gave the Prime Minister the green light during the last session? The Conservatives and NDP will attack the Green Shift on two fronts. On the right, increased taxation will be Conservatives warning to Canadians while on the left the NDP will make try their point that only the NDP has credibility on the environment (Bill C-377).

Gilles Duceppe with each passing election is becoming an anachronism in Canadian politics. The Bloc Quebecois leader’s speech had a number of hidden agenda references from George Bush to abortion to gender equality. Isn’t this 2008? We’ve heard this song before et désolé, ici ce n’est pas le Bloc. Also of note, Canada may be unique in modern western democracies in that it is a viable election strategy to inflate your opponents chances indicating that they may win a majority government.

Finally, Elizabeth May gave an impassioned speech about voter participation which should be well received by anyone watching. However, May’s passion moved into a speech about climate change that gave me the feeling that an advocacy group has not yet fully matured into a political party. If the Greens are going to debate, they need to broaden their platform and present themselves as alternative on the left rather than a pseudo-Liberal coalition. Watching CPAC coverage, I could not believe my ears that former Sierra Club senior policy adviser and now-Green Party spokesman John Bennett said that because of climate change “Stephen Harper doesn’t give a damn about his children’s future”. The Green Party is not ready for prime time. However, the fact that CPAC is putting them on panels, featuring May in the rotation may indicate that the most balanced political news outlet considers them part of the mainstream and this will have an effect on their coverage (and political gains). Will the Greens’ coverage actually harm the Liberals? Does the emergence of a fifth voice (and fourth on the left) amplify trouble for the Liberal brand especially under the weak leadership of Dion?

Which NDP and Bloc candidate filings are under review by Elections Canada?

Today Marc Mayrand of Elections Canada hinted at the Ethics committee that filings from other parties were also under review by his organization that oversees elections. Currently, Elections Canada claims that the Conservative Party has run afoul of the Elections Act by the shifting of so-called expenses from the national campaign to the local campaigns. However, Elections Canada is only focusing their brutish efforts on the Conservative Party.

I decided to look into this and found that Elections Canada actually discloses via “creative” querying of their database which candidate filings are under review. If we access the contributions and expenses database on the Elections Canada website, we can compare submitted vs. reviewed filings from all candidates. There are discrepancies between both lists suggesting that Elections Canada is actively reviewing a number of filings from candidates of the 2006 General Election.

Data as submitted:

vs. data as reviewed:

Here is the NDP in BC:
Data as submitted:

Data as reviewed:

Nathan Cullen, Libby Davies, and Malcolm James are not on the “data as reviewed by Elections Canada” list while they are on the “data as submitted list”. These NDPers seem to have election filings that are under active review by Elections Canada.

NDP in New Brunswick:
Data as submitted:

Data as reviewed:

Alice Finnamore, Neil Gardner, and Yvon Godin seem to have filings that are under active review by Elections Canada.

NDP in Saskatchewan:
Data as submitted:

Data as reviewed:

Elgin Wayne Wyatt’s name is discrepant between filings submitted to and filings reviewed by Elections Canada suggesting this candidate’s filing is under active review by Elections Canada.

NDP in Ontario:
Data as submitted:


Data as reviewed:


Nirvan Balkissoon, Olivia Chow, Ed Chudak, and Sid Ryan have submitted their filings to Elections Canada but EC has not finished reviewing them meaning they have been flagged for some reason.

NDP in Quebec:
Data as submitted:

Data as reviewed:

Robert Donnelly, Anne Lesvesque, Isabelle Maguire, Ehsan Mohammadian, and Stephane Ricard have not had the reviews of their candidate filings completed by Elections Canada.

NDP in Alberta, Manitoba, Yukon, NWT, Nunavut, PEI, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador:
no discrepancy between lists

The Bloc Quebecois only has one candidate from the last election that appears to be under active review by Elections Canada. Diane Bourgeois, according to the EC website, has submitted her candidate filing, however, its review has not been completed.

BQ in Quebec:
Data as submitted:

Data as reviewed:

Government’s motion on Afghanistan will split Liberals

The following is text of the government’s motion on extending the mission in Afghanistan. My comments appear between segments of the motion. The key point of contention is Canada’s extended role in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar from 2009-2011.

That, whereas the House recognizes the important contribution and sacrifice of Canadian Forces and Canadian civilian personnel as part of the UN mandated, NATO-led mission deployed in Afghanistan at the request of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan;

This sets the scene and important in the emphasis of the internationalist, multilateral mandate that Canada operates under in Afghanistan. The mission operates with the blessing of the UN, an organization in which most Canadians believes strongly and with which Canada self-identifies when it comes to its foreign policy. The UN mandated mission should be something that Liberals can easily subscribe to, but it’s interesting to note that despite the UN’s acceptance of the mission, the NDP and Bloc take a strict isolationist approach.

whereas, as set out in the Speech from the Throne, the House does not believe that Canada should simply abandon the people of Afghanistan after February 2009; that Canada should build on its accomplishments and shift to accelerate the training of the Afghan army and police so that the government of Afghanistan can defend its own sovereignty and ensure that progress in Afghanistan is not lost and that our international commitments and reputation are upheld;

The Speech from the Throne of course is an important reference point. The government received a mandate from Parliament when the Throne Speech passed in the fall. The Liberals, forming the Official Opposition, passed on judging the government’s proposed mandate and abstained from the vote. The Throne Speech first outlined the government’s intention to extend the mission in Kandahar through 2011. So, what has changed since then?

whereas in February 2002, the government took a decision to deploy 850 troops to Kandahar, the Canadian Forces have served in various capacities and locations in Afghanistan since that time and, on May 17, 2006, the House adopted a motion to support a two year extension of Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan;

whereas the House welcomes the report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, chaired by John Manley, and recognizes the important contribution they have made;

What has changed is that John Manley has released his report. Manley expressed that Canada lost its voice on the international stage but has now regained it. Manley stated that when Canada speaks, the world listens. He cited the former Liberal PM Lester B. Pearson as a source for inspiration and for doing the right thing with respect to Canadian foreign policy.

whereas their Report establishes clearly that security is an essential condition of good governance and lasting development and that, for best effect, all three components of a comprehensive strategy military, diplomatic and development need to reinforce each other;

The report by the former Liberal Minister of Foreign Affairs has stressed the need for a mix of a number of Canadian efforts in Afghanistan (including military).

whereas the government accepts the analysis and recommendations of the Panel and is committed to taking action, including revamping Canada’s reconstruction and development efforts to give priority to direct, bilateral project assistance that addresses the immediate, practical
needs of the Afghan people, especially in Kandahar province, as well as effective multi-year aid commitments with concrete objectives and assessments, and, further, to assert strong Canadian leadership to promote better co-ordination of the overall effort in Afghanistan by the international community, and, Afghan authorities;

The government states, in its motion, that it is following the lead of Mr. Manley. Here the motion stresses aid development and international coordination. All of which should be found acceptable to a majority of Parliament.

whereas the results of progress in Afghanistan, including Canada’s military deployment, will be reviewed in 2011 (by which time the Afghanistan Compact will have concluded) and, in advance, the government will provide to the House an assessment and evaluation of progress, drawing on and consistent with the Panel’s recommendations regarding performance standards, results, benchmarks and timelines; and

Full reporting to Parliament on progress in Afghanistan.

whereas the ultimate aim of Canadian policy is to leave Afghanistan to Afghans, in a country that is better governed, more peaceful and more secure;

How could any MP disagree?

therefore, the House supports the continuation of Canada’s current responsibility for security in Kandahar beyond February 2009, to the end of 2011, in a manner fully consistent with the UN mandate on Afghanistan, but with increasing emphasis on training the Afghan National Security Forces expeditiously to take increasing responsibility for security in Kandahar and Afghanistan as a whole so that, as the Afghan National Security Forces gain capability, Canada’s combat role should be commensurately reduced, on condition that:

Stephane Dion has stated that he wishes Canada’s “combat role” in Kandahar to cease by February 2009. John Manley recommends against this. The House will essentially be voting on the recommendations, or at least within the guidelines of the Manley Report. This motion is not inconsistent with John Manley’s recommendations and the Liberal Party (many of whom have incredible respect for Mr. Manley) will find itself divided on this motion if allowed to vote freely. John Manley and Mr. Harper are framing Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan in a Pearsonian perspective; internationalist intervention in failed states is the right thing to do and consistent with values that Canadians cherish. Mr. Dion faces a tough choice. If he chooses to abstain from voting on this important motion, he loses his credibility on speaking on the most important issue facing Parliament today, Canada’s role in Afghanistan. If Dion whips his caucus into voting against, there will be an open revolt against his leadership. If Dion allows a free vote on the motion, internal divisions within the party will be counted as if a roll call and the public division will emphasize that the Liberal party is only a loose collective of membership card holders waiting for the next leadership review.

(a) Canada secure a partner that will provide a battle group of approximately 1,000 to arrive and be operational no later than February 2009, to expand International Security Assistance Force’s security coverage in Kandahar;

A move entirely consistent with a recommendation from the Manley Report. A realistic move to shift some of the weight to a partnering NATO country.

(b) to better ensure the safety and effectiveness of the Canadian contingent, the government secure medium helicopter lift capacity and high performance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance before February 2009.

This is important for Canada’s success in Afghanistan. UAVs are recommended for road surveillance especially during the night in order to spot and help neutralize Taliban fighters planting IEDs at the sides of roads used by the Canadian military and aid workers.

February/March election? Think again

As we break for the Christmas/New Years holidays, Ottawa has been talking about a real possibility of an election in February and March.

I believe that the current conventional wisdom on the timing of an election is wrong.

First, no party is really in a good position for an election.

Consider the Conservatives; statistically tied with the Liberals in the latest Harris/Decima poll, the Tories aren’t riding their traditional high numbers. Some have attributed this decline to Canada’s bad press at Bali, some blame the attention that Mulroney has received. But a budget will be a bonanza of tax cuts in February, you may think, and this surely will be enough to buoy Conservative numbers. It may, but the Conservatives need the decision of at least one party to survive and three to defeat it.

That brings us to the main opposition party: the Liberals. Stephane Dion has been routinely embarrassed in the House of Commons by being forced to abstain from votes of confidence such as the throne speech and subsequent crime legislation (named a matter confidence by the PM). A staffer in Dion’s office recently told me that this pattern cannot continue at length. He’s right. The Liberals will stand in February to defeat the budget. In fact, they’ve already indicated that they intend to try force an election. This is a necessary move by Dion, as he cannot remain neutered indefinitely lest his caucus revolts. The smart play here is that he’s been first out of the gate in declaring his intentions meaning that he will not have to race Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe to the waiting cameras outside of the House doors (besides Layton and Duceppe are closer to the doors anyway). So Dion is forcing the NDP and Bloc to react to Dion whereas earlier Dion reacted to the declared intentions of those two parties instead. Dion is well ahead on this vote. This will help relieve some of the negative attention received from his chronic abstentions in this latest session in 2007. The move, however, is somewhat disingenuous as Dion knows that at least one other party will save Harper’s government (and Dion) to fight another day.

While the NDP has had better fundraising fortunes than the Liberals, this opposition party still needs to continue its strides in becoming a viable opposition in the minds of Canadians. While they will no doubt vote against the budget (and the Conservative government won’t change its legislation to accommodate them), they are unlikely thrilled about a March election. Further, the NDP standing with the Conservatives on a conservative budget would destroy much of the NDP’s credibility.

That leaves us with the Bloc, who shares a particularly important electoral interest with Stephen Harper: Quebec. The Bloc will vote for the budget because there will undoubtedly be some good items for their province. In fact, we can be quite confident in this prediction as Harper/Flaherty would be unlikely to pen a budget without extended consideration for Quebec. If they did, they would guarantee that their government would fall and that their hard-fought gains in that province would be tenuous at best and their planned gains would evaporate overnight. Expect good things for Quebec in 2008 and expect the Bloc to pass the budget; the Bloc is the only party Harper needs onside to survive.

This scenario generally satisfies all parties to some extent. The Conservatives will continue to govern while entrenching their image as tax fighters in the minds of Canadians. They will also continue to build in Quebec. The Liberals (and especially Dion) will relieve a lot of pressure internally in caucus and externally in their image as the hapless leader breaks his abstention streak. The NDP will still get to stand up to the Conservatives (the NDP gains from this scenario are the least of the four parties). Finally, the Bloc will have voted for a better budget for the people of Quebec, even if it is delivered by Conservatives. The Bloc has been concerned by the Conservative encroachment upon their nationalist strategy as it has been reconfigured by Harper as decentralization and respect for provincial jurisdiction. Duceppe would only be handing Harper voters if he defeats this government as the Prime Minister will be seen to be a better defender of Quebec’s interests.

If the Prime Minister really wants an election in March, the budget will contain a poisoned pill that is inert to Quebeckers but unacceptable for the Bloc.

Tonight’s Throne Speech

Prime Minister Harper has penned the mandate he seeks from Parliament for its next session and Governor General Michaelle Jean will deliver the Speech from the Throne tonight in the Red Chamber in about 2.5 hours time.

Most observers expect that the Prime Minister will be asking a lot of Parliament as Stephane Dion, the Liberal and Opposition leader is weakened by fratricide within his own party. The recent recruitment of former Liberal leadership hopeful John Manley will also allow the Prime Minister to pen a few more ideological lines into the speech and dare Dion to vote against.

There are a few factors which will determine the outcome of any brinkmanship that’s anticipated by some, however. For example, does the Prime Minister want to seek a defensible mandate and extend his term without triggering an election. In some cases, this is an advantageous move for Harper; the more time that he governs, the more of a record he has to run when he finally faces the electorate.

However, Dion is in a wounded state and could eventually recover through his own strategy (more unlikely) or via unforeseen “events” (less unlikely). Depending on the crises and issues faced by the Prime Minister over the next year, public opinion may turn. For example, the economy is healthy right now. What will we see in one year’s time? Should Harper go for an election now?

We can be certain that the NDP and the Bloc will be sure to come out immediately and oppose the Throne Speech claiming that they are they only principled opposition in Parliament to Stephen Harper and that Dion and the Liberals are weak. This will allow Jack Layton to represent the Canadian left and Gilles Duceppe to claim to represent both that constituency and Quebec’s interests. This has the benefit for both leaders of being the anti-Harper choice and of taking away Liberal votes as the Grits try and sort out what they stand for. Almost immediately after the Throne Speech, I can picture Layton claiming that the throne speech favours the rich (if personal tax cuts are a theme), the boardrooms (if corporate tax cuts are mentioned) and that this comes at the expense of “working families”. Duceppe will state that Harper cannot appeal to Quebec’s interests. Layton and Duceppe would also be wise to point out that Dion will not stand up to Harper and that the Liberal leader is ineffective and inconsequential.

Dion is of course between a rock and a hard place. He has few options and none seem to portray him in a good light. Dion does not want to trigger an election for a few reasons. In the best of interpretations it’ll be seen as suicidal and in the worst interpretation it’ll seem absolutely foolish. Further, for this weakened leader, what he doesn’t need is to draw the scorn of a Canadian electorate for precipitating an election that his own deputy declared somewhat prophetically that Canadians “don’t want”.

If Dion votes for the Throne Speech (after demands that Harper won’t meet fully, if at all), he will be seen to be an ineffective opposition leader. In fact, this voting outcome is a very possible scenario; we haven’t heard much pushback from Dion on Harper’s stated goals.

In one scenario we could see Dion voting against the speech with the strategy of showing up with a only a handful of Liberal MPs in order to prevent the fall of government. The Conservatives have 126 MPs, and the Opposition (minus Liberals) has 79 (let’s leave out the 3 independents for the sake of an easier model). This leaves a 47 vote difference that Dion has to make up in order to tie the Conservatives (with the Speaker breaking the tie). Therefore, Dion must have at most 47 MPs show up to vote against the speech, unless he wants to trigger an election (which he most certainly does not want to do). Here’s where Harper could have some fun. The Prime Minister could order 46 of his MPs to be absent from the vote leaving 80 to vote “yay”. With the 79 non-Liberals opposition members with 79 voting “nay”, this leaves Dion to show up and vote alone. Those close to Harper say the man likes to play strategy with the issues rather than with the musical chairs in Parliament. Therefore this final scenario, while amusing, is unlikely.

I do, however, think of it more likely that Dion will eventually vote against the speech. The embattled Liberal leader has to save face and any further wishy-washy behaviour by him will only encourage his enemies within his party.

It is pretty much assured that the NDP and Bloc will seat every member for the Throne Speech vote.

However, if we see Dion vote against, I wonder if we will see if his “honourable friends” in caucus line up behind him, triggering the election that he doesn’t want.

UPDATE AFTER THE SPEECH: Jack Layton won’t support the speech.

Gilles Duceppe won’t support the speech.

Elizabeth May would support the speech, but she hasn’t any members.

Stephane Dion says… ‘uh… we’ll sleep on it’. However, it’s likely that he will support the throne speech after overtures such as “well we knew it wasn’t going to be a Liberal throne speech” and “we’ll let you know tomorrow at 3:15pm” and “no government’s ever been defeated on the Throne Speech”. Although there’s news that members of his caucus are encouraging him to go (election-wise and therefore also into retirement).

If Dion supports the throne speech, the NDP will jump all over them and emphasize that the Liberals are an ineffective opposition. The Conservatives will also continue along the “Stephane Dion is not a leader” line and this is evident in the titling and branding of the Throne Speech, “Strong Leadership. A Better Canada.”

PM does Q&A

The Prime Minister held a press conference today in the National Press Theatre to the surprise of Ottawa observers and certainly the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Roger Smith alluded to the PM’s presence there but joked that he didn’t want to use up his one question to address the PM’s choice of venue.

The presser served as a general Q&A going into the next parliamentary session. The Prime Minister addressed questions primarily on the Throne Speech and on the topic of the Afghan mission. Other issues addressed had primarily to do with the mandate that the PM is seeking including crime, the environment, and the economy.

On Afghanistan, Harper emphasized that it is his belief that anyone who wants to hold the office of PM has to look to the long term security of the country and cannot govern by uniformed political sentiment. Another important development has been the Prime Minister’s admission that “consensus” was perhaps the wrong word to use to describe what would be needed to continue past February 2009. Consensus implied unanimity on the issue, whereas the PM states that a he’d seek a majority in the House on the future of the Afghan mission. The PM says that the opposition parties need to consider all options on Afghanistan responsibly. Harper stated that it would be irresponsible for Canada to “pull up stakes” and leave Kandahar, but that they must leave responsibly. Leaving Kandahar in February 2009 would be “hard to imagine”. On a question about why Canada is shouldering a heavy burden in Afghanistan compared to other countries, the PM said that other countries do need to do more and that we’re shouldering a heavy burden because of the decision of the previous Liberal government to engage in Kandahar province, perhaps the most dangerous in that country. Finally, the Prime Minister stated that Canada has a moral responsibility to finish the job and to hand the country over to an Afghan security force that is ready to stand up on its own.

Concerning the Throne Speech, the PM was asked about the Bloc and Liberals’ non-negotiable demands for the speech. Harper mused that while he’s not a pundit, the losses of the BQ and the Liberals during the Quebec by-elections may suggest that they cannot make non-negotiable demands. The PM said that while the Throne speech may not meet the demands of the Opposition, it will try and address its concerns. Among other concerns stated above, the Throne Speech will also address Canada’s place in the world, and our sovereignty. The Prime Minister expressed that he desires to strengthen the state of Canada’s federation and therefore he will not be able to meet all of the ‘non-negotiable’ demands of the Bloc. The passing of the Throne Speech will be perceived as a mandate to govern and Harper emphasized that the Opposition cannot support the Throne Speech and then perturb his efforts to achieve that mandate. Predictably, Harper stated that an election precipitated by a defeat of the Throne Speech is not the preferred outcome. Regarding the Opposition, the Prime Minister stated that those parties must “fish or cut bait”. Asked why he wouldn’t take advantage of the disarray on the left and engineer his own defeat, Harper replied that he wants to govern, present defensible policies to Canadians and stated that the longer his party is in government, the better record they build to eventually run upon.

Peripheral questions included one about the Prime Minister’s opinion on Rick Hillier and whether or not the Chief of Defense staff faces a foreseeable termination date. The Prime Minister provided a spirited defense of the General. Another question came up regarding the Canadian Wheat Board. The Prime Minister stated that it is the policy of his government to push the policy of allowing farmers to sell wheat on an open market system.

On the economy, the Prime Minister noted that because of the high dollar, Canadian companies are now buying American companies and remarked sarcastically that we’ll soon be hearing alarm bells concerning the “hollowing out of the American economy” by Canadians.