The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A new government?

When I received the e-mail from the Council of Canadians to petition local members of Parliament to vote down the Throne Speech and create a new coalition government without having to resort to an election, I thought the idea quaint, idealistic, and painfully naïve.

That was before I heard both Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty both admit to being surprised by the sudden economic downturn. I had taken what Harper was saying during the campaign to be so much political rhetoric, especially since he was carefully not committing to a deficit-free budget. I would have thought what was coming obvious to anyone with a working pair of eyes. Now, I suppose I have to qualify that assumption by specifying that a working pair of eyes must not be self-blinkered by ideology.

The no-election alternate coalition idea is not something utterly unprecedented in Canadian history, but it does have all the baggage carried by the King-Byng affair. It might be good for us at that, simply to get rid of that baggage.

Unlike the Throne Speech soap opera of the minority government two sessions back, this vote would actually be on a fiscal matter of substance. That would not hurt. I do find it interesting that a major component of the current government's stopgap solution to a recession they had not seen coming is to cut public party funding. This is the very system that compensates for not having the power of a government machine behind the message and allows alternative messages to be able to reach the public, so that they can make an educated choice. In its absence, we may as well have a one-party system: the one that has both government propaganda and big money behind it.

Other major components:
  1. Significant cuts to MP travel allowances and other perks. Probably a good idea, but should be qualified on a riding by riding basis. MPs from the northern territories and the north of Canada generally already have a hellacious job trying to keep in touch with their constituency, and election campaigns are a nightmare.

  2. No-strike legislation for the public sector unions until 2011. The same -- no, better -- result could be achieved without applying a sledgehammer. A light touch would work wonders here.

  3. A careful lack of any subsidy program. Bailout is the 2009 word of the year chosen by Webster's. Here in Canada, I don't think we need a bailout, exactly, nor do I think it would be a good idea -- but at the same time simply to wait for the market to correct itself is irresponsible.
Other alternatives exist. The government has already employed one of them, and that went far toward releasing credit. Mortgage rates are already dropping as is, and there is no reason they should rise again for at least a year, maybe two ... although watch out for when those tantalising GIC rates start coming due, since the corresponding move in the credit markets could quickly sink us again. The banks are not utterly solid, nothing in our financial system is, but they are as strong as anything in the world today. However, two points need quick addressing:
  • The effect of the credit markets and a strong-weak dollar on Ontario manufacturing. No other province shares the same vulnerability.
  • The Alberta tarsands. The margin of profit here has always been razor-thin, driven by expensive oil and foreign investment. Now the price of oil has fallen to nearly a third of what it was a year ago, and foreign investment additionally has its own home pressures. The "always have" province is teetering dangerously close to economic disaster.
What is needed here is not bailout, but quick diversification. There is already a "Second Career" program in effect in Ontario, aimed at retraining workers laid off from manufacturing jobs. Now what we need are incentives for new and expanding enterprise: loans and tax breaks and infrastructure contracts, not subsidies. Above all, not short-term employment subsidies! Too many businesses take advantage of those to turn over cheap labour without leaving them with any transferable skills.

Infrastructure merits further examination. Past practice for far too many years has been to achieve budget balance and surplus at the expense of provincial and ultimately civic budgets, and the cities are definitely showing the strain. Now would be an excellent time to reverse the tide, with focus directly on the city level of government: but with the stipulation that any federal-transferred funds are to be used solely for infrastructure and civic restoration. (Remember the London sinkhole? The last time many of those pipes were properly looked at was when they were installed ... during the Great Depression.) I think we already have public transportation incentives in place. High-speed rail ... a pipe dream in snowy Canada? Or could we at least manage a seasonal line along the Windsor-Toronto-Montreal corridor, April to November? We are just about the last of the G8 not to have one.

Economic tangents aside, I don't know whether a coalition government would be better for Canada, here and now. I do think that they would not be any worse. (As I wrote earlier, I think we could do much, much worse in potential leaders, no matter which party ends up in power.) I will hope that, whatever transpires, we manage to traverse it this time without another unnecessary and costly election -- and after the previous election, this one would define "unnecessary".

No doubt the primary objection to the idea will come from the Conservatives, that such a coalition government is not the will of the people. However, I can't help but notice that, unlike the current government, almost any form such a coalition government could take would represent the majority of Canadian voters.

Would that be such a bad thing?

Edit, one single day later:
While we have been working on the economy, the opposition has been working on a back room deal to overturn the results of the last election without seeking the consent of voters. They want to take power, not earn it.
- Stephen Harper
Oh, and let's not forget:
Stephane Dion and the NDP plan to make this happen by accepting the support of a party that wants to destroy the country.
... and with whose cooperation, exactly, were the minority Conservatives planning to stay in power? Because surely "governing as though we had a majority" does not actually translate into a majority of seats?

The last government that ran into this particular kind of problem, just five seats shy of a majority, was Joe Clark's -- and it too was (Progressive) Conservative. Once is accident, twice coincidence ... third time an intrinsic quality of the party?

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