Sunday, March 13, 2005

Devil's Advocate

The general consensus among the pundits is that this was a very bad week for Stephen Harper. His mass abstention on the budget was ridiculed and he was criticized for his talk of closing down debate on social issues at the Conservative convention, before he reversed this decision. I'll stick up for him here, if only because he does such a poor job defending himself.

First of all, what choice did he have on the budget? The Conservatives weren't ready for an election and no one in the country wanted an election. That meant, they'd either have to abstain or vote in favour of the budget. They couldn't vote in favour of the budget, so Harper did the only thing he possibly could. If anything, he should be complimented for saving Canadians the stress and cost of another election.

The convention argument is a bit trickier and I think the problem is more on selling the issue than the issue itself. There's something to be said for deciding moral issues with a free vote in the house and not taking a party position on them. It would be consistent with Harper's Libertarian side and the Conservative mantra of empowering MPs. The problem is, it wouldn't end the talk of a "hidden agenda", so it was likely a poor political strategy, even if there was nothing wrong with it. In addition, from what I've seen, the moral resolutions up for debate are far from radical and shouldn't cause Harper much damage. Even the abortion topic is only to ban third trimester abortions, something almost everyone could agree with.

The ridiculous part of the criticism on Harper comes from Liberals who accuse him of "silencing the grass roots". The Liberals just finished a convention where we debated issues only to have the PM ignore them. There was a resolution passed to decriminalize prostitution, but the PM made it abundantly clear that he had no interest whatsoever in prostitution (at least from a policy perspective). It becomes fairly difficult to criticize a party for silencing their grass-roots when you let your grass-roots talk with the full intent of simply ignoring them.

8 Comments:

  • Therein lies the problem CalGrit. If the grassroots endorses a policy that will reduce the chance of election, it must be either silenced or ignored. Demonstrating a big tent is usually beneficial for a party, so it is probably better to encourage debate, rather than suppress it.

    Unless, of course, the CPC's tent is not big. I look forward to finding out.

    By Blogger Psychols, at 2:27 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Psychols, at 2:28 AM  

  • I have to agree with CG here, specifically with respect to the budget and missile defence. The Cons were pretty quiet on both. But they got the following effects:

    1. coverage of budget day on the CBC was all pro-Harper, insofar as he was portrayed as being in the driver's seat, all moderate-like.

    2. the lack of criticism from the Cons has got the media (i.e. Rex Murphy) critiquing the Libs. And while Harper's suffering attacks too, it's nothing new. It doesn't change his public image one iota, whereas the Grits have no friends these days. I don't know how this'll play in the long term (i.e. the Grits may not have friends, but so what if the dude is unelectable), but it could be interesting.

    By Blogger matt, at 11:11 AM  

  • I'm not sure I agree, unless you are saying that Harper's was already doing so poorly that his relative silence won’t do any more damage to his standing. If he intends to fight the next election on the “not the Liberals” platform he is probably hoping that the Mr. Dithers label, the Gomery Inquiry or something else will further damage Paul Martin and the Liberals. In that case, he is probably just trying to stay out of trouble.

    My feeling (and that’s all it is) is that voters are neither inspired by, nor upset with Paul Martin. That does not bode well for the Conservatives. Harper’s lack of charisma and failure to find an issue that resonates with voters has left him with little room to manoeuvre.

    By Blogger Psychols, at 2:29 PM  

  • I disagree with CG on the way Harper handled the budget. Even if he always intended to abstain, he could have dragged the process out much longer.

    The budget is the blue print for the government's agenda and Harper threw in the towel on it before it was even presented. He could have tried to drag out concessions from the Liberals, he could have at least threatened to bring down the government and found a reason at the last moment to abstain.

    The Bloc managed to keep secret how they would vote on the Conservative budget amendment and in the end the Cons had to prevent their own MPs from voting on their own amendment. They looked ridiculous.

    As for Rex Murphy he's been hitting Harper just as hard as he has been Martin. In his column yesterday he argued the Liberals are not providing any leadership yet somehow Harper can't capitalize, with a minority parliament no less. Its hard to imagine conditions more favourable for an opposition party, yet the government continues to stand.

    The public is averse to an election not because of the expense and the process blah, blah, blah. In the past minority governments have fallen after 9 or 16 months. Canadians don't want an election because despite Mr. Dithers' inabilities, Canadians can't picture Harper doing any better based on current performance.

    The opposition is supposed to continually hammer the government and present themselves as a viable governing alternative. To the detriment of the nation Harper is failing at doing both.

    By Blogger Matthew, at 4:12 PM  

  • "He could have tried to drag out concessions from the Liberals, he could have at least threatened to bring down the government and found a reason at the last moment to abstain."

    What makes you think he didn't? The tax cuts for business. The big dollars for the Military. I suspect he wasn't at home in his pj's waiting to hear what the budget would be, but rather had some behind the scenes direct input.

    In which case, your argument becomes he should have made his influence more well-known, and to that I could agree.

    Regards,

    Hector

    By Blogger Hector, at 2:06 PM  

  • Hector, I think Matthew was saying -- and I agree with him -- that Harper made a big mistake coming out just minutes after the budget speech and saying that he would support it. He essentially promised the budget would pass, eliminating any chance for him to have any influence over the next week or two.

    What's worse was that several criticisms among Conservatives arose in the week or so that followed the budget, however Harper was limited in his ability to talk about those because he had already stamped it "good enough for me".

    For example, the delay of military spending and tax cuts towards the end of the 5 year time period... That should have been a reason to complain. I knew about them immediately because I was listening to the budget discussion on CBC Radio. However, the Conservatives said "Good budget" and then later seemed to notice these delays.

    Maybe you are right that Harper was key in influencing the budget and causing some policies to be entered into it. However, he didn't help his image by applauding the budget so much on budget day. He tried to reverse that in the following days, but had really limited himself. The overall message he inadvertently sent out was "Well, if you'd like a Stephen Harper budget, you should probably be fairly satisfied with a Paul Martin budget."

    ----

    On a side note, does anybody know the answer to this question: Once the government has given their budget speech, if the opposition parties are threatening to vote it down, is the government allowed to introduce an amendment to its own budget? In other words, can they cave in to some opposition demands without causing the government to fall?

    If the answer to this is "yes", it really underlines the opportunity that was missed by Stephen Harper when he played his cards too soon.

    By Blogger Andrew Spicer, at 3:47 PM  

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