Thursday, November 27, 2008

Rock and a hard place

Not surprisingly, all opposition parties have come out swinging in response to the Cons' attack on political party financing. But plenty remains to be seen as to how the threat will play out - and as is so often the case, it's the Libs who figure to have the biggest decision to make.

Before getting to the actual options, let's note one which is almost certainly off the table. If the Libs were to let the update legislation pass through the House then try to delay or amend it in the Senate, the Cons have set themselves up with a ready response in their intention to include any economic stimulus in an early budget. Given that the Libs are understandably arguing the need for quick and decisive spending already, they wouldn't figure to be able to hold out at that point - meaning that they'd be able to buy themselves a few months at best with delay tactics.

So what might stand a better chance of working? The most obvious possible response would be to emphasize the possibility of a showdown, setting up a staring contest with Harper over the issue. And it wouldn't be the end of the world if Harper refused to blink, particularly if the opposition parties can backstop their position by agreeing on a framework for an alternative government to avoid an immediate election.

About the only problem with that scenario is that it would expose the Libs' rhetoric so far this session as completely devoid of merit: having spent the last month shrieking about how irresponsible the NDP is for even considering voting against the Cons, they'd have to reverse course in a hurry to decide that party funding is worth the potential for an election. And there would certainly be at least some risk that the Cons would try to demand one if they're voted down - meaning that this course of action wouldn't assure the Libs of avoiding the snap election that's surely their worst-case scenario.

That still seems to me to be the best possible option, but there are others which might well come into play. In particular, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Cons are willing to let the matter slide for now in order to bring it up again in the next election campaign - that is, so long as they can inflict some damage on the Libs in the process.

If the Libs figure that's the least of the evils available to them, then they'd likely be best off going directly to the public with a dual message: that unlike the Cons, they want to cooperate to avoid another election; but that public party financing is the one line they won't cross as part of their cooperative effort.

So what's the problem with that approach? By seeking to reach agreement with the Cons, the Libs would in effect put themselves at Harper's mercy.

Remember the heady days of the most recent Afghanistan extension, when Harper's declaration that the eventual vote would be a confidence matter left the Libs negotiating through the media, receiving few responses from the Cons, and desperately hoping that their proposed motion would be accepted?

This option would be much like that, only with plenty more uncertainty added into the mix. In addition to being unsure whether the Cons would pull the rug out from under them anyway, the Libs would also have to start planning alternate election scenarios based on the availability (or lack thereof) of public per-vote funding, and likely have to feed the Cons a list of alternative cuts to justify keeping the party funding in place. And all this while much of the party is already distracted by the leadership race.

Which leads to the capitulation option. While I agree with Northern BC Dipper that it would ultimately be a stupid decision, it's also the one possibility which would arguably give the Libs the most stable base to work from: they'd be able to take the immediate-election possibility out of play, and would know as soon as they made the decision what funding rules they'd have to work with in planning for the longer term.

Now, I'd like to think the Libs are smarter than to gamble their party's solvency on the remote hope that a fund-raising network will spring up where none has existed before. And hopefully the multi-party opposition to Flaherty's move will help steel their resolve. But given the Libs' track record under Dion, I wouldn't want to bank any party's future on their successfully opposing the measure.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

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