Friday, November 27, 2009


A quick reminder for the many members of the League of Pundits with the Attention Span of a Gnat who have come out of the woodwork this morning: you should know better than to take the Cons' talking points at face value.

Nobody with a single functioning brain synapse buys for a second that the Cons' suppression of documents about torture in Afghanistan is actually about national security, or that the Cons' four-year streak of "we'll regulate greenhouse gas emissions next year" actually reflects any real desire to deal with climate change despite their pretense to the contrary. So why the willingness to parrot the Cons' party line when they pretend that their HST posturing is all about pressuring Michael Ignatieff rather than escaping a trap for themselves?

Instead, the real story is to be found in what the Cons are actually doing, not how they're framing it:
“Parliament's decision on the framework legislation will be certain and final,” states a briefing memo that was obtained by The Globe and Mail. “This legislation will have the support of the Official Opposition or it will not. If it does, we expect the bill to win approval before the Christmas recess.

“If the framework legislation is rejected before Christmas, we will not revisit the issue. Not next year. Not after the next election.”
Although bills that involve federal funds are generally considered matters of confidence, “this legislative change does not affect federal revenue or spending and is therefore not a confidence measure,” the document states, which means its defeat would not bring down the government.
So what's the common theme in the Cons' strategy? There are two noteworthy developments, and I'd think they both point to a fairly obvious explanation.

First, there's the sudden insistence on dealing with the HST before the Christmas recess. That means that all of the debate on the issue would take place at a time when all parties seem to be figuring that an election is unlikely, and before the Cons have time to drop very far from their current peak in the polls.

Second, there's the declaration that the HST vote won't be a confidence matter. And this is where it's particularly obvious that the Cons are operating from a position of weakness.

After all, the most damaging outcome for Ignatieff would surely involve the exact opposite move. Having already been painted as a flip-flopper for going from supporting the government as a matter of course to opposing it as a matter of course (not to mention equivocating on the HST itself), Ignatieff couldn't keep the Cons in power over the HST without also cementing the exact image which the Cons have worked so hard to project on him. Yet with his party bottoming out in the polls and trying to lay the groundwork for longer-term planning that's been sorely neglected for years, Ignatieff wouldn't appear to have much choice.

That is, unless the Cons have reason to think that the opposition parties would be able to use the HST as a launching pad to radically change the current picture in Canadian politics in short order if an election was fought on the issue. Which, needless to say, is a theory fully supported by the results of the New Westminster-Coquitlam by-election.

In that case, the Cons' safest course of action would be to try to keep any votes on the HST as far removed as possible from any general election. Which would include both trying to time an HST vote when an election is least likely, and ensuring that any vote on the HST itself doesn't serve as an election trigger.

So what would the smart response be from the Libs? It might be tempting to simply brand the Cons with the HST and then vote it down immediately - tying the Cons to the attempt to raise taxes on consumers then pairing that with an obvious public failure to be discussed over the holiday season. But I'd think the question of timing raises another, better option.

Rather than accepting the Cons' timetable and choosing a side immediately, the Libs should be able to point to the 2010 confirmation dates in the actual HST framework agreements and say that nothing should be decided officially too early in the game. Framed carefully enough, that message could win at least some measure of support from the provincial governments and opposition parties involved: the former in not foreclosing the HST prematurely, the latter in allowing more time for public discussion.

In the meantime, the implementation bill itself should be a natural fit for extensive committee hearings and other public talks at the federal level. All of which would of course be aimed at highlighting the federal role in funding harmonization and tying the Cons to the HST.

Then, the Libs will be in an ideal position to test for themselves whether there actually is enough public outrage to be worth bringing down the Cons (on an HST-related motion if the Cons won't let them use the bill itself). And even if not, the worst-case scenario would be exactly what the Cons are trying to force down Ignatieff's throat now: the HST would pass with Con and Lib support, leaving the NDP as the lone party to benefit on the federal level (but in an election distanced significantly from the HST vote).

Of course, the Libs haven't exactly inspired confidence in their ability to counter moves like this one. But there's no time like the present to start developing some clue as to what the Cons' actions really mean. And the Cons' strategy suggests that there's no issue where they're more scared to face the voters than the HST.

No comments:

Post a Comment