Friday, September 18, 2009

The reset button

The Libs evidently think they've managed to accomplish some great feat by basing their entire Parliamentary strategy on a desire to embarrass the NDP. But the end result may be the opposite of what they're expecting.

Keep in mind that the Cons' current habit in government has been to push ahead with its agenda with absolutely no need to negotiate or take into account the policy goals of other parties. But that doesn't mean such an outcome was ever inevitable; instead, it was brought about by opposition parties (first the Bloc, then the Libs) who didn't bother trying to get any policy results in exchange for their backing.

Now, circumstances have already changed enough for the Cons to have felt a need to introduce EI improvements beyond their existing budget plans. And the Libs' effort to speed up the process of passing that set of changes may only make it easier for the NDP to get more of its priorities passed into law.

After all, there's no indication that the NDP's position that it'll need the Cons to offer reasons for any future support will change - and indeed Layton has already presented that as his bottom line.

So suppose the EI bill does pass in the next two weeks before the Libs' next scheduled confidence vote. At that point, Layton will have another opening to declare that Harper needs to give the NDP some reason to support the government.

Now, Harper could refuse to offer anything at that point. But the fact that Harper put the current EI expansion on the table suggests that he perceives some significant risk in being seen to have precipitated an election by offering absolutely nothing to a party who's willing to work within the current Parliament. So it's more likely that he'd then turn to another item on the NDP's list of policy priorities - pensions? credit card regulation? - and make a public overture to the NDP on that in order to try to get Layton's vote on the next confidence motion.

From there, I doubt the Libs would bother trying the expedited process gambit again on their own. But once it's been used once, there would seem to be little reason not to apply it to issues that cut far enough across ideological lines to be seen as desirable by both the NDP and the Cons. And as each NDP priority passes, the cycle figures to begin again - creating a new baseline expectation where the Cons have to first accommodate and eventually negotiate with the NDP to stay in power, as well as a list of concrete accomplishments the NDP can point to in the next federal election campaign.

In sum, rather than allowing the NDP twist in the wind for several months over a single EI bill, Ignatieff may instead have created the conditions for the NDP's best-case scenario under the current Parliament: a government looking to it for support, and a Parliament with no roadblocks to getting those agreed measures passed. So after two years of ensuring that their confidence votes would count for nothing, the Libs may have just set up the NDP's votes to generate the greatest possible return.

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