Monday, August 24, 2009


With the news last week that the Liberals are asking the Parliamentary Budget Officer to price their EI reform proposal following Conservative pricing shenanigans, and the Conservatives retreating to a no national standard stance after earlier saying it made sense (and having offered no proposal of their own), it appears the EI reform panel summer camp is all over except for the battle over framing.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

So, what does this mean as political strategy, and what does it mean for this fall?

First, my NDP friends seem to take this as both vindication of their position (vote against the government but we don’t want an election) and that “taking EI out of the House of Commons” was a mistake. They’re wrong on a few counts. It wasn’t really in the HoC. The NDP private member's bill was non-binding and ignorable by the government. The House wasn’t going to sit all summer anyways. And the NDP bill will still be there this fall. This process was about seeing if common ground could be found to create legislation that might actually pass the HoC, might actually come into effect, and therefore might actually help the unemployed. Sadly there were, and are, no bills in the HoC that will do that.

Second, for the Conservatives, it’s about positioning. Were they ever serious about finding agreement on EI reform? Quite possibly not. I’d argue that, if they surveyed the situation a few weeks ago and decided it was in their interests, they’d have gotten serious. They decided they don’t need to do a deal, for whatever reason: they don’t view it as affordable, they like their polling, or they think they don’t need to appease the Liberals. They’ve made their calculus, for better or for worse.

Thirdly, for the Liberals, it was about EI and it wasn’t about EI. We believe in EI reform, and this panel offered the best chance, albeit a slim one, at getting there in the short-term. EI reform isn’t going to happen in the short-term without government buy-in; the alternative is forcing an election on it. No one wanted an election in the summer, this offered a chance at EI reform while avoiding an election no one wanted, so it was worth a shot.

So, with EI reform dead, what now? Will EI be the Liberal election rallying cry? No, it won’t. But that doesn’t mean the EI reform failure doesn’t bring us closer to an election.

For the Liberals, I think that, in addition to avoiding bad election timing, this panel was about taking a flyer by giving the Conservatives a chance to make this minority situation work. I’d argue it’s a chance the Conservatives spectacularly blew with their cavalier attitude and approach to this issue, which explains why they’re trying so hard to spin it the other way.

IF the Liberals do try to force an election this fall, the EI failure will likely fit into the narrative thusly, and EI won’t be the issue: the issue will be making parliament work and competence to govern. The EI panel will be held up as the latest example of the Liberals being the one party willing to put some water in its wine to make this minority parliament work by sitting down and trying to find common ground with the government.

We don’t blindly oppose everything, and we don’t take a my way or the highway approach. We try to get things for Canadians. And, once again, the Conservatives returned that principled approach with partisan attacks, leaving Canadians to suffer.

That should be the trigger narrative (which disappears after a day or two anyways), and ironically it’s not dissimilar to Harper’s when he triggered the 2008 vote. Except, this time, it’s actually true. Parliament has become disfunctional. Despite our efforts to make Parliament work, Harper has consistently shown he has no interest in working with the other parties in the interest of Canadians. So it’s time for a change.

Or so says I, at least.

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Steve V said...

Agreed Jeff. EI won't be an election trigger, but the way the Conservatives dealt with EI may well be.

Jennie / Jae said...

Not to derail the conversation, but just because I'm curious: do you think the Liberals will, in fact, (help) trigger an election this year?

A BCer in Toronto said...


I think they should trigger one. But will they? I'm putting it at 60/40 they will.


Indeed. The way they dealt with EI may be the straw that breaks the camel's back in terms of an unwillingness to work with parliament to seriously address important issues, from EI to the economy to isotopes to H1N1 to immigration, the list goes on.

RayK said...

"The NDP private member's bill was non-binding and ignorable by the government."

That's not true private members' bills are binding; it's opposition day motion that aren't.

RayK said...

Oh, please. Michael Ignatieff spent months threatening to defeat Stephen Harper--threatening to defeat him and then backing down.

You can dress it up anyway you like, but the fundamental problem is that Ignatieff was making empty threats. Ignatieff kept Stephen Harper in power knowing that he had no leverage over the Harper government. He did so knowing the Conservatives would be able to rule any way they pleased. In other words, his "probation plan" was a fraud.

Now--with Liberal poll numbers in Dion-like territory and Ignatieff posed to backdown again--we're suddenly to believe that all those threats were... What? A figment of our imagination?

Not bloody likely.

A BCer in Toronto said...

That's not true private members' bills are binding

You're partially correct. However, private members bills can't spend money. Which is why the CPC never implemented the Kelowna Accord, despite Paul Martin's sucessfulyl passed private members' bill. And its why an NDP bill on EI wouldn't be binding either.

Greg said...

If Harper really believes today's poll numbers, perhaps he will use EI as a pretext for an election.

devinjohnston said...

What? The Blue Ribbon Panel (TM) turned out to be a complete waste of time? There's a shocker.

RayK said...

"You're partially correct. However, private members bills can't spend money. Which is why the CPC never implemented the Kelowna Accord, despite Paul Martin's sucessfulyl passed private members' bill. And its why an NDP bill on EI wouldn't be binding either."

This is close to being correct, but not quite. Paul Martin's Kelowna Accord bill didn't actually require the government to implement the Kelowna Accord. It just required the government to "honour the goals of the Kelowna Accord". Martin's bill didn't require the government to spend any money on any specific projects. If it had--and it had passed--then it would have absolutely been bidning on the government.

The NDP's EI bill requires the government to spend actual money on specific EI benefits. Again, if it passes it will be 100% binding. The down side to this approach--including specific spending measures in a private member's bill--is that it allows the government to block a vote on final passage of the measure.

That's why the matter ultimately comes down to whether the opposition is willing to defeat the government on confidence votes; that gives the opposition the leverage to get things like an up or down on an opposition proposal. The government's power to block private members bills that contain specific spending measures is certainly a hurdle that needs to be overcome, but it's simply inaccurate to say that a private member's bill--or the spending provision of a private member's bill--is non-binding.