Saturday, November 28, 2009

Looking back on The Coalition, one year later

It’s hard to believe that, one year ago, political Ottawa was in a tizzy of coalition madness, and even in the rest of Canada, the political interest alert system rose from “who cares” to “meh, wha?” Looking back one year later, who were the winners and losers and what are the lasting impacts?

In the short-term, certainly, while they may have over-played their hand the coalition was the right move for the opposition parties. With the Conservative economic update that ignored the worsening economic realities and instead tried to destroy their political opponents, the opposition parties had to act.

The coalition succeeded in forcing the Conservatives to introduce a budget in January that, while unfocused and imperfect, did make needed changes in areas such as Employment Insurance as well as spend billions in necessary stimulus to help the economy. It wasn’t the budget we’d have written, but it went much further than the Conservatives wanted to go because their feet were held to the fire by the coalition.

At that point, while I had misgivings at the time as well as quibbles with the strategy, Michael Ignatieff made the right decision in backing-away from the coalition. If they’d tried to take the government, after it has gone a long ways toward meeting their demands, the public would have revolted. No matter how constitutionally legitimate it would have been, in the eyes of much of the public it would have lacked moral legitimacy, and without such legitimacy no government can, or should, govern the people.

So, on the positive side for the opposition, the coalition forced the Conservatives to address the economic reality, dramatically change their policy in our direction, and bring in necessary economic policies to help Canadians deal with the recession. And for the Liberals, however messy the aborted leadership process triggered by the coalition drama may have been, it did get our new leader in place much sooner, saving us many, many dollars that could instead go into party coffers. We emerged with a new leader, a united party, and a healthy war chest.

That said, there were missteps and many negatives.

Did we overplay our hand by proposing a formal coalition, rather than just a Liberal government that would seek to govern with NDP and BQ support on a case-by-case basis? Certainly the NDP saw this as their opportunity at real power and wanted seats at the table. And it was important to demonstrate to the Governor-General and Canadians that the new government would be stable. But it made the separatist-socialist coalition messaging easy, and that resonated with Canadians. And we needed public support for legitimacy. We may well have over-reached.

Having Gilles Duceppe at the table for that press conference/photo-op was a mistake too. It lent credence to Conservative lies about the BQ being in the proposed government when they weren’t, and hurt our chances to sell this to the public.

And as much as it pains me, having Stephane Dion at the head was a deal-breaker for many Canadians. I argued at the time it had to be Stephane, and for us, there was no other viable option at the time. But he had just been pretty soundly rejected by the electorate and I talked to many Canadians who said, they’d support the coalition, but not with Dion. While he was the PM we needed, he wasn't the salesman we needed to sell it. It was another factor that made it harder for us to gain public support.

Looking back now, I’d have to say I total more wins in the Conservative column one year removed from the coalition crisis.

While they were forced into stimulus spending they’ve embraced it, using the opportunity to paint themselves as Conservative Santa Clauses with a multi-billion dollar slush fund. They’re showering money on their own ridings to cement their re-election chances and on key swing ridings they need to get to their elusive majority, all with giant prop-cheques emblazoned with the Conservative logo.

We can point out all we want that the distribution of funds is politically-motivated, that they’re blurring the partisan/government divide, but for most people any outrage is largely of the “a pox on all their houses” variety. Conservative popularity has largely held steady through this downturn. That’s a remarkable feat, and due in no small part to the stimulus spending forced on them by the coalition.

More long-term, the prospect of a future coalition government, which would be perfectly democratically legitimate and could be an antidote to both the perpetual minority governments that Canadians are tiring of as well as a good opportunity to unite the centre-left against the Conservatives, has been poisoned and will likely be a no-go for a generation.

We had to sell Canadians on the concept, and we blew it. We were hobbled by the factors mentioned above and we couldn’t overcome the Conservative campaign of smears, lies and distortions. Now the concept of coalition governments, which are the norm in so much of the rest of the world, is as politically toxic as, well, the green shift. Which is a victory for the Conservatives that greatly increases their chances of continued governance by playing the NDP and Liberals off each other. A divided left helps a united right.

So, overall, while the opposition parties largely played their cards as best they could and did achieve some tactical victories, in the long-game it’s Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that emerged as the winners from the coalition madness of one year ago. They continue to govern, their opposition is divided, they held (and even increased) their popularity through a punishing economic downturn, and are inching closer to majority nirvana.

It has been quite a year.

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CanadianSense said...

Great post. I may not agree how you classify the CPC public relations effort against the opposition but nonetheless the CPC have never been so popular 42-45% as a result of coalition. The Lib 22-26% Ispsos, Ekos, Strategic Dec 3-11, 2009

It was the best gift and has helped the CPC public relations campaigns.

Dion made several mistakes but I think his wife was correct he needed time to regroup. The dire straits and future for the LPOC is evident from those outside the bubble.

Too much energy is being spent on internal squabbles. How many insiders who complain are attacked?

One year later and the CPC are seen as the best to manage every file over the Liberals.
Nik Nanos Sept 2009.

I think it was a mistake to change leaders again and waiting for March for more policy announcements.

The self-muzzling for fear of being taken out of context has worked well to remind Canadians the Liberals have "No ideas" and just want to return to power.

If the Liberals had spent the years oultining their differences Canadians would have a clear choice. Waiting 5 days before a campaign won't work. The excuse the CPC did it does not make sense.

Greg said...

I completely reject your characterization of the NDP as "left".

wilson said...

Good reflection Jeff.
May I add a couple of things.

Jack and Gilles were already conspiring to take down the govt,
'before' the economic statement.
They just needed an excuse,
and Harper gave them 3.

Party financing, women's equity battle done at contract time,
freeze on union pay increases (can't remember exact 3 issues)

Cons had the tape confirming Jack and Gilles had an agreement,
and it is not a stretch to think Cons knew what was coming down, and forced the 3 opps hand early.

''Now the concept of coalition governments, which are the norm in so much of the rest of the world, is as politically toxic...''

I don't think coalitions are toxic in Canada Jeff.
Other countries have the 'winner' of the minority govt pick a partner;
not 3 losing parties gang up on force the winner out.
I have no problem with a minority Liberal govt partnering up with Dippers to form a stable majority.
None what so ever.

The Rat said...

Coalitions may not be toxic if you actually run on that and tell the truth in an election when asked. Dion and Layton both flat out rejected coalition during the debates and many other times during the campaign. The Liberal vote is not as solid as you may hope and I do believe that a large number of blue Libs would migrate right if a coalition was honestly contemplated. I think that was reflected in the early polls post coalition when the CPC was in the mid-high 40s.

RuralSandi said...

Biggest shock to me is how many Canadians don't understand our parliamentary system and Harper got away with misinforming them.

NDP and Libs said they wouldn't form a coalition, ya, but that was before Harper tried to play his bully games and had nothing to offer Canadians on dealing with the economic crisis.

Imagine, folks like Rat don't understand our system. Pathetic.

I didn't like the idea of the coalition mostly because of Layton

Barcs said...

"It lent credence to Conservative lies about the BQ being in the proposed government when they weren’t, and hurt our chances to sell this to the public."

2 parties govern and the 3rd would rubber stamp everything without getting anything but the tories gone??

I understand the 3rd wasn't formally in the agreement, but you will have to excuse us for assuming they might exercise there vote if they felt the need to...well do anything.

uh huh.... And I have some ocean front property here in Saskatchewan for ya ///I'll give ya good deal.

Jason Hickman said...

Biggest shock to me is how many Canadians don't understand our parliamentary system and Harper got away with misinforming them.

No offence meant to RS, since she's hardly the only person to make this argument, but it has always bugged the hell out of me.

I've seen no evidence that Canadians didn't "understand" what was going on a year ago: that the three oppo parties, who collectively had more seats than the CPC, were going to vote no confidence and then, assuming they got the chance, would form a LPC/NDP coalition that would be propped up on confidence measures by the Bloc.

Canadians understood that just fine, as near as I can tell. Generally speaking, they just didn't like it. They understood that the LPC/BQ/NDP had more seats combined than the Tories, but they felt it wasn't legit to use that tool to (a) remove Harper as PM, and (b) replace him with with Dion, especially since (but not only because) it was obvious that the only way the coalition deal would work was with the support of the BQ.

That the BQ was an essential part of the deal was manifested in all sorts of ways (the photo op, the "Canadians and Quebeckers" press release, etc.), and once again: it didn't meet with widespread public acclaim, to say the least. In that respect, it lacked legitimacy, even if it was legit from a legal point of view.

Canadians weren't duped, Sandi. They just didn't like what Dion & Layton were selling.

(A much more interesting situation would have been if the Libs & NDP had enough seats on their own to command a majority in the H of C. But that's not the way things were.)