Harper's obsession with tactics might backfire

The decision to prorogue Parliament is a clever, but risky, move

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Proroguing the House was a clever move by Stephen Harper, one that might yet turn out to be too clever by half.

Harper and his close advisers have a tendency to get in trouble when they become too fascinated by tactics to the detriment of strategy. We saw this in the self-inflicted parliamentary crisis of 2008, from which the only safe exit was also prorogation.

There is no crisis or escape hatch this time, but this prorogation is all about tactics, and has nothing to do with a larger strategic design or public policy outcomes.

And it was announced on the second last day of the year, not by the prime minister, but by his press secretary. For his part, Harper phoned it in to the governor-general, probably from Harrington Lake, where he normally spends the New Year's holiday with his family. There is no need for him to go to Rideau Hall at the end of a session, as opposed to a dissolution. The prorogation of 2008, with a two-hour visit to MichaŽlle Jean, was an exceptional circumstance.

There have been predictable outbreaks of editorialists and pundits being shocked and appalled at Harper's cavalier treatment of Parliament, bending the calendar to suit his own partisan purpose. But the fact is that he's on solid constitutional ground - no governor-general has ever refused a request to prorogue. In the Westminster tradition, the government, in effect the PM, sets the parliamentary calendar. Period, full stop.

What does Harper get out of this? Well, he gets control of the Senate. By filling five vacancies, the Conservatives will outnumber the Liberals there for the first time, and will gain control of the Senate committees. On the House side, committees do not sit while Parliament is not in session, which means the committee on Afghan detainees cannot sit until the House comes back for the new session with a throne speech on March 3, followed by the budget the next day.

Meantime, all government bills have died on the order paper, and will have to be re-introduced in the new session. That's a fairly minor inconvenience, when it's considered Harper doesn't need to do any preparation for question period for two more months, with the way now cleared for him to spend the Olympics in Vancouver, basking in the reflected glory of Canada's Winter Games from Feb. 12 to the end of the month.

For all their shouts of indignation, the opposition parties are secretly relieved. They don't have to spend countless hours on questions for the House that no one in the country will be watching during the Olympics. The Liberals, in particular, should be happy about this extra month they can take to work on a new and improved Michael Ignatieff.

The latest poll numbers from Nanos Research last week told the Liberals what they already knew - that they have a lot of work to do. Trailing the Conservatives by nearly 10 points, they are in even worse shape in terms of Ignatieff's leadership scores, where Harper is ahead by margins of at least 2-1 across the board.

Those kinds of numbers, if they hold for two months, are essentially a firewall against the opposition parties voting together to defeat the government on the budget.

In the meantime, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty gets to do his listening tour and present his budget without being hassled by the opposition in the House as to what should be in it.

The danger is that Harper and his close circle in the Prime Minister's Office might start putting poison pills in the budget, as they did in the fall economic update that provoked the crisis of 2008. Flaherty's role will be to skate any PMO zealots into the boards.

There can be only two reasons for lacing the budget with poison pills - the kind of measures, such as the announced end to taxpayer funding of political parties in 2008, that could bring the opposition parties together again.

The first would be that Harper thinks he can get away with it. And the second would be that he sees a majority in the offing, and wants to trigger the defeat of his government.

Either would be a big mistake, potentially a fatal miscalculation. The government has done very well over the past year by managing the economy through the recession to recovery. It has been seen as serious about staying in Ottawa and running the country, while the Liberals paid a huge price for trying to force an election the country didn't want. This just in - the country still doesn't want one, and the voters will punish anyone who plays that game in the short term.

Moreover, after the Olympics, Harper has a huge leadership opportunity when he hosts the G8 and G20 in Ontario in June. He would foolish to call an election before those two events, which will put him at the centre of the world stage.

Meantime, prime minister, enjoy the Games.

 
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