By the time that word of a second summit between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff had come out, most of us ParliamentaryCrisisWatchers had already downgraded the election threat-o-meter from red to yellow, and were just waiting for official confirmation that the Liberal leader’s perfect record of backing away from any position that could ever potentially be described as “courageous” remained intact. We were not disappointed, although ITQ will admit that the blue ribbon threw us for a loop. Offering your grudging support for a government you’ve only just finished condemning for its “flagrant incompetence” is one thing — but doing it in exchange for a few vague promises to get back to you with more information, and an advisory panel? Somehow, that seems even more embarrassing than forcing your caucus to hide behind the curtains during votes, although that could be because you’re now forced to paste a fake smile on your face and pretend it’s a victory.
It is, as I was trying to explain to a friend last night, the public policy version of a tried and true prime ministerial evasion tactic: When ensnared in a scandal that threatens to provide the opposition with a seemingly bottomless supply of ammunition against the government, you announce a full public inquiry, and then spend the next few months — or years — responding to every subsequent question by imploring all and sundry to “let the commission do its work”. In this instance, of course, the prime minister can also remind the Liberals that it was their own leader who agreed to allow a panel of as-yet-unnamed experts “resolve their differences” — his and his, that is — on employment insurance. The rest of you Liberal lot can just sit back and be quiet — the grownups are talking. They’ll let you know how it all works out.
Which means that, while there may only be a few days left before the House rises for the summer, the Liberals had best start coming up with a QP lineup that scrupulously avoids any mention of unemployment. Or the deficit, come to think of — and ixnay on owingshay even the slightest hint of scepticism over the Conservative claim that all that stimulicious infrastructure money is rolling out in record time, or criticism over how the government has handled the ongoing isotope crisis. That’s what their leader seems to have done, after all — at least, if the glaring absence in the reports of yesterday’s meeting of any reference to the other three items on his bullet point list is any indication.
Then again, maybe that’s unfair — so far, all we have are anonymous- senior-inside-sourced stories; we still don’t know the full details of what went on behind closed doors. There’s always the possibility that the PM has agreed to set up more custom colour-ribboned panels: red, perhaps, for that deficit reduction plan that he insisted had to be shared before he could vote confidence in good conscience; yellow for the stimulus package that, just yesterday, Vic Toews was insisting — against the word of his own department — would grind to an immediate halt should the opposition have the temerity to vote down the estimates; an eerie, glowing green, perhaps, for Chalk River and AECL.
It’s not a done deal yet, of course — not quite, at least; apparently, at least one of the two leaders remembered just in time that he actually does have to at least pretend to care what his caucus thinks before signing on the dotted line. But unless there are more than a handful of Liberal MPs worried enough about heading back home with nothing but a blue ribbon to show for their efforts in Ottawa, that will be a mere formality.
To any Liberals unlucky enough to be stuck in a riding that has been battered by the recession, but not willing to go up against the leader to give voice to a niggling doubt over his negotiating skills: Don’t worry, guys — even if you’re too shy to bring up your party’s compassion and concern over the plight of unemployed workers, the other opposition parties — or, as we should perhaps start referring to them, the opposition parties, will be only too happy to do so. You don’t have to spend the summer on the hustings, selling voters on your party’s policies, principles and vision for the future, right? That’s what’s really important here.
UPDATE: Wait, wait, wait — stop the presses. Ignatieff got the PM to agree to an opposition day in September? Well, that changes everything. I bet Harper is shaking in his shoes at the prospect of spending the summer under that Sword of Damocles. I mean, what are the odds that he’s already figured out that it’s actually just a stage prop?