Well, you still really don’t walk away from a half-hour with Michael Ignatieff marvelling at the clarity of his expression. But the Liberal leader accomplished something interesting this morning at the National Press Theatre.
Over the weekend, one Liberal admitted to me that Ignatieff was in imminent danger of going from being “lionized to Dionized.” Which is to say, the big guy’s been getting fewer and fewer glowing reviews about his strategic prowess, and he faces more and more questions about his skills as a strategist and, more fundamentally, about whether he has any guts. He cooked up this probation thing. He determined its schedule. Its central understanding was that if the government failed probation, the Liberals would withdraw confidence. So would Ignatieff force an election which “nobody wants” — an eternally meaningless phrase — and for which the Liberals remain “pathetically unready” — a more interesting state of affairs, and one I’ll get back to? Or would Ignatieff cave in?
Then he strolled into the National Press Theatre and talked a lot, and the gist of it was this: He wants details from Stephen Harper on EI, isotopes, the disposition of stimulus spending and, er, something else. He is willing to be flexible on each of these subjects. He’s willing to have the Commons sit longer to crunch these topics. But if the government doesn’t show at least as much flexibility, he’ll withdraw confidence.
It is a hard position to love, but it changes the frame of things a bit.
In Quebec political circles, we call this “faire porter l’odieux,” which can reasonably be translated as “shifting the blame,” but which I always think of as “carry the nasty.” It was all the rage in the Bouchard years, and it looks set to make a comeback if Pauline Marois manages to get herself elected premier. You, as premier of Quebec, propose something to the feds. If they grant it, they have demonstrated your strength. If they turn it down, they are mean and nasty people and, probably, help confirm your belief that this rotten country will never run. You have succeeded in making Ottawa carry the nasty.
Similarly, we are now (arguably; none of this is written in stone tablets) in a world where, if Harper consents to provide the information/ amendments/ whatever Ignatieff is (sort of) (vaguely) requesting/demanding, then it is Harper who is caving to avoid an election. Whereas, if we find ourselves traipsing off to the polls in six weeks (a week of High Drama followed by a five-week writ), then it is Harper who is being obstreperous. All ol’ Mike Ignatieff wants to do is Make Parliament Work For Canadians. It is Harper who, one way or the other, winds up carrying the nasty.
That’s the goal, anyway. As a sort of bonus, Ignatieff’s position is congruent with the realities of life for an opposition leader in a minority parliament. Recall that last August, as he inched (at last!) toward a decision on an election, Stéphane Dion was telling everyone that he, and only he, had the power to decide an election. That turned out to be the latest, but not the last, in a series of things about which Dion was wrong. It is never an opposition leader who decides the timing of an election. An opposition leader offers or withholds confidence. You need, in the current Parliament, three of them to withhold it to bring the government down. It’s the government that needs the support of one of them. And it’s the head of the government, guy named Harper, who can decide to seek an election.
All the Liberal leader can do is determine the circumstances under which he’ll extend confidence. Today he gave his conditions.
So what happens now? Nobody knows; this is an equation in too many variables. Ignatieff has declared that under some circumstances he’ll withhold confidence. That sends signals to the other opposition parties and to Harper. Harper doesn’t have to accede to Ignatieff’s demands. He can reach out to either of the other opposition parties and cook a deal with them. Or Harper could call Ignatieff’s bluff and meet with him as early as this afternoon.
My own hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that we will be in an election campaign by next week. That was already my hunch before I received this email from a Conservative who usually works on the party’s campaigns: “If it’s a campaign he wants… then a campaign he will get. Either that or he backs down and looks weak. We’re not for backing down (as he well knew when he stood up this morning.)”