The Poisoned Chalice

Resident Fellow
David Frum
What is going on in Ottawa is a game of competitive suicide. Whoever "wins" this parliamentary power play destroys himself. Only the "losers" will survive.

Liberals first: Suppose they "win." What will they gain?

Imagine Canada six months on. There's a Liberal prime minister. He will head an unstable coalition of Liberals and socialists aligned with separatists. To appease the socialists, he will have to raise taxes. To appease the separatists, he will have to direct disproportionate money and attention to the province of Quebec.

Today's winners will be tomorrow's losers; today's losers, tomorrow's winners. Politics is a long game.

He will have zero democratic legitimacy. He will never be able to use the words, "That's the job the Canadian people elected me to do." His government will contain almost no representatives from the West. Everyone will understand that the only issue uniting this government was its members' eagerness for public money for their own party funds.

This weak new prime minister will somehow have to deal with what is already shaping up as a savage recession.

And not just the recession. The new coalition government will face an equally savage constitutional crisis. The only way the Liberals can prevail is if the current Governor-General disregards constitutional precedent and democratic practice to transfer power without an intervening election. Lord Byng could not get away with that in 1926--and Byng was a governor-general who owed his office to the neutral British Crown. Michaelle Jean, by contrast, was a patronage hire by one Liberal prime minister who now (under this scenario) will have repaid the favor by delivering up power to another. It will look like the most squalid political deal in Canadian history.

Battered by scandal and recession, the unpopular new government will have to worry constantly about treachery in the ranks. Perhaps the coalition can strike a deal now to divide up the offices and choose a prime minister, without either a leadership convention or an election. But six months from now, with the government polling at 20 percent or 25 percent, will that deal hold up? If Michael Ignatieff eventually ends up with the top job, won't many old Rae partisans imagine that things would be better if only their guy had won? And vice versa? Even worse: If Stephane Dion somehow succeeds in retracting his resignation and imposing himself upon his two would-be successors, his life will be about as secure and comfortable as a wounded tuna's in a sea of sharks.

Sooner or later, this government will collapse. Probably sooner. When it does, and faces the people, it will have to bear responsibility for unemployment and budget deficits. It will look desperate and selfish and cynical verging on crooked. It's hard to imagine any result other than a crushing once-in-a-generation defeat: another 1958 or 1984.

Ok, that's if the Liberals win. What about the Conservatives? The Harper government may manage to prorogue Parliament. But sooner or later, Parliament will have to meet again. And when it does, the government will face a wall of mistrust, resentment and non-co-operation. Nothing will pass. No legislation will get through. Question Period will be pandemonium. If there was a second-term agenda, it is now utterly dead.

Coming out of the October election, the government's best strategy was to play for time, avoiding an election for the 12 or 18 months it will take for the economy to recover from the U.S. financial crisis. Before the Ottawa parliamentary manoeuvre, that strategy was feasible: The Liberals would not want another election until they had chosen a new leader and raised some campaign funds.

But now? Now that schedule is sure to be accelerated. The next election will arrive soon, probably very soon--as unemployment is rising, as families are cancelling vacation plans, as retirees confront RRSP declines of 30 percent and 40 percent. And how will the government explain why it has been obliged to return to the people so soon: "Sorry to bother you again, but you see our first priority after returning to office was to rewrite the campaign finance laws to beat down our opponents--and we did not count the votes carefully enough to realize that we probably couldn't get away with it. Vote for us so we can try again!"

That too seems an invitation to a catastrophic defeat.

For the personalities involved in this week's power struggle, there seem few good outcomes ahead. For the parties, at least, there is hope--but the hope is indirect, not obvious. Today's winners will be tomorrow's losers; today's losers, tomorrow's winners. Politics is a long game. The grab for power by unprincipled means always exacts costs. This latest round was a gambit that should never have been played.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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