Globe and Mail op-eds 2010

If he'd taken the coalition, he coulda been a contender

Plamondon, Bob. The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 02 Apr 2010: A.13.

In a country as economically, culturally, socially and linguistically diverse as Canada, we should embrace those leaders who can build broad national coalitions, those we can trust to keep us united and strong, and who are as relevant in Newfoundland and Quebec as in Alberta and British Columbia.

Making the compromises necessary to build a national coalition is something that Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay understood when they merged the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party. They not only blocked Paul Martin from winning but ended their struggle in the political wilderness. As prime minister, Mr. Harper keeps his coalition together by rewarding the various factions, always mindful not to veer too far from mainstream sensibilities.

Whither Michael Ignatieff? Other than inheriting the legacy of Canada's natural governing party, he doesn't have much of a coalition left to lead. The Liberals have been crowded out of the centre by the Tories, and the NDP and the Greens are eating his lunch on the left.

Mr. Ignatieff's most fateful decision was made just before his coronation as leader. He would be prime minister today except for one major lapse in political strategy.

Think back to just after the 2008 election and Mr. Harper's economic update, which contained a toxic provision to eliminate taxpayer subsidies for political parties. Had that idea been included in the Tory platform, it wouldn't have precipitated a parliamentary crisis. As a back-door manoeuvre, however, Mr. Harper gave his opponents unity and purpose, and they mounted a credible plan to put the Tories on the opposition benches. The Parliamentary Press Gallery concluded that Mr. Harper was done like dinner. But Mr. Ignatieff threw cold water on the plan and, with it, perhaps his only chance to move into 24 Sussex Dr.

Consider the precedents. When Mackenzie King was 15 seats behind the Tories after the 1925 election, he formed an alliance with the Progressives to hold power. In the election that followed, King struck a deal with the Progressives not to run candidates against each other, and he was returned to office. Pierre Trudeau built a working coalition with the NDP when his government was reduced to a minority in 1972; later, he even offered NDP leader Ed Broadbent a seat in his cabinet. After Mr. Trudeau's first resignation in 1979, the Liberals, with the help of the NDP and Social Credit, defeated Joe Clark's Tories on a budget measure. Even when leaderless, those wily Liberals almost never passed up an opportunity to claim power when given the chance.

Much the same way that Liberal David Peterson seized power from the Tories in Ontario with the help of the NDP'sBob Rae in 1985, Mr. Ignatieff could have taken over from Mr. Harper in December of 2008 without the inconvenience of an election.

Why Stephane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe decided to expose their strategy rather than simply spring it on the Tories on the floor of the House is a mystery. And why the Bloc Quebecois was anywhere near a coalition photo op is another head-scratcher.

We might have expected a three-stooge performance under Mr. Dion's leadership, but Mr. Ignatieff was supposed to be the genius in the wings. With overwhelming support in the Liberal caucus, he could have orchestrated an intelligent and bloodless coup. While there would have been a hue and cry, he would have bought himself two or more years to consolidate his coalition. And with Mr. Harper fuming on the opposition benches, Mr. Ignatieff could have cemented a bond with the NDP.

A consolidation of parties, and the broadening of the coalitions they represent, would be good for the country. We have not seen a strong government opposed by a strong opposition since the 1988 election.

Majority governments can now be earned with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Official Opposition status went to the sovereigntist Bloc in 1993 with only 13.5 per cent of the popular vote, and Preston Manning's Reform Party took over the opposition mantle in 1997 with 19 per cent. After the 1997 and 2000 elections, the Liberal majority faced four anemic parties in the House.

And if there were two dominant parties in the House, the Bloc would be further marginalized, leading to its ultimate extinction.

While Mr. Ignatieff contemplates his next move, he should be reminded that not only did he miss an opportunity to become prime minister, he squandered a rare chance to strengthen our democracy.

Harper may be iron-fisted. And so what if he is?

Plamondon, Bob. The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 19 Feb 2010: A.23.

Stephen Harper is an autocrat who keeps a Vise-Grip on power, bullies his opponents and runs roughshod over democratic traditions. And how different is this from his predecessors? Not much.

Not many prime ministers have been tagged with the "gentlemanly" moniker, but it has been an apt description for many leaders of the opposition over the years. Whether it's politics or hockey, Canadians respect toughness and winners. (We didn't seem to care about Bobby Clarke's vicious two-handed slash to the ankle of Valery Kharlamov so long as we won the 1972 Summit Series against the Russians.)

Sir John A. Macdonald knew how to win. He wasn't being a Boy Scout when he executed his famous "double shuffle" in 1858 to reclaim government by exploiting a technicality in parliamentary procedure. Certainly Robert Borden was no pansy during the First World War. Mackenzie King called an election when he promised he would not. John Diefenbaker pulled the plug on his government in 1957, just nine months after winning a minority government, because he sensed weakness in his opponents. And he pilloried Lester Pearson every chance he got: Commenting on his passing, Mr. Diefenbaker mused: "He shouldn't have won the Nobel Prize."

Pierre Trudeau, the brass-knuckled prime minister, brought in the army when faced with a ragtag group of terrorists, then called his detractors weak-kneed bleeding hearts. Mr. Trudeau was quite prepared to say one thing and do another: Remember wage and price controls? Or how about when he lulled the Progressive Conservatives into a false sense of security by resigning as Liberal leader in 1979, only to return months later as prime minister in 1980?

Brian Mulroney's charm and flattery didn't stop him from trolling for leadership delegates at the Old Brewery Mission. And when tested by Mr. Trudeau over minority-language rights in Manitoba, Mr. Mulroney whipped his caucus, telling recalcitrant MPs they could look for another party if they didn't follow his edict.

Then there was Jean Chretien, who introduced us to the Shawinigan handshake as a way to embrace protesters - what Hulk Hogan might call a chokehold.

So Stephen Harper is never going to win a congeniality award. But likeability has never been an essential ingredient in the game of politics, where we admire intelligence and toughness in our leaders, not emotional dribble.

If you want "nice" and "decent" in politics, think of Bob Stanfield. Mr. Stanfield was more likely to listen politely to meaningless debate in the House of Commons than bang heads to bring his caucus into line. After defeating the Liberal government in the Commons on the budget bill, and in the midst of the Liberal leadership campaign, he gave them a do-over.

George Hees, who served in both the Diefenbaker and Mulroney cabinets, used to say of Mr. Stanfield's successor: "Joe Clark is a fine man and all that, but when he walks into a room, I don't know whether to stand up and salute, or send him out for a fresh pack of cigarettes."

Which brings us back to Mr. Harper. In the 2004 election, his party was doomed by wayward and outspoken MPs. Without discipline and message control, his place on the opposition bench was secure. So when Belinda Stronach began to free-wheel in 2004, Mr. Harper put her in the deep freeze. When Garth Turner started mouthing off after caucus meetings, he was ousted. Same for Bill Casey after he voted against his government's budget. What these three renegades have in common today is that none has a seat in the House of Commons.

Certainly Mr. Harper goes overboard when playing war games. Ostracizing Mr. Mulroney, cutting political party financing in the 2008 economic update and, more recently, proroguing Parliament are cases in point. But in each instance, like the wise field general, he backed down, retreated and lived to fight another day. He pays a political price with each misstep, but better he not let fear of a mistake overwhelm him.

Unlike Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Harper is no charmer: "I admit to being, culturally, very British or English. ... Obviously, we're more reticent about expressing ourselves and our emotions."

When he has tried to soften his image, such as wearing a "blue sweater" in the last election campaign, he was a fish out of water. When the economy imploded late in the campaign - when we needed a decisive, take-charge, action-oriented leader - he lamely dished out investment advice to cheer up the nation.

So let's let Mr. Harper be Mr. Harper and play to his strengths as a commanding and confident leader. Over their history, Conservatives have rarely achieved such discipline. Too many Tory leaders have suffered from disunity, giving Liberals the opportunity to ask, "If they can't unite their party, how can they be expected to run the country?"