Thursday, January 22, 2009

To coalesce or not to coalesce

Reading the pundits and parsing the Delphic utterances of Michael Ignatieff, I find myself unable to make any firm predictions about the outcome of next week's budget debate. An election? A coalition? A seaworthy budget that the Liberals can support, if only by resorting to the discredited Dion strategy of permanent abstention?

It depends upon whom you read.
And that's a glorious repeat of the old saga about the blind men and the elephant.

Don Martin asserts today that the Liberal-NDP coalition "must die," which is encouraging for those of us who thought it was already dead:

With the shrug of his shoulders Wednesday, Mr. Ignatieff seemed to acknowledge its passing-on as an inconvenient truth. He declared himself repulsed by the thought of foisting a needless and unpopular election on Canadians and is well aware the Liberal party's sudden recovery in the polls is contingent on officially divorcing from the coalition.


To force an election or fake a coalition are childish actions best set aside. Parliament's recession-fighting challenge cries out for adult supervision.

But Ignatieff himself isn't quite so clear as Martin surmises. Seen as the centre-right Liberal, as opposed to Bob Rae's relative progressivism, Ignatieff seems to have been positioning himself closer to the left over the past few days, supporting federal anti-scab legislation at least in principle (although, with his predecessor, he joined the Conservatives in torpedoing Bill C-257 two years ago), and demanding the repatriation of Omar Khadr. As for the coalition?

"A coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition, meaning that I need to look at this budget carefully," says Ignatieff, channelling Mackenzie King.

The polls are looking pretty good right about now for both Ignatieff and--in a stunning turnaround--for the coalition, which, never mind Don Martin, now enjoys the support of 50% of the public. The only thing that Ignatieff has been completely clear on is that an election in the near future is not in the cards: Canadians, he says, need another election "like a hole in the head." That leaves only two alternatives.

At this point the budget is taking shape somewhat like a collective agreement, with two parties at the table (and be assured that the table in this case
is not a metaphorical one), and timed public utterances. The resulting document will either be a "final offer" that the Liberals cannot abide, or a "win-win" compromise with considerable water in everybody's wine.

This kind of detailed engineering is politics at its best, and it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall during the on-going back-channel negotiations. The stakes are high for both Harper and Ignatieff, and with the new polling numbers brinkmanship is inevitable. Ignatieff could find himself a relatively popular new Prime Minister, but there are obvious risks involved in forcing the issue. Harper could retain power, but at considerable cost to fiscal conservative principles.

The "win-win" option, a compromise budget, might not in fact be the best solution for the Conservatives. For Harper, already wobbling a little on his base, giving in to Liberal pressure might be a worse long-term solution than being Opposition leader for a while and playing the "coup" card. But for Ignatieff, a political tyro, heading into the uncharted waters of coalition politics during an economic recession might prove to be more hazardous than playing it safe and supporting the Conservatives.

Quite the game of chess--or is it poker? I'll be in the budget lock-up on Tuesday, so I'll provide an early report on its contents. It promises to be a fascinating document. And what follows is anyone's guess.

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