On the Hill – Power Play

Just when you thought it was safe to put away the election signs, the whiff of a non-confidence vote is in the air. Introducing legislation that seems tailor-made to provoke another election may look like a step too far on Stephen Harper’s part, but in truth It’s a hard-nosed political manoeuvre that will benefit the Conservatives no matter how the chips may fall.

(Not that it will necessarily benefit Canadians, but that little detail doesn’t seem to have given Harper pause here.)

At issue is the fiscal update the Conservatives released this week. As the world’s economies struggle to come up with stimulus packages that will prevent recessions from spiralling into depressions, the Conservatives are doing the opposite. In fact, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is predicting that $6 billion in planned cutbacks will result in a budget surplus next year, albeit a slim one.

The move has a lot of factions crying foul (especially the auto industry), but That’s not what really has the other parties in a lather. No, Harper’s blatant power grab has accomplished that: the update includes a plan to eliminate public funding for political parties, a move clearly intended to decimate Harper’s opposition.

Right now, political parties receive $1.95 in funding for each vote received. Personal donations are capped at $1,100 annually, while corporate and union donations are banned. The change would save the government less than $30 million a year?and effectively silence, or kill off, any viable opposition in the next election. In the face of such blatant hubris, how does Harper prosper? There are three ways.

First, the fiscal framework is considered a matter of confidence. If the opposition parties vote against it, they could trigger another election, and that won’t go down well in public opinion. With the financial future so uncertain, Canadian outrage could well turn on the parties that trade $30 million in funding for a $200-million election. Harper wins (and that plum of a majority government must look very tempting).

Harper also knows full well that the other parties haven’t (to their own detriment) created a solid donor base. And without changing the rules on corporate (and private) donations, it will be years before they can generate enough fundraising momentum to challenge the Conservatives. Harper wins.

The other choice is for the opposition parties to form a coalition, an ungainly result at a time when the Liberals are rudderless without a solid leader. In the confusion sure to follow, coupled with growing financial turmoil, it would be easy for the Conservatives to stand back and say, ?See what a mess these guys have made of things?? Again, Harper wins.

The final choice? For the opposition to let the fiscal update pass, a decision that would throw the political landscape into a dangerous imbalance, with little meaningful resistance to the party in power.

In the end, the question isn’t about whether It’s more democratic to fund the political parties or let them prove themselves on their own. There are pros and cons to both sides. Instead, It’s about the timing, and a prime minister that seems hell bent on putting himself before the people he’s supposed to serve.

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