First off, Harper has done quite well. You may oppose his policies and lots of folks do, but he is moving his agenda forward. This is something we haven’t seen for some time with the successive Paul Martin and Harper minority governments.
If you are a Conservative you see a Prime Minister honouring commitments made in his election platform and doing exactly what he has said he would do since first elected with a minority in 2006. No one should be surprised that he is moving on items such as scrapping the gun registry, the Wheat board and various pieces of crime legislation, all have been around for some time. It is also politically wise to move on controversial legislation at the beginning of your mandate. Get them out of the way and that clears the deck for future items that you want to bring forward.
He has been able to advance these legislative items by forcefully using the rules of the House of Commons to limit debate on key pieces of legislation and by the presence of a largely ineffective opposition.
Most governments will sooner or later find it necessary to use “time allocation” to limit debate on a bill and move it forward. However, if Harper continues to use this procedure he may generate a backlash, particularly with swing voters and in ridings that have elected a Conservative for the first time. The saving grace on these present bills is that most of these issues have been extensively debated previously. Canadians will cut him some slack for wanting things passed instead of rehashing the same old issues and talking points from previous debates.
The danger for the Conservatives is that this way of operating can become the easy way out to avoid extensive debate on issues that are controversial. Sooner or later the public will see this as Harper bullying the opposition parties, as Harper being undemocratic and they will see the Conservatives as arrogant. That is a deadly combination and a guaranteed vote loser.
To date the opposition parties have been largely ineffective. The NDP is distracted with a leadership campaign and with some of their heavy-hitters in the running; they have been forced to rely on a number of weaker MPs and many brand new MPs to get the job done. This is very evident in both Question Period and in committees. Their questions lack focus, are out of sequence, poorly delivered and they are incapable of thinking on their feet and rephrasing a question based on a minister’s answer. All of this will eventually change. Over the next few months they will learn the skills necessary to become an effective opposition. But for the first six months it has been pretty easy for the government to swat back any questions coming their way. A new leader will also give them more focus and re-energize them as they move forward in the New Year.
Having been involved with Question period for over 16 years, I can say that the Liberals continue to ask the best questions. Bob Rae has been particularly good. However they are now finding out how ineffective you are with third party status. Your questions come far apart and are limited in number with the end result that the NDP gets noticed and you get lost in the background. It then becomes more difficult to get attention from the media. Even if the Liberals are the first up on a damaging issue for the government, once the NDP get their act together they will be able to shift gears and with their larger number of questions take the issue away from the Liberals and champion it themselves. The Liberals will have to be careful that caucus frustration and the need for media attention doesn’t result in stunts that will come back to bite them down the road. A perfect example is the one today when they boycotted the vote to appoint the new Auditor General. While they have their 15 seconds of media coverage to spell out their self-righteous indignation on the process, what do they do for an encore? And when this Auditor-General brings in a negative report on the government, what do you think both the Conservatives and NDP will be saying when the Liberals ask questions then? Will Canadians even remember why they walked out or will they simply remember that the Liberals left the job up to the NDP to do? The ideal situation for Harper is a left versus right face-off in the Commons. The Liberals handed him and the NDP a gift today.
As long as the opposition remains ineffective, there is a vacuum in politics. Someone will always fill it. From what we are seeing now it looks like the provincial premiers are moving into the opposition role. On items such as the omnibus crime bill, they are becoming the real opposition to the Harper Conservatives. Watch for big city mayors and unions to also step up their opposition. And while some conservatives will relish a fight, any fight is time consuming and tends to knock you off of your agenda. You end up spending more time and energy putting out fires and doing damage control than you do moving your issues forward.
With major issues around civil service cuts, the next budget, health accord negotiations, departmental reviews, trade talks, the perimeter discussions with the USA and a deepening economic crisis in Europe the next six months promises to be quite interesting.