Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Oh good! A parliamentary stare-down

Stephen Harper must have stumbled on a rock somewhere. His threat to the opposition that he will proceed with his so-called "child-care allowance" and take his chances is either very, very dumb or he has seduced the NDP and the Bloc into a deal before producing a budget.

For one thing, his "child care allowance" isn't what it appears to be. This analysis by the Caledon Institute demonstrates the real money Canadians can expect to see, and it underscores that those who need it the most will see the least. A two child family earning $36,000 per year would see a net benefit from Harper's proposed allowance of just $338. The gross benefit triggers income tax increases and a reduced Child-Tax Credit. A single parent earning less fares a little better, but the greatest benefit is realized by a high-wage single earner with a stay-at-home spouse.

And Harper is playing chicken with this poorly thought-out plan.

Let's run a couple of scenarios here. The budget has been presented and its come to the floor for a vote. The Child Care Allowance remains unamended.

The Liberals have already stated that they will oppose Harper on all issues. The Bloc has to vote in the best interest of Quebec and there is a problem. Quebec already has a publicly funded early childhood care program and the deal made with the Martin government allowed for expanded funding. If the Bloc votes for Harper's plan they will have effectively killed the additional funding for Quebec's system. The NDP, who supported the Martin plan would be placed in a philosophical conundrum. Layton and his MPs are opposed to the Harper plan. Having already supported a staged introduction of federally-funded early childhood development they will have clearly demonstrated that they made a deal with the Conservatives if they vote with the government. For both the Bloc and the NDP, it is political suicide.

But, let's say they do vote in favour. That gives the Liberals an opening to accuse both parties, but particularly the NDP, of colluding with the Conservatives to give Harper a free ride on a bill that both know will damage their credibility with constituents. Harper's government survives and he boasts that, even with a minority, he is effectively governing. The NDP and the Bloc argue that they voted with the government to spare election fatigued voters from another election. Harper gets away with it and hopes that he can survive long enough to pass another piece of "looks good on the surface" legislation, but not long enough for Canadians to realize that the combination of a GST cut and a clawed-back child care benefit amount to nothing once he repeals the previous government's income tax cuts.

If they do not vote in favour and the government falls, Harper will make every attempt to blame it on the Liberals, however, the NDP and the Bloc will have established merit with their constituents. The Liberals have not yet elected a leader. While that sounds like a chaotic way to enter an election, it doesn't necessarily have to be so. Graham is in place and is strong enough to carry the Liberals into an election - if there is one.

The Governor General has the right to weigh the matter. Given that we've been through two federal elections in less than two years she could ask the leader of the opposition to try to form a government. A Liberal/NDP coalition is still a minority, but could work. As interesting as that sounds, however, it is unlikely since Harper would ask for dissolution of parliament, as opposed to resigning, and it would be rare for the Governor General not to accept the advice of a prime minister.

Harper is gambling that Canadians haven't been paying attention to his shenanigans. He may even be right. However, any Liberal campaign would likely tear into the fact that the ethics he so loudly ran on in the last election are simply non-existent. And you could expect a strong focus on the Emerson defection and the Fortier appointment.

Harper is playing to the voters right now. His threat that he will make the child care benefit a confidence vote is stating the obvious. It's a money bill and it will be a part of the budget. Since it's a supply bill it's automatically a confidence vote. His bloviating is an act.

If it looks like a tricky strategic situation, it is. But the opposition has to see how it will be viewed in the long run. If they let Harper survive they risk alienating their respective bases and giving Harper time to consolidate a budget victory. If they bring him down the Liberals go into an election with and interim party leader but a lot of fresh ammunition.

I'd bring him down.

For another breakdown of the Conservative Child Care benefit take a look at Liberal Catnip's post on it.

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