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December 3, 2008

Tories worried about Obama effect

CANADA - When Barack Obama was elected next president of the United States it was an electrifying night one month ago. Hope for change, democracy, freedom of speech and equality united 53% of American voters.

In Canada we've seen something different. 37% of Canadians voted Conservative... and 53% voted Liberal/NDP/Green and 10% voted Bloc. (40.9% of Canadians were so disenfranchised they didn't even vote.)

The problem however is that due to vote splitting the Conservatives managed to get a minority government, but due to Stephen Harper's poor leadership skills the other parties (which have a majority of the seats) have decided a Liberal minority government would be better and on December 8th will vote no confidence in the Tory government.

Now it begins to make sense why Stephen Harper rushed to the polls for an October election.

The last thing Harper would have wanted was to run for re-election after Americans had chosen a historic figure who promised to overturn George W. Bush's agenda to which Harper had so resolutely clung.

In particular, Harper was saddled with a history of lining up ever so close to Bush on two vital issues of growing importance – resistance to addressing climate change and an unwillingness to abandon discredited neo-conservative economic policies. Obama had talked eloquently during the campaign about overturning the Bush stance on both.

Harper may be many things but he's not dim-witted. After the Obama victory – which produced near euphoria in Canada – Harper realized he had to abandon (or at least disguise) his Bush-era mentality.

And for a while he did, approaching the Obama camp about a U.S.-Canada deal on greenhouse gas emissions, and signing onto the Obama-led chorus calling for Keynesian-style economic stimulus. Harper even urged running up deficits, the once unforgivable political sin that now seems less controversial than community organizing.

But, as the government's economic update revealed last week, Harper can suppress his deep right-wing urges only so long before they start erupting in the most embarrassing ways. His economic update was almost incoherent.

In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the '30s, the document was severely lacking in economic stimulus, even reporting plans for a small surplus (whatever happened to Harper's new best friend, the deficit?) and was full of old-style partisan backstabbing and public sector union bashing. It was more like Sarah Palin than Barack Obama.

Accustomed to bullying the opposition into submission, Harper apparently hadn't noticed that, where there had once been nothing but mushy soft stuff, the Liberal party had miraculously grown a spine.

Let's hope it doesn't shrivel. A Liberal-NDP coalition, headed temporarily by lame duck Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion (likely to be replaced by Bob Rae), promises to be a superior government to one run by Harper. Any last-ditch attempt by Harper to prove himself – promising deficits from sea to sea to sea – have little credibility. We've all seen what this guy does when he thinks he can get away with it.

Certainly, there is much that a Liberal-NDP government could accomplish – on the economy, on climate change, on poverty. The Liberals are always at their best when they feel the hot NDP breath of social justice tickling at their necks.

When the NDP held the balance of power federally from 1972 to 1974, the Liberals introduced a national affordable housing program, pension indexing and a national oil company. The Liberal-NDP accord in Ontario led to the first provincial pay equity legislation in 1987.

It's true that a majority of Canadians didn't choose Dion to be prime minister. But the same is true of Harper, a polarizing figure who only won 21.8% of potential voters provokes intense negative reactions in many Canadians.

During the 2008 election there was much talk of strategic voting among Liberals, NDP and Greens – anything to stop another Harper government. A substantial 63 per cent of voters cast ballots in the hopes of electing someone other than Harper.

Tonight Stephen Harper will address the nation, in the hopes of convincing Canadians that 37% of popular vote (or 21.8% of potential voters) is democratic. It isn't. The Liberals/NDP/Greens are the MAJORITY. They got 53% of the vote. The Bloc's 10% is a different matter.

What we are seeing is a fail-safe mechanism of democracy, entirely democratic and constitutional, employed to protect the system from being hijacked by a bully. Harper can be proud he won his minority government, but he lacked the leadership skills to compromise and keep it afloat.

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