After threatening time and again to bring down Stephen Harper’s minority government, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff finally found his spine. On March 25, he introduced the non-confidence motion after Speaker Peter Milliken declared the Harper government guilty on two counts of contempt of Parliament. First, it was revealed that Canadian International Aid Agency (CIDA) Minister Bev Oda inserted the word “not” to a funding memo for KAIROS, a Christian aid agency, and then lied about doing so in committee testimony. Second, Harper did not, as required, properly disclose the cost of his crime policies or the cost of new F-35 fighter jets.
Scandal is nothing new to federal politics, but until now no government had been so brazenly unethical and criminal that Parliament, itself, deemed it unfit to rule. In truth, Ignatieff’s decision to introduce the motion was made for him. Anything less, and he might as well have painted a yellow stripe down his back and declared the Liberal Party defunct.
Right now, the odds of such a scenario seem remote, given the Harperites’ inexplicably high standing in the polls, but the example of the January 2006 election shows that this advantage could easily evaporate.
As the table above shows, the minority Liberal government held roughly a five-point lead at the start of the 39th federal election, but by the end of the campaign it had turned into an 8-10 point deficit. The fall is directly attributable to residual disgust over the sponsorship scandal, a $100 million federal pork-barrel project designed to benefit certain Quebec-based communications agencies.
The scandal, which came to light in spring 2002, cost the Liberals their majority status in the 2004 election, but significany this slip did not translate into support for Harper. Although the Liberal share of the popular vote fell (43.8% to 36.7%), so did the Harperite share (32.1% to 29.6%). The big beneficiary was the NDP, more than doubling its share (6.2% to 15.7%).
If Harper ever had a chance to lead his party to a majority it was in 2006 when the Liberals were at their most vulnerable; however, most Canadians, especially in Ontario, don’t trust Harper, and as a result. the electorate wanted to vote the Liberals out without voting the Harperites in.
Now, it’s Harper’s turn to lead a scandal-ridden minority into an election, but this time the government’s misconduct is immeasurably worse. Whereas the 2002-2006 Liberal governments were merely venal in their misconduct, Harper’s governments were criminal. Not only did Harper lie to Parliament concerning funding for KAIROS and the costs of fighter jets, but a leaked report from the auditor-general suggests that he acted unethically and possibly illegally when he got Parliament to approve $50 million from the G8 Economic Summit fund for 32 pork-barrel projects for the industry minister’s riding. The House can expel any MP found to have engaged in criminal activity.
Adding to the possibility of an anti-Harper minority or coalition government is Harper himself. His imperious arrogance and disdain for civil rights may alienate voters more than any formal misconduct.
For example, University of Western Ontario student Awish Aslam was banned from attending a Harperite event merely because her Facebook page has pictures of her with Ignatieff and Layton. Later, Joanna MacDonald, a fourth-year environmental sciences student at Guelph University, was asked to leave a similar event because her name had been flagged by the RCMP, which was screening attendees on behalf of the government.
The RCMP took the blame for the action and stopped acting as Harper’s personal gatekeeper, but the federal police force was not responsible for violating Aslam’s or MacDonald’s rights. The RCMP only follow orders, and such orders have to come from politicians; that is, the order to screen had to have come from Harper.
Harper’s unfitness to govern was not lost on Ignatieff, who delivered what can only be considered a knock-out blow in the English-language televised debate. Around 42 minutes into the debate, he demolished Harper’s pretension to a majority government:
“But Mr. Harper, you haven’t earned a majority. Majorities are things you earn when you earn the trust of Canadian people and you haven’t earned the trust of the Canadian people because you don’t trust the Canadian people.
“Why just two weeks ago at a meeting in London, you threw somebody out of your meeting because you didn’t like what was on their [sic] Facebook page. There was a veteran who wanted to get into one of your meetings and you tossed them [sic] out because you thought, ‘Oh my God. He might ask me a difficult question….’ This isn’t strong leadership, Mr. Harper, this is weak leadership. What are you afraid of?…”
Well, to answer Ignatieff’s question, the answer would be: accountability. Harper violates Canadian and international law, especially regarding the Middle East, as a matter of policy, so it’s not surprising that he fears criticism, and shuns his own people.
Like the 2006 Liberals, Harper has nowhere to go but down. That’s all the good news voters need to know.