Flaherty previews election

Elizabeth May

On Monday, I woke up to Jim Flaherty's voice.  Sunday night, I took the red eye from BC to Toronto, and after not sleeping a wink, raced to downtown Union Station and got the 6:50 am train to Ottawa.  Once in a comfortable train seat, I fell sound asleep. Sure signs that Parliament was about to resume were abundant in my travel.  On Air Canada I passed Hedy Fry in executive as I headed back to economy. And yes, that really was Jim Flaherty a few rows ahead on the train to Ottawa. He spoke softly into his cell phone, and asked to be connected with Rona Ambrose. I briefly thought of NDP MP Dick Proctor who chanced to overhear Liberal Minister Andy Scott speaking too loudly on a flight, creating a media furor.  Eavesdropping holds no charms for me, and I drifted back to sleep to Flaherty's dulcet tones.

The next day, Jim Flaherty had decidedly changed his tone. In a speech yesterday to the Canadian Club in Ottawa, the Finance Minister gave as inappropriate an address as Canadian Club audiences may have ever heard.  In talking to people who were there, they said the nasty tone and hyper-partisanship of the speech came as a rude shock.  They had expected a speech about the economy.  They got a rant.  The target was the demonized "reckless coalition of Michael Ignatieff-NDP-and the Bloc Quebecois".  Note the language. The Conservatives must have polled and focus grouped on this.  The attack on the coalition was repeated over and over again, but exactly in the same language. "Liberal" is replaced with "Michael Ignatieff."  The irony is enormous.  Ignatieff is the person who killed the coalition, who broke his word in the commitment to the coalition. Signed by every Liberal MP, Ignatieff’s signature was the last. I don't know who forced him to sign, but having spoken with him in the days the coalition was brewing, I know he wanted no part of it.

I think he was wrong.  In our system of government, the MPs elected to the House can choose a Prime Minister.  That is how parliamentary democracy works.  We have seen the truth of this in the last few months in the UK and Australia. In both countries, the election results fell short of a majority for anyone. The UK and Australian media did not herald a minority parliament.  It announced a "hung parliament". In the UK, a true coalition government emerged. In exchange for Liberal Democrat support for Conservatives in a true coalition, David Cameron agreed to a national referendum to move the UK to proportional representation.  In Australia, Labour held on with support from Greens and independents.  A bit shy of full coalition, but cooperation and clear terms to address the climate crisis and keep Julia Gillard as Australia's PM.

But Jim Flaherty's use of the threat of a coalition took us back to November 2008.  At that time, Stephen Harper's rhetoric was divisive.  Spitting out the words "socialist" and "separatist" -- as though legally elected MPs were somehow more than illegitimate. He made them sound traitorous.

And here we go again.   Somehow cooperation is not a threat in Sweden, UK, Australia and Ireland, or in the past Germany, France... the list is long. But in Canada, the very idea of our parliamentary democracy working as it should is held out as the big threat.

Flaherty's speech seemed designed to break out the pitchforks and torches.  The Canadian Club audience was in no mood for it. The speech landed like a bomb.

One last note. It seemed to those at the luncheon speech that Flaherty's heart wasn't in it.  He tried now and then to soften the harsh, incendiary nature of the speech with ad-libs and jokes.  But the nastiness had sucked the air out of the room.  It bombed.

Expect to see this scare tactic about the coalition dominate the next election. And, from the sound of Flaherty's speech, expect an election sooner than later.