Ignatieff’s Third Motive

I admit to not keeping up with all of the progressive reaction to the new Liberal-Conservative coalition. But among mainstream political pundits, there seem to be two main explanations for Igantieff’s decision to not substantively amend the budget.

First, he was unwilling to go through with the progressive coalition or risk an election, so he tried to sound tough without proposing anything to which the Conservatives could possibly object. Second, with the economy deteriorating, he did not want to put his fingerprints on the government’s economic plan. As Don Martin explained, “New rival happy to let Tories own crisis.”

There is undoubtedly much truth in both explanations but there is also a third, more fundamental reason. Igantieff could not amend the budget because the Liberals were making contradictory criticisms of it. He almost said as much when a reporter asked him why he did not propose “more substantial amendments based on the policies”:

. . . it would be irresponsible of us to propose amendments that would increase the budgetary excess. We need a balanced budget, and I feared that if we started with amendments, we would never end . . .

So, we need a balanced budget that provides more fiscal stimulus???

The Liberals want smaller deficits and more spending to create jobs, protect the vulnerable, etc. The only way these proposals could be compatible is with significantly higher revenues. But last time I checked, the Liberals also wanted deeper corporate tax cuts than the Conservatives. The Liberals are not proposing to reverse GST or personal income tax cuts either.

The Bloc’s budget sub-amendment, which the NDP supported, provides an outline of how a progressive coalition budget would have differed from Harper’s budget. Ignatieff’s inability to propose substantive amendments suggests that a Liberal budget would not have been much different from the Conservative one.

With the progressive coalition now dead (or at least in a completely vegetative state), I suggest that the whole enterprise would have fared better had my proposal from almost two years ago been followed. A major stumbling block for the coalition was Dion’s ineffectiveness as a spokesmen and implausibility as a Prime Minister. Layton would have been much stronger on both counts.

11 comments

  • That’s right – Jack on both accounts. No wonder every right wing media pundit and other party partisans are calling for his head, or saying he’s done. We know it’s crap. Iggy looks like a doormat.
    Simply, when Iggy asked Harper to “delay the equalization payment scheme that penalized NFL”, and Harper said no, Iggy went away with his tail tucked nicely between his legs. So no, the tail isn’t wagging the dog here, no matter how much Iggy parks from the porch.

  • I think all the reason come down to one. They don’t want to form a government because the want the Conservatives to be blamed for the recession.

    Saying they don’t want to lead a coalition doesn’t answer the question why they don’t.

    If they wanted to amend the budget I’m sure they could come up with something substantive that would give better party unity that what they have done.

    In the end they care more the polls and election prospects then about their principles or the well being of Canadians.

  • I like that “Iggy doesn’t have any ideas” doesn’t seem to be an option anyone considered.

  • That’s right – Iggy had no ideas except selling out for 3 spots in the media. This dog can’t hunt.

  • Good post. But based on the package actually put together by the Cons, there was indeed room to generate more effective stimulus for less cost – particularly by substituting out the income tax tinkering for measures targeted toward either more direct spending or benefits for the most vulnerable. As for why they chose not to, I’d suspect Darwin’s right that they wanted to leave as few fingerprints as possible on the final product, even if that means a worse result for Canadians in general.

    And the comments on Layton definitely look to have been on target when it comes to making him the face of the coalition. Though I suspect a good chunk of Dion’s motivation was based on avoiding the ignominy of “Liberal leader who never became PM”, so he’d have insisted on that role on paper even if Layton had been the primary spokesperson.

  • Actually, I think letting the Tories wear the recession is a clever move. If anything, the inadequate budget has guaranteed the recession will last a little longer. If this is becomes a depression, Iggy would want the Tories to be in power at least until the deepest trough of the downturn. Remember how long Mackenzie-King and Roosevelt were in power after they took over from national leaders who were at the watch when the depression started. I think it’s a case of “six months will buy you twelve years.” What a bargain.

  • Matthew Bergbusch

    Dear Mr. Weir, I have enormous respect for the economics posts you regularly on this site, but the above smacks of self-justification. Again and again over the last two years, you trumpeted the line that Mr. Dion was identical to the Martinites/business liberals who now support Ignatieff. We now have proof that this was never the case (the coalition). You came out against strategic voting, under the truly improbable premise that the NDP could supplant the Liberals as Canada’s national governing party, and the Harperites got a plurality as I and more respected commentators, such as James Laxer, feared. One used to want the NDP to govern, when folk like Bill Blaikie and Ed Broadbent ruled the party and actually had the courage to denounce inequality. But, for the last five years or so, Layton said nothing that would lead anybody to believe he is any more progressive than Paul Martin: think of Layton’s doctrinaire adherence to sound finance and deliberate undermining of national social programs through his support for Quebec nationalism. Now that we are into a recession, Layton, finally, says he is in favour of deficit finance, but he knew we would have to run deficits during the last election debate. All party leaders were dishonest on that point, but the only one who entertained the need for a deficit during the election, if only briefly (he was quickly forced to retract by the business Liberals), was Stéphane Dion. And he lost the election not because of his failings as a politician (which, admittedly, are as real as his extraordinary merits as a statesman), but because the right-wing of his party undermined him from the start. Yet, frankly, it is still from the NDP that one expects better. A strong commitment to strategic voting could have provided us with a minority Liberal government, led by a left-Liberal, and supported by the NDP. Instead we have the business-Liberal-Harperite coalition. Meanwhile, James Hanson, the world’s leading expert on climate change, says the much touted cap and trade system proposed by the NDP does not work, and that we have four years to save the earth through the imposition of strong carbon taxes. Too many NDP strategists, however, appear only to be thinking about the long-term goal of supplanting the Liberals, at a time when, more than ever, we need to be doing whatever is necessary to make massive investments in green infrastructure. Now, I concede that I may be being a little hard on the NDP, for the Liberals, as Broadbent emphasized during the election, do not deserve to be re-elected based on their unconscionable cuts in the 1990s. And I admit that the NDP is taking the correct line now, and that the NDP’s anti-Harper ads are right on the mark. Maybe touting Layton as PM IS now the way to go, despite the NDP’s massive policy mistakes over the last decade. But, going forward, I would ask you, and all other NDP supporters, not to think primarily in electoral terms, but only about how to combat climate change NOW.

  • “I think it’s a case of “six months will buy you twelve years.” What a bargain.”

    Exactly. And to the extent that Iggy can drag the liberals further to the right and the NDP can tar the liberals with their coalition with the party of the depression we could see the destruction of the Cons (reduced to a western rump again) and a resurgent NDP fighting with the bloc for official opposition.

    Sounds like a Canada I once knew.

  • Jurist, I agree that more effective stimulus could have been provided within the Conservative fiscal framework by reallocating funds from broad-based tax cuts to public spending. Indeed, because the tax cuts were permanent and entail fiscal costs in every future year, they could have been replaced with a much larger value of up-front capital investment, amortized over many future years. However, the Liberals did not propose to curtail the tax cuts.

  • Matthew, thanks for the good word and reasoned debate.

    In the last election, the NDP ran on a platform of not implementing the corporate tax cuts in order to finance more social spending. It also proposed to renegotiate NAFTA and get out of Afghanistan. How can you conclude that Layton is no more progressive than Martin?

    Since then, the NDP has proved willing to make huge compromises (including on corporate taxes and Afghanistan) in order to replace the Harper government with a coalition. This prospective coalition flopped not because of anything the NDP did, but because the Liberals ultimately sided with Harper. At the risk of further self-justification, this Liberal decision invalidates “strategic” voting as an anti-Harper strategy.

    I do not see how further “strategic” voting to elect more Liberals could have improved matters. As it was, the Liberal Party hung onto enough seats to establish a progressive coalition government with the NDP (and Bloc support) had it opted to do so. If enough additional Liberals had somehow been elected to form a majority, we certainly would not have had a progressive coalition.

  • Erin said:

    “At the risk of further self-justification, this Liberal decision invalidates “strategic” voting as an anti-Harper strategy.”

    Not if it means preventing a Conservative majority, which, despite the above, I don’t think you really want to see (I sure don’t).

    And what about the poor sods like me who live in an area that’s been controlled by Conservative-types pretty much since Confederation? The NDP comes off as a _very_ distant third here. All I can do vote-wise is vote for the Conservatives not to get in here and hope other ridings, where progressive parties have more chance, can collectively keep both Conservatives and Liberals out.

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