Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Setting the stage

A couple of weeks back, I mused about what different types of public stances from the Libs might mean in determining the likelihood of their voting down the Cons' budget in favour of the democratic coalition. But now that the Libs have had their opportunity to frame a position before the budget is unveiled, let's take a look at what it might mean.

Starting off with the seeming downside, the Libs have conspicuously failed to say much about the actual coalition deal with the NDP, perhaps wasting a significant opportunity in the process.

After all, even assuming that the Libs need to leave open the possibility of voting for the budget in order to ensure that Harper allows a vote to take place, it would seem possible to preserve a full range of options while still working to boost the actual example of how a coalition might work. Instead, the Libs have offered some defence of the idea of a coalition in theory, but with little mention of the one which might actually come into being - which means that the Cons' messaging from December which tried to cut the NDP and the Bloc out of the Canadian political picture hasn't faced the opposition that it could have.

That said, there's plenty of possible good news as well. Perhaps most significantly, the Libs' public discussion of a shadow budget would make little sense if they didn't perceive a significant opportunity to put that budget into place. And the fact that the Libs will have their own budget plan ready for public presentation should help to nudge the Libs toward the more favourable type of decision-making process: rather than merely deciding whether Harper's plan meets some bare standard of adequacy, they'll figure to be able to make their decision based on the question of which plan is actually better.

In addition, more than a few Libs have picked up on the message that Harper has lost the trust of Parliament. And there wouldn't appear to be much way to reconcile that acknowledgment with a decision to keep Harper in power when the opportunity to replace him presents itself.

Finally, there's what may be the most interesting development: the Libs' recent message that they won't approach Michaelle Jean with the coalition, but would serve as a government only if asked.

On its face, that could easily be interpreted as a sign of reluctance about the coalition. But I have to wonder if it might instead serve as both a means of defusing Con-stoked anger about the coalition, and framing expectations in the event that the coalition comes to pass.

On the public opinion side, one of the Cons' most frequent criticisms of the coalition has been to try to paint the parties involved as hungry for power. But that may be a much more difficult narrative to sell if the Libs make it clear that they're not asking the Governor-General for the position.

And similarly, there's probably an argument to be made that a party which makes a clear statement that it wants to take over the reins immediately should face a higher standard than one which takes power only based on somebody else's request in the national interest.

All of which is to say that while the Libs have still been shy about saying much positive about the coalition (presumably to avoid any lingering associations if they do lose their nerve on the budget vote), there's still a strong case to be made that their messaging has nicely kept the option open. Which means that once again, the main question looks to be whether they'll take the opportunity when the time comes.

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