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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

If we must go to the polls, please, no more minority governments Add to ...

No more minority governments.

Whatever happens in the November election that now appears all but certain, Canadians should end this string of minority governments.

Minority governments are okay when economic times are good, or when governments can justify massive new spending. That's what has happened under the Harper Conservatives for four years with their minority status: big tax cuts and big spending.

First, the Harperites eliminated the fiscal surplus they had inherited with tax cuts and spending. Then, they pushed a barely balanced budget into a large deficit with huge new spending to deal with the recession.

Fiscally speaking, the Harperites haven't made a difficult decision yet. The only decisions they have made have been the easy ones: cutting taxes and raising spending.

But as Canada crawls out of the recession and confronts the debt it has incurred, hard decisions will be required - as in tax increases and/or spending cuts. Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page properly warned of these hard decisions this week, suggesting a firm schedule for debt repayment.

Quite soon, Mr. Page said, the costs of an aging population and the renewal of Ottawa's health-care accord with the provinces will be adding tens of billions of additional dollars to Ottawa's obligations. He was right to urge debate about the options soon, but his advice will certainly be ignored in a campaign that bids fair to be about anything but debate over hard decisions.

Only a majority government, or maybe a German-like "grand coalition" of Conservatives and Liberals, would have the political guts to make those hard decisions. Another minority, Conservative or Liberal, would choose the paths of least resistance and avoid hard decisions.

Yesterday, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff declared that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "time is up." The Liberals, he said, were withdrawing support for the government, and would move to defeat it in early October.

Mr. Ignatieff gave himself no wiggle room, a rather daring position given the old adage about a week being a long time in politics and the widespread nervousness within his ranks about the wisdom of an early election, the fourth in five years.

Similarly, it's bizarre for Mr. Ignatieff to hurl down the electoral gauntlet, then head off to China. Mr. Ignatieff put Canada into pre-election mode as of yesterday, but Canadian voters don't live in Harbin or Beijing.

With Mr. Ignatieff in China, Mr. Harper and his government will presumably intensify what they have been doing all summer and what the Prime Minister did yesterday: making staged announcements with costs running from a few thousands of dollars to the hundreds of millions.

Not since the Trudeau Liberals desperately tried to buy popularity in 1977 and 1978 by sprinkling spending everywhere have we witnessed such a federal announcement machine. Every day, somewhere in Canada - and often in three or four places - Mr. Harper, his ministers and MPs are announcing spending on some plan or program.

When a government literally has tens of billions of dollars to spend, it rolls out announcements without many people realizing that, technically speaking, the recession is over, and that most of the money being announced will be spent in 2010 and 2011 when the economy won't need it.

Mr. Harper jumped off the announcement machine yesterday long enough to respond pitch-perfectly to the Ignatieff threat, saying he would concentrate on the economy rather than play "political games."

Indeed, it remained unclear from Mr. Ignatieff's fiery remarks exactly what he was demanding of the government to justify an election that in June he had argued Canadians did not want. For some unexplained reason, they apparently desire one in November.

Mr. Ignatieff flayed the government for not explaining how it would reduce the deficit, without saying what he would do. He criticized the government's stimulus package, without saying if he would have added to it. Did he want more or less spending? It was not clear.

He kept insisting that "we [meaning Canadians]can do better," which is undoubtedly true in theory, without explaining just where and how in practice.

Presumably, a lot of Liberals felt too uncomfortable with themselves not opposing the government. They said their electoral decision was "principled," which meant that in this case, as is usual in politics, it was not. Instead, it was a political calculation, the accuracy of which will be known in a few months.

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