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Subsidy sabre-rattling helps Harper create false coalition choice

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

The federal political leaders are deeply enmeshed in the lead-up to an election that may or may not occur, crisscrossing the country, testing messages, making announcements.

But the big news is not that Stephen Harper promised Thursday to strike a committee to look at cutting red tape - when did a committee ever do anything except create red tape? - but rather that he has declared he will fight the next election, in part, on the question of public subsidies for political parties.

Eliminating those subsidies "will be a clear plank on our platform," he told Postmedia News. This is another way of Mr. Harper warning voters that they must choose next time between a Conservative majority or a Liberal-NDP coalition. It's all balderdash, but it will be a core Conservative message nonetheless.

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A bit of context: When Jean Chrétien banned corporate and union donations to political parties in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, he undercut his own party's fundraising machine. To compensate, legislation granted each political party a stipend based on the number of votes it received in the last election. The Conservatives would eliminate that stipend, forcing parties to raise funds from individual donors.

This would eviscerate the Bloc Québécois' principal source of revenue, forcing it to compete with the Parti Québécois for financial support in Quebec. It would also undermine the efforts of the Green Party to win its first seat in Parliament.

But it's the Liberals whom the Conservatives are really targeting. The Tories have a sophisticated fundraising machine and a core group of supporters who can be counted on to write cheques rather than see the socialist hordes from Toronto return to power. The Liberals are getting better at fundraising, but they still lag the Conservatives.

If Mr. Harper reintroduces the legislation to eliminate public financing, they will combine with the Bloc and the NDP to defeat the bill, possibly triggering a repeat of the situation in 2008, when the opposition tried to bring down the government over party subsidies by forming a Liberal-NDP coalition. That, at any rate, is what the Conservatives would like you to think.

Fundamental to the Tory strategy is this simple message: "Next time if there is not a Conservative majority, the other parties will form a different government," as Mr. Harper put it. "Last time they waited too long and it was too late. Next time, they will do it right out of the gate."

This message flies in the face of political reality. If the Conservatives have by far the most seats after the next election, but still fall short of a majority, they will govern, just as they governed after the elections of 2006 and 2008.

If the result is close, in the popular vote as well as the seat count, then anything is possible, from a coalition to an accord - such as that to which the Liberals and NDP agreed in Ontario in 1985 - to something more ad hoc.

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But that's not what Mr. Harper wants you to contemplate. Après moi, la coalition, he warns. It's a false choice, but that won't stop him from asking you to choose.

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