â€œSMALL earthquake in Chile, not many hurtâ€ is legendary in journalistic circles as the most boring headline of all time.Â Well, there has just been a very small political earthquake in Canada, leaving no visible casualties at all.
So why did 77% of Canadians who were polled on the subject last week say that they were â€œtruly frightenedâ€ for the future of the country?
Canada is the safest country on the planet. It is best placed of all the G-8 countries to weather the coming recession: its governments over the past decade consistently produced small budget surpluses and paid the national debt down. It is far enough north to be largely immune to the negative effects of climate change.
It has no dangerous neighbours, and no borders under pressure from refugees. Maybe Canadians were just bored.
The man who shook Canadians out of their boredom and gave them the opportunity to be outraged and scared is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a politician so hyper-partisan that he is widely believed to lie awake at night dreaming up new ways to humiliate and crush the opposition parties.
Harper has never actually persuaded Canadians to give his conservative party a majority in parliament, but in government he has always behaved as if his minority were a majority, defying the divided and under-funded opposition parties to unite against him and risk an election they would probably lose.
Last October he forced an early election himself, and sure enough the Conservatives increased their seats in parliament – but not enough to form a majority government.
Nothing daunted, Harper ignored the parliamentary mathematics and launched a headlong attack on all the opposition parties at once. In an â€œinterim budget statementâ€ late last month, he announced that he was cancelling the federal subsidies, calculated on the basis of how many people voted for each party, that keep the opposition parties in business.
The Conservatives, like the Obama Democrats in the United States, have perfected the art of raising funds directly from their supporters, and have little need of federal subsidies. Perhaps the other parties should have done the same, but they didnâ€™t. If the subsidies were suddenly withdrawn, they faced insolvency. It was typical ofÂ Harperâ€™s aggressive tactics, but untypical in its sheer stupidity.
By threatening the three opposition parties with political extinction, Harper forced them to unite and take him down ÂÂÂÂâ€” which they had the parliamentary numbers to do. Within days the Liberals and the New Democrats had formed a coalition and got a pledge of support for eighteen months from the Bloc Quebecois.
(The BQ did not join the coalition since it is a nationalist party that is dedicated to taking Quebec out of the Canadian federation, but BQ leader Gilles Duceppe promised to support the coalition on money bills and other confidence measures where defeat would bring it down.)
At this point Harper tried to pull out of his kamikaze dive, withdrawing his plan to end subsidies to political parties and several other proposals that had deeply annoyed the opposition parties, but it was too late.
Asked if Harperâ€™s concessions would make him reconsider his support for the coalition, Gilles Duceppe replied tartly:Â â€œIf my grandmother had wheels, she would be a tractor.â€
Having been scorned and brutalised by Harper for years, the opposition now had the bit between their teeth, and insisted that they would vote the Conservatives out as soon as parliament reconvened.
So Harper refused to reconvene parliament, first postponing it for a week until December 8 and then persuading or bullying Governor-General Michaelle Jean into â€œproroguingâ€ (ie adjourning) it for almost two months. Liberal MP Justin Trudeau compared it to â€œpulling the fire alarm before going into an exam you know youâ€™re going to failâ€.
Harper will spend the next two months waging a demagogic propaganda caampaign damning the â€˜unholyâ€ Liberal alliance with the â€œsocialistâ€ New Democrats (most of whom would fit comfortably into the left wing of the Democratic Party in the US) and the â€œseparatistâ€ Bloc Quebecois (which never mentions the word separatism these days, since that option is virtually dead in Quebec).
He may succeed in poisoning the wells as he retreats, but he still faces a parliamentary confidence vote in late January or early February. If the coalition does not break up in the meantime, he will still lose. Which matters scarcely at all.
Canada is not in an economic crisis. Its economy is still growing (unlike that of the United States), and the Bank of Montreal recently predicted that unemployment would only rise to 7,5% next year (from the current 6,2%).
Any emergency economic measures that are needed will merely be to align the Canadian response with that of the incoming Obama administration in the United States, Canadaâ€™s biggest trading partner. They would be about the same whether the Conservatives or the new coalition were in power.
It is a very small earthquake, and nothing has been hurt except peopleâ€™s feelings. Still, it will help to keep the blood flowing during the long Canadian winter.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.