Art of the Poison Pill

Political earth scorching.

By Fred Stenson

Do outgoing political parties employ poison pills? That is, would a ruling party, knowing it’s about to lose an election, do something to mess up the incoming government?

Some think it’s an idiotic idea: conspiracy, fantasy, junk-think. For starters, when has a government known it was going to lose? Many ruling parties are shocked by defeat. Did Harper know Trudeau was going to whip him in 2015? The last polls called for a Liberal minority, but, for the sake of this argument, I’ll say Harper didn’t know and so was unlikely—even if he’d had the will—to pass legislation that would blow up in Trudeau’s face.

What about the Alberta PCs in 2015? Did they know they were going down? Forty-four years of winning can make defeat seem impossible, and at times in the campaign, Jim Prentice’s Prog-Cons displayed the swagger of the certain winner. Even if the PCs sensed their vulnerability after Notley KO’d Prentice in the televised debate, it was too late to plant a poison pill. So why am I even on about it? Does it ever happen? Can I prove it?

Let’s consider Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. When Chrétien stepped down as PM in 2003 most politics-watchers knew Martin would succeed him. The former was also known to dislike the latter. They had contended bitterly for the leadership in 1990, with Chrétien the victor, and even though Martin was brilliant as Chrétien’s finance minister, friction remained. Tired of waiting for the boss to retire, Martin stepped temporarily out of political life.

The possible poison pill in this case was the Quebec sponsorship scandal brought on by shadowy Liberal practices to advance federalism in Quebec. AdScam was barely contained when Chrétien retired. Martin inherited it. Being an honest sort, Martin launched the Gomery Inquiry. Shocking levels of criminal fraud came to light and the media feasted for months. Dogged by scandal and a reputation for crookedness, the Martin Liberals lost in 2006. The Harper era began.

“Surely you’re not saying Mr. Chrétien created the sponsorship scandal so it could blow up in Martin’s face?”

Surely I’m not. But Chrétien did control one thing about the scandal: the timing. He could have launched an AdScam inquiry himself, seen it through and then retired. The public would have placed more blame on Chrétien, but Martin’s Liberals would have had a better chance against Harper. Instead, Martin came to power and had to deal with AdScam himself. After his 2006 election loss, Martin left politics.

When the red ink began to flow in NDP budgets, Alberta’s old PC hands had to be smirking. They took their gold-plated pensions and tiptoed away.

I’ve also heard an argument about a possible poison pill involving the Harper Conservatives and the Phoenix Pay System. Since early 2016 this computerized centralized payment system has been routinely failing to pay public employees what they’re owed. Hardly a week goes by without a fresh story about Liberal failures to fix the problem.

Less commonly reported is why Harper’s Conservative government began the Phoenix project in 2009. Harper said it would save $70-million a year by cutting a workforce of 2,400 down to 550. Fiscal conservatives love announcing the replacement of something outmoded and worker-heavy with something automated and worker-lean. A fortune saved! They’re often not around when the market-economist wet dream turns into a nightmare.

Like AdScam, Phoenix was a screwup waiting to happen. Mr. Harper had to know Phoenix would fail, because civil service and IT specialists were telling him so daily. Harper, however, was in charge of timing the Phoenix rollout. If he unveiled it before the election, its performance would be campaign news. If he waited, it wouldn’t. At very least, it must have been an amusing thought that, if he lost, the inexperienced Trudeau government would be the ones explaining the bugs. Amen.

Final case: Alberta, 2015. By the time the PCs lost to the NDP that spring, the province was in deep trouble. World oil prices had flopped like something wet, heavy and unlikely to bounce. In 44 years the PCs had saved with all the discipline of a 20-year-old. Ignoring infrastructure needs—pushing spending onto future governments—was PC tradition long before Ralph Klein made it a religion in the 1990s.

By 2015 Alberta’s biggest oil sands players were looking into the future and not seeing high-cost oil in the forecast. Quietly they made new plans, while Albertans, conditioned to prosperity, asked their government to wave a wand and fix it all.

I’m not saying Alberta’s Conservatives orchestrated their own collapse. Nor am I saying they saw it coming. But when the ocean of red ink began to flow in NDP budgets, the old hands had to be smirking. They took their gold-plated pensions and tiptoed away. Alberta itself had become a poison pill—quite a historical achievement.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.

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