One of my most favorite parts of one of my most favorite movies - Reservoir Dogs - comes when almost all of the major characters gun each other down at the end. There is a Shakespearean flare to the mutual assured self-destruction that unfolds. In a way, it helps make a complex story all neat and tidy at the end when all of the major characters are dead. Perhaps it's just me.
I had opportunity to recall the ending of Reservoir Dogs while reading this morning about how Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided to introduce legislation enabling the Harmonized Sales Tax in Ontario and British Columbia. The HST has become the elephant in the room, a federal initiative that has so far manifested in significant provincial political controversy.
Both the Ontario and B.C. governments have seen political opponents score points by opposing the HST. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in particular has seen a precipitous rise in support for the Ontario Tories on the back of this issue.
The federal Conservatives have not, to date, suffered a direct hit of their own. As a result, Harper continues to push the HST agenda, hoping that it will weaken his opponents more than it will his own government.
In the Conservative play book, introducing HST legislation will put Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in a tough spot. Ignatieff and most of his caucus have supported the HST; in fact, it was a Liberal government that first introduced the concept in Atlantic Canada in the mid 1990s. Ignatieff swore earlier this fall that he would stop supporting the government on anything that was a confidence matter. Harper is calling that bluff with a wager that Ignatieff won't flip flop on his own support for the HST, and that he won't risk pissing off Liberal premiers in B.C. and Ontario to score political points in Ottawa.
It is a dilemma for Ignatieff, a leader who has been eviscerated by Tory attack ads and hobbled by his own horrible lack of direction. But the Liberals are not alone in facing peril; the Conservatives as well may seem some self-inflicted pain out of this equation.
A briefing document that outlines talking points for the HST bill, obtained and published in The Globe and Mail, tries to frame the HST bill as a simple black and white, yes or no issue. Either the opposition supports this bill, and thus the HST in principle, or they don't. If the opposition bands together and defeats the bill, the briefing notes states the Tories will drop the issue and not revisit it.
This is where Ignatieff is supposed to fall into the bear trap. Oppose the HST bill, and you will have infuriated McGuinty and B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, who have both endured a robust political attack over plans to implement the HST.
I'll suggest that may not be a problem, or at least not the problem that Harper thinks it is. In B.C., it has never been clear that Campbell has been a big supporter of the federal party. And the HST is becoming so unpopular in B.C. that it might make more sense for the federal Grits to oppose the bill.
It is more problematic for Ignatieff in Ontario, but only if Ignatieff rejects the HST outright. The federal Tories seem to forget that the opposition could oppose this bill but still support a harmonized tax. In Manitoba, for example, Premier Greg Selinger supports the notion of an HST, but opposes the terms of the deal being offered by Ottawa. In particular, Selinger does not think Ottawa is offering enough compensation for provinces, who not only lose millions of dollars in tax rebates to businesses but also have to spend millions more on exemptions and tax cuts to soften the blow for consumers.
Ignatieff could tell Harper to reconfigure the HST offer, and sweeten the pot. In this scenario, he could keep the support of HST fans, especially the business lobby, and curry support from consumers, who fear it is just a tax grab.
One must also wonder what this bill, introduced now, is doing to Tory opposition parties. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservatives are faring very well in polls by attacking McGuinty on the HST. How do the federal Tories reconcile that trend with their own increasingly desperate needs to get the HST implemented from coast to coast?
With each new development in this story, it seems that we're getting closer and closer to a Reservoir Dogs ending where all the major players are lying bloody and motionless, dead and dying at their own hands. And then there will be only one thing left to do.
Let's get a taco.