Think of it as hubris. Stephen Harper's governing Conservatives are so used to seeing the opposition parties back down that they think they can get away with anything.
It seems that this time the Conservatives are wrong.
The catalyst for this remarkable state of affairs, in which the opposition parties say they are planning to unite to bring down Harper's government and replace it with one of their own, is Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's economic update – a bizarre document that bears no relation to either reality or any of the current prime minister's recent statements.
In that update, Flaherty downplays Harper's fears of a lengthy economic depression, ignores his stricture not to cut back at a time when governments should be doing more and singles out seemingly random targets in an effort to solve problems that don't exist.
Flaherty says he would cut back public service pay at a time when no one is suggesting that it is out of control. He wants to suspend the right to strike for federal employees even as the country enters a slump in which such strikes are highly unlikely. And he would put a crimp in pay equity – a program that requires Ottawa to pay women equal wages for work of equal value – although there is no evidence that the current system is either iniquitous or expensive.
Here, as Toronto lawyer Mary Cornish explains, the key is his apparent decision to end the right to appeal pay equity cases to the quasi-judicial Canadian Human Rights Commission.
The only thing that links these targets is their place in the Conservative party pantheon of villains.
If there's anything a red-meat Conservative hates more than a civil servant, it's a unionized civil servant. Indeed, the only thing worse is an uppity, female, unionized civil servant who complains to a human rights commission (which red-meat Conservatives also hate) that she's not paid enough.
In short, Flaherty's update is a standard piece of hard-right Conservative ideology, released at a time when Harper is promising to be less ideological, and just days after the Prime Minister explained why he thought his party's usual cut-and-squeeze nostrums wouldn't solve the crisis.
It is this contradiction, as much as anything, that signals the Conservatives are neither serious nor united about tackling the economy. Putting off substantive action until February, as Flaherty has suggested, is arguably reasonable. Using recession as an opportunity to ride Conservative hobby horses is not.
So how did the famously clever Harper get himself in this bind? To answer that question, recall The Sopranos. In that television show, mob leader Tony Soprano occasionally felt compelled to whack innocent bystanders – particularly after he'd demonstrated some element of human understanding – just to remind his own supporters that he was ruthless enough to be their boss.
Keep this image in mind. Keep in mind also that when Tony Soprano became too outrageous, his equally venal opponents felt compelled to stop him.
With Flaherty's update, Harper has entered outrageous territory. The opposition parties smell blood. They also know that, thanks to the peculiarities of the parliamentary system, this is their last chance to replace Harper's minority government without triggering another election.
Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday and Saturday.