Canada's Conservative government is desperately trying to stave off the vote that will oust it after just seven weeks in power. Taking its place could be an unholy alliance of losing, socialist and seperatist parties whose one point of agreement is that they hate the Tories even more than they hate each other

Beware the political bully – not for what he or she can do to political foes, but for the comeuppance bullies from schoolyards to debating chambers ultimately reap. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper – regularly referred to within and without his caucus as a bully – has thrown one punch or pulled one pigtail too many and is now the one wetting his pants.

After seven weeks he’s about to be turfed off the Treasury Benches and be replaced by an opposition coalition that can most politely be described as unholy. As one of Canada’s daily newspapers – the right wing National Post - headlined “WHAT THE #!%*?

Hard to put it more precisely really.

A postage stamp guide to the crisis is as follows: a swaggering Harper refusing to accept he is a minority government used last week’s economic fiscal update to kneecap his political foes by introducing ideological changes such as abolishing public election funding for political parties, temporarily suspending the rights of public servants to strike and wiping out pay equity litigation, amongst other brilliant ideas. What he didn’t include in the fiscal update was any stimulus package for Canada, preferring to gloat that it was going to fare the best of all the G8 countries. He had cause to believe the opposition parties would take the poke in the eye as they’d been forced to do during his last minority rule. Bad move, Stephen. At some stage, victims who survive bullying begin to fight back.

Welcome to Canada – a country where the losers are about to be the winners, where the winners are losing. It is on the brink of being dubbed the coldest banana republic in the world. Here is why.

Liberal leader Stephan Dion led his party to a historic low in the October election and promised to resign as leader as soon as a replacement could be found. Dion’s departure date is scheduled for May 2009.

However, after a chicken dinner with the three men vying for his job – Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc – they reached an arrangement under which Dion would be Prime Minister of a coalition with the more socialist New Democratic Party and the separatist Quebec-only party, the Bloc Quebecois. There’s no nice way of saying that these parties actually hate each others’ guts, but clearly they detest Harper even more.

The Liberals and the NDP have signed a deal to work together for two and a half years, and the Bloc has agreed to give them support on confidence and supply measures for the next 18 months.

So here’s the key loser from the last election – the Liberals – wallowing in the pit of political expedience with the NDP. Both will be propped up by the party whose raison d’être is for Quebec to split from Canada. Topping it all off was an Oscar wining performance in signing a deal they have now placed in the hands of the Governor General. The GG has cut short a European tour to high-tail it back to clean up the mess.

The coalition maneuver has been quickly expedited so it would be ready for the confidence vote on Harper’s so-called fiscal update, which was supposed to have been Monday this week. But Harper delayed a week to buy time as the full horror of his hubris hit him on the jaw.

As the reality of his own stupidity has settled, Harper is now scrabbling for constitutional options. They are few, and none to the PM’s taste, let alone his political survival.

In a ridiculous move, the Conservatives have begun a public relations war, trying to convince Canadians that they should be allowed to continue, while any cobbled-together rag-tag bunch of losers and separatists should be sent packing. However, public opinion counts only when there is an election, and there is every indication that Governor General Michaëlle Jean will not want to plunge the country into another $300 million dollar fiasco simply because, once again, Harper has thrown his toys out of the cot.

October’s election – the third in five years – was because Harper believed he could secure a majority. He won a few more seats, but otherwise it was a groundhog day experience.

He of all people should realize that democracy is expensive, and it is messy.

The GG does not take into account Conservative accusations that the opposition parties are blatantly grabbing power that they are not entitled to. Elections after all do not elect governments, they elect parliaments and it is from parliaments that government are formed. The three opposition parties represent more Canadians than the ruling Conservative minority, so Harper is hoist on his own petard as far as that argument goes.

Possibly the most cowardly but only real option facing the Prime Minister is to try to prorogue – or defer– Parliament after just ten sitting days and no legislative action. This would be unprecedented and could blow up in his face – if he has any face left.

It would appear cowardly, precisely because it is evident that he can’t face a vote. Any Prime Minister who needs to dash out of town to avoid facing the music when he wrote the score hardly deserves such a position of power. He deserves neither the confidence of the House at whose pleasure his government serves, nor the confidence of Canadians no matter how desperate they are to avoid another election. He may run, but he cannot hide.

The GG has every right to deny any plea to dissolve a Parliament that was only elected barely two months ago.

While it is easy to be harsh on the prospects of Dion’s double-combo surviving the time-frame set out, the parties deserve credit for a historic broadside that has rattled Harper’s team to its very sorry core. What we don't yet know is exactly how much has been promised to the separatists to keep them on side, other than greatly enhancing their status both within Quebec and throughout the rest of the country they so want to leave.

Harper’s demeanour to date shows it is not within his DNA to accept defeat, so he is vowing to take any legal means possible to prevent what he incorrectly refers to as a coup d’état by Dion.

Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, there is now no going back for Canadian politics. Harper will lose the top job either next Monday, or if he manages to convince the GG to prorogation, he will be left to drag his team towards a January 27 Budget, which will be voted down. He of course is banking on the alternative government coalition losing steam in the time between now and that Budget. It may be winter, but there are no signs of cooling heads on Parliament Hill.

If the Government accepts defeat on Monday, Harper could then ask for an election. He however knows that despite his rantings to the contrary, it is purely democratic and constitutional for the GG to protect Parliament and allow Dion’s dream of being Prime Minister to finally take form.

While Harper is crying foul that power must be earned and not taken, he needs to have a good long look in the mirror. His inability to focus on the economic crisis, which included this week’s biggest drop ever in the Toronto Stock Exchange, is not any way to earn power. It is power squandered. His own willingness to do a deal with the Bloc when he was in opposition trying to oust Paul Martin’s Liberal administration is proof of hypocrisy.

He may accuse Dion of being about to play the biggest political game in history, but Harper himself has played that game and he lost.

If the Governor General allows the government to limp on until January by dent of taking its bat and ball and going home, it does so with zero credibility. Harper’s rather wet shorts are now down around his ankles for all Canadians to see. That smell coming from Ottawa is raw political fear. It is not pretty.

Comments (10)

by Graeme Edgeler on December 03, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

The GG has every right to deny any plea to dissolve a Parliament that was only elected barely two months ago.

In New Zealand, it would be an obligation.

If Harper doesn't have majority support in the House of Commons (whether there's a vote to prove it or not), then he should be operating under the cartaker convention, and the Goveror-General should only be following his advice on matters where there is support.

If there's a majority of a Parliament opposed to an early election, then in a parliamentary democracy, there shouldn't be one, even if the person who previously held parliamentary support as PM disagrees. This point was made quite clear in a 2006 speech by our then Governor-General, Dame Sylvia Cartwright:

During this period, the caretaker Prime Minister’s power to advise the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call an early election is subject to the caretaker convention – that is, it requires the support of a majority of the House.

by Conor Roberts on December 03, 2008
Conor Roberts
Can Haper actually prorogue the house? What's the mechanism for doing this? Wouldn't Haper need a majority to do so?
by Andrew Geddis on December 03, 2008
Andrew Geddis

Conor,

To prorogue the House, an Order in Council is needed ... signed by the Governor General. So here's the $64,000 question - will the GG sign such an order on Harper's advice when Harper appears to have lost the confidence of the House?
I think Graeme's point holds for Canada too ... the GG shouldn't collude in what is an obvious attempt to avoid losing a confidence motion.

 

by Conor Roberts on December 04, 2008
Conor Roberts

Seems like a pretty scary precedent if the GG allows a Prime Minister to prorogue parliament just because he might loose a confidence motion. What’s to stop a PM simply doing that anytime it looks like he could loose a vote? Seems that allowing this kind of move undermines the authority of parliament…

 

Got my vote for biggest constitutional crisis in a Westminster democracy since 1975.

by Jane Young on December 04, 2008
Jane Young
Canadian criris update.... PM Stephen Harper addressed the nation this evening - in five minutes he presented a smiling, reasonable face but content was nothing short of an election campaign message. Quite a contrast in terms of his scremaing in the House during Question Time this avo. He was followed by a similar reasoned message from Stephan Dion - also noticeably toned down from his performance in Parliament today and yesterday. The missing link: - the future of the current minority government is a question of constitutional legality, not public relations. Governor General Michaelle Jean arrived back in Canada tonight and will meet with Harper in the morning. All bets are he is going to ask her to agree to suspend parliament. Her decision will be historic as no Canadian adminsitration has ever before asked for prorogation at the beginning of a term so as to avoid a confidence vote. Constitutional experts sharpen your pencils!
by Conor Roberts on December 04, 2008
Conor Roberts

Jane, did the networks allow the NDP and BQ to also give an address?

by Conor Roberts on December 04, 2008
Conor Roberts

Ignore that. Read all about it here.

Sounds like Doin didn't do a very good job.

by Andrew Geddis on December 05, 2008
Andrew Geddis

So, Michaelle Jean granted Harper's request to prorogue! I think she may have got this one wrong on basic Westminster principles - she's basically allowed him to (temporarily) defeat the will of the majority of the House, in circumstances where he demonstrably does not have that institution's confidence. However, I suspect she's also thought that this crisis has arisen in a week, and that time may be needed to allow tempers to cool and for the opposition to have a rethink. Maybe not a bad thing in the long run - if they can't hold together until Jan. 26, then they wouldn't have been a tenable alternative to Harper anyway.

So this may be a case of setting high principle to one side in the name of pragmatic expediency - but it also now sets a precedent for future minority governments to call on any time they face a potential defeat. Anyone out there think it has implications for NZ? I tend to think not - we're more coalition-comfortable than Canada, and MMP has reinforced that it is the House that makes/unmakes governments. So I think a GG in NZ would be more likely to require a PM to take matters back to the House, to prove they have its confidence (and thus the right to request it be be prorogued).

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