Canada crashes towards crisis as PM panics

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.