Constitutional precedent set in Canada

A groundbreaking ruling in Canada means any Prime Minister faced with a confidence vote can pull the plug on Parliament by running to the Governor General

The face of Canadian politics has changed dramatically and not necessarily for the better in terms of upholding the Westminster system.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been given the Governor General’s permission to dodge a confidence vote he was certain to lose. By proroguing Parliament just two weeks into its new session with a minority government only seven weeks old, the GG has allowed the Conservatives to avoid Monday’s confidence vote on an economic package.

It is a signal to all future Prime Ministers that they can suspend the House when the House becomes a danger to their own job. Hardly the stuff of great democracy. Essentially when there’s too much heat in the kitchen, PMs can now run to the Queen who will make it all o.k. – for a while that is. The old 'you can run but you cannot hide' rule is still in play.

While the media, and therefore the public, is not privy to the details of the Prime Minister’s plea when he went to visit the Queen’s representative, it’s highly likely his case was based on the current severity of the economic crisis coupled with a big promise to present a budget in the last week of January that will appease the opposition parties who have dared to move against him.

The GG constitutionally takes the advice of the Prime Minister, which in situations such as this makes for a curious dance. Harper was never likely to waltz in to Rideau Hall and advise the GG to refuse his wish and thereby do him out of his job.

The Governor General isn’t supposed to get mired in the political arguments but rather look at the bigger picture. There is every reason to believe she would have had no more faith in the proposed alternative coalition than she did in Harper. Tactically her life raft to Harper could be seen as smart because she has been seen to abide by protocol in that she listened to the PM and followed his advice. So whatever she is called to do next will have certain credibility. Her next involvement of course could be to grant the coalition (should it still be together) the chance to govern if it successfully brings down Harper over his January budget.

That said, there is no precedent for granting a prorogue to a government at the beginning of its mandate. Usually, it comes at the end of a session.

Harper has successfully begged for some breathing space. He’s painted it as time for tempers to cool, yet he more than any other single politician is responsible for the nasty and destructive nature of the fiasco, particularly in his manipulation of the Anglo-French tensions in Canada.

The Bloc Quebecois, a federal party yet existing only in Quebec, is dedicated to separating Quebec from the rest of Canada. It had promised to support for 18 months the coalition deal between the Liberals and the NDP so as to bring about the removal of Harper’s minority Conservative administration. Harper has himself dealt with the Bloc in trying to unseat the previous Paul Martin Liberal government, he accepted their votes in passing his last budget and his latest bout of sucking up to the party (just before the last election campaign) resulted in his announcing Quebec is considered a nation within a united Canada.

Ironically, Harper came to power in an election that was forced when Paul Martin did face the confidence music. He lost the vote and an election was called. Harper may have been his successor, but he left the guts to face the House firmly inside the door he has now locked.

Harper instead turned the agenda, rather successfully, to one of a crisis of national unity. It is unheard of for Prime Ministers in such modern nations as Canada, or New Zealand for that matter, to whip up a frenzy of fear over the role of a national minority. It would be akin to Helen Clark having delivered tirade after tirade that the Maori Party will take over the country and send all Europeans packing.

In Harper’s case it was pitting Anglophones against Francophones, and he knew exactly where to twist the knife. His duplicity was highlighted by the fact that when he spoke in French he referred to the sovereignist party; when he spoke in English he called the Bloc the party of separatists – a move clearly designed to raise fears amongst Canada’s majority Anglos.

In another twist in this tale, Harper has only added impetus to the Bloc’s provincial arm, the Parti Quebecois, which is just days away from a provincial election. The venom Harper has shown towards Quebec and its separatist agenda is not lost on Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois. She is not likely to win next Monday’s election. But now, thanks to a Harper backlash, she's capable of denying Liberal Premier Jean Charest the majority he was coveting, and which polls indicated he had a fair chance of winning.

At the Federal level the question has quickly turned to the possibility of the Liberal/NDP coalition surviving so it can bring about its desired kneecapping of Harper when Parliament will vote on his January budget.

The Liberals are in the process of ditching their own leader Stéphane Dion. After his disastrous showing in the October election he agreed he would go by May 2009. There must now be an enormous impetus on the party to bring that change forward because of the likely scenario of a new election should Harper’s upcoming budget fail.

Having run to the Queen once because the other kids were out to get him, and having been granted time out, Harper has now played his survival hand.

He’s hoping the coalition will fall apart in the meantime, but there’s one other possibility that should be haunting him over the next few weeks. The coalition doesn’t actually have to hang together as one. Each party could individually decide to vote against his budget in January and that would still bring down the house.

It would also precipitate an election – the fourth in six years. Move over Italian politics. It could plausibly be that Harper would again secure the most, but not the majority of seats. Groundhog Three. In the meantime there will surely be an all out assault on the voting public, and given the Conservatives are the only party with the money to play election games, it will be a most one-sided affair.

This whole complicated and messy situation with its many sub plots really does reinforce the choice of words for the opening stanza of the country’s national anthem – “Oh Canada….” Say no more.