02 December 2008

Crisis in Ottawa, continued

Just when we thought that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government was settling in for at least another two years in power, the events of the past several days have upset these expectations. Now we read that Her Majesty's representative, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, is cutting short her European state visit to deal with the current crisis. That two opposition political parties would conspire to topple the government and replace it with a coalition government is unprecedented in Canada's history. It would not be unusual in some European countries, but those of us living under Westminster-style systems have generally eschewed multiparty coalition governments as somehow undemocratic — as if party leaders collaborating to form a government thereby frustrate the will of the voters.

On the other hand, there is something rather surreal in the spectacle of a single party taking power based on only 37.63 percent of the vote and fewer than half the seats, and then having the effrontery to claim a mandate from the Canadian people to govern. It is scarcely less absurd when such a government receives an absolute majority of seats though most citizens have voted against it. This, once again, points to the need for electoral reform in this country.

Though I am not teaching Canadian politics this term, I have spent some time in each of my classes this week talking about the developments in the nation's capital, due to their historic nature. I have likened what is happening to pre-1992 Italian politics, when multiple parties would have to take great pains to form a government, with leaders deciding to elevate to the premiership, not one of themselves, but a comparative nonentity deemed least objectionable to them. I couldn't help thinking of this as we witnessed especially the Liberals haggling over who would become prime minister. Would it be Stéphane Dion, the current but outgoing leader? Or Michael Ignatieff? Or Bob Rae?

What are Stephen Harper's options? Some are suggesting he could request the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, that is, to end the current session. But given that it began only two weeks ago, ending it this early would be a highly unusual move that would certainly stretch our constitutional conventions beyond what any previous prime minister has attempted. There can be little doubt that this would flirt with the edges of democracy itself. What would the Governor General do? She has the authority to refuse Harper's request, but since 1926 her predecessors have chosen not to confront their prime ministers, even when it might be advisable for them to do so to protect the constitution.

A central question is, of course, whether the Liberals and New Democrats would actually be able to govern. Together they boast only 114 seats as compared to the 143 held by the Conservatives. One-hundred fifty-five are needed for a majority. This means that the separatist Bloc québécois holds the balance of power with 49 seats. This gives the BQ king-making power. They will not, of course, participate in a coalition government, because they have few aspirations beyond being a protest party. Though Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton claim that the BQ will support their proposed government, at least in the short term, it is not in its long term interest to continue to prop up two parties that are more centralizing in their federalism than the Conservatives. Yet it is difficult to imagine the BQ propping up the Conservatives either.

My own solution? I don't claim this to be the definitive answer, but it might just be wise for Harper, whom 62.37 percent of Canadian voted against, to enter into negotiations with Dion towards forming a grand coalition government, rather like that between Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany. To be sure, the business of government would not move quickly under such an arrangement, but the divided verdict of Canadians two months ago may have left our politicians with no real alternative. Harper might do well to cast a backward glance to consider what happened to Prime Minister Joe Clark back in December 1979, when he tried to govern as if he had a majority, but found his minority government quickly defeated on the budget. If, as Henry Milner believes, we are in for a protracted period of minority government, our political leaders will have to overcome their overwrought fears of co-operating with the other parties and sit down and actually talk with them rather than just shouting at them from across the floor of the Commons.

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