A Look At Canada In Crisis

by Daniel Berrier on December 9, 2008

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Part I:  A Crisis of Confidence

Americans tend to be a very inward-looking people, with little curiosity about the internal affairs of other nations, despite the great interest around the world in U.S. politics.  Most of us know very little about our neighbor to the north, Canada, or it’s surprisingly complex political dynamics.  The political crisis gripping Canada is not a fleeting scenario; it reflects deep and growing schisms in the political fabric of the country that have been developing over the past few decades.  Canada has survived past constitutional crises, and will likely survive this one, but the fact that their parliament has been shut down in the midst of a severe worldwide economic crisis is an indication of just how serious the situation is for the country.

The situation Canada finds itself in today is due to the outcome of the October 2008 general election.  No party won a majority of the seats, as sometimes happens.  In this circumstance, the Governor General still typically chooses the leader of the largest party to be Prime Minister.  The Conservative Party won 143 out of 308 seats, so their party leader, the sitting Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was allowed to remain in office.  This is called a minority government, because the government must function without the direct support of a majority of the members of the House of Commons.  Because of the ability of the opposition members to express their lack of confidence in a minority government, they typically negotiate closely with other party leaders to pass their budgets and critical legislation.  Bold measures are not possible unless the government has the cooperation of other parties in parliament.

Having just opened two weeks ago, following a general election in October, the Canadian parliament has been prorogued, or suspended, for seven weeks until the end of January.  That is when the House of Commons will choose between allowing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party to remain in power, ousting him for new elections, or installing the first ever coalition government in Canadian history.  This new alliance would be comprised of the Liberals and the NDP (New Democratic Party), with the support of the Bloc Quebecois on the floor of the House of Commons.

Minority governments typically embrace a cautious posture toward governing.  Stephen Harper chose to take another approach, rather than cooperate with his political opponents.  Because the 2008 election was the third election in a row that resulted in a minority government, within the course of four years, he assumed that all political leaders would seek to avoid triggering another election and facing the wrath of exhausted and angry voters.  Knowing the opposition would be fearful of another election that they did not have the resources to pay for, he proposed eliminating government subsidies for political party funding, putting the opposition parties in a catch 22 position.  If they went along with the budget, they might be permanently hamstrung in future elections because the Conservatives had better private funding sources.  If they opposed the budget and triggered a new election, they would be painted as obstructionist and not have the money to respond.  This might result in the Conservatives winning a majority government in a new election.

The opposition chose to fight rather than face their financial obliteration.  But what they saw as a way out of the dilemma was not agreeing to elections, but proposing a coalition government that had the support of all three opposition parties, and hence a majority of the House of Commons as currently constituted.  They wrote a letter to the Governor General stating that if the current Conservative government should fall, they would stand ready to take over and govern the country if asked.  This would be the first time a formal coalition would rule the country, because members of the NDP would serve in the cabinet along with Liberal ministers.  Outgoing Liberal party leader Stephane Dion would lead them and serve as Prime Minister, until a new Liberal leader was chosen in May.  A vote was scheduled for Monday, December 8th, and the opposition parties announced their intention to bring down Mr. Harper’s government.  After this, the Governor General would choose between new elections or allowing the coalition to take power.

What Stephen Harper did in response to this threat to his power should anger all supporters of democratic ideals.  He requested that Parliament be prorogued, or adjourned, until late January.  This request to the Governor General was unprecedented in history, so soon after the opening of the session.  The disappointing thing is that it was done for the express purpose of avoiding the democratic accountability that all Prime Ministers have traditionally faced.  This act has weakened the power of Parliament, and future Prime Ministers now have a time out card they can use at any point in the future.  History will not look kindly on Governor General Michaelle Jean, who agreed to this request.

What few Americans remember is that it was our Revolutionary War that was directly responsible for strengthening the British parliamentary tradition that is so important in Canada today.  The first no confidence motion was passed by the British House of Commons following the Battle of Yorktown in 1782.  This was the first time that a Westminster-style legislative body representing the people asserted itself to their sovereign, in this case King George III.  They proclaimed their unhappiness with Prime Minister Lord North, and he resigned.  It is this tradition that would bind Mr. Harper to resign should he lose a vote of no confidence.

This notion that the people, through their representatives, would choose their head of government was a natural ramification of the democratic ideals circulating in the 1780s.  The delicate balance between the tradition of monarchy and the respect for the people’s democratic rights is played out at the opening of each Canadian parliament.  The speech from the throne is read by the Governor General, who is the representative of the Queen in Canada, though chosen by recommendation from the Prime Minister with the consent of Parliament.  The speech outlines the plans of the incoming government, and must be approved by members of parliament after it is given.  This symbolic act reinforces the right of the people to choose their government.  It is a fundamental tenet of parliamentary democracy that it is the right of the members of parliament, to express no confidence in the Prime Minister.  After this expression of disapproval, the Prime Minister is duty bound to resign.

It is an outrage that Harper was allowed to shut down parliament and essentially run away from this judgment of disapproval.  Harper is hoping that opposition members of parliament will lose their will during this seven-week delay, and decide to acquiesce to his budget.  He will undoubtedly scale back some of the more inflammatory ideas in his budget, but he has revealed his true colors as a partisan and rigid ideologue, more concerned with strengthening his own political power than helping everyday Canadians deal with an economic crisis.

What has been missing from the coalition side is a leader that inspires confidence from the public.  The opposition parties won the support of 63% of the Canadian public in the last election, but current polls show support for the idea of a coalition government taking power to be much lower.  Canadians are frustrated with political bickering and do not want an avoidable political crisis in the midst of an unavoidable economic one.  A large part of this weak support for a coalition idea has been because of the ineffectual leadership of Stephane Dion, who even managed to botch his national televised response to Stephen Harper last week.  The Liberal Party must replace him now, and it seems likely that Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff will be taking charge.  I hope he is up to the task of leading not just the Liberal Party, but also all of Canada.

Harper’s actions in requesting prorogation and ignoring the democratic will of the majority of the members of the House of Commons has raised the stakes.  This is no longer just about which side has a better economic agenda for the country, or how to fund political parties.  It is about the democratic ideals that form the basis of the government of Canada.  If Mr. Harper is allowed to get away with this cynical maneuver, and maintain power, the damage to the constitutional balance of power will be permanent.  Future Prime Ministers will be able to bully parliament into agreeing to their agenda, even if they do not have a majority of the seats.  The Conservatives only won the votes of 37% of Canadians in the general election, and their government should act in a consensus seeking fashion that reflects that result.  As he seems unwilling to do so, he should be voted out of office at the first opportunity.

Part II of this series will look back at some of the key players and how Canada got to the position it is in today


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