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Rogues and Prorogues in Canada

Original Article

The Canadian media are filled with the exciting story of a possible, even likely, removal of the Conservative government after only six weeks’ tenure since October’s parliamentary election. Conservatives, with 46% of the seats in Parliament, still lack a majority and now the other parties—the Liberals (who have about a quarter of the seats, the New Democrats (NDP) and the Bloc Quebecois—have decided to close ranks to form a coalition. A new Government could well be made up of parties that were last fall’s election losers. The participants publicly have agreed on Stephane Dion as the new Prime Minister, even though the Liberal leader is under criticism in his own party for the recent poorly executed Liberal campaign. Internal Liberal divisions open a chance, indeed, that Dion could be sworn is as the new PM and yet get ousted before the next election in a party leadership contest.

When Discovery Institute in Seattle held a review of the Canadian results on October 15, the day after the Parliamentary election, I asked two esteemed experts on Canadian politics why the Liberals and NDP didn’t just combine forces on the left. The answer was swift and stern (stupid me!). There is just too much ideological difference between the relatively free market Liberals and the socialist NDP, and too much history, too, I was told.

Well, six weeks later there doesn’t seem to be so much difference. Not at the moment, anyhow. In the coalition deal, Liberals will organize the Government and get most of the cabinet seats, while the NDP will get a mere six cabinet posts—but that is more than it has enjoyed in my memory—and the Bloc, whose long term policy is separatism, will vote to sustain the coalition agenda, but not take part in the new Government (“Government” approximates a U.S. “Administration” in parliamentary terminology). There are fateful photos of the three joyful party leaders after signing their joint agreement.

I have a feeling that that photo may come back to haunt the three. There really are differences among the parties—as well as within the Liberal Party. It is hard enough to keep the Talking Points and lines of authority clear within one party, let alone among three. Then there are the personality differences and rival power ambitions among long term rivals.

With that in mind, it would seem to this outsider that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be smart to let the conspirators succeed for now. They have the votes to oust him anyhow and the most he can do (with approval of the Governor General, the seldom-more-than-nominal head of state) is “prorogue” Parliament for a few weeks—essentially, force a temporary adjournment so the Conservatives can think of something else to do and hope the Opposition Coalition plan will unravel over the Christmas holidays. That is probably a vain hope, however. Right now, the public is uneasy about changing the Government so soon after an election and in the middle of a bad recession. But even if the majority of the public are wary of the new coalition initially, Harper could find that his support in the public might recede as a stalemate wore on.

But the present strategy of the Conservatives seems to be to dig in, to do everything they can within the law to stop the plotters. So far they mostly seem to be sputtering in their surprise and indignation. Their first hapless charge is that the Liberals have made a coalition with “socialists and separatists.” The charge is arguably true, and it is also true that the Bloc especially is not trusted in most of the country. But the trouble is that the coalition probably is going to be able to show that the Conservatives themselves were willing to play footsie with the Bloc in the past when it served their interests. And whatever the country is, it is not majority Conservative. The Tories got only 37.6% percent of the votes in parliamentary ridings (districts) in October, even though the electoral logistics worked out to convert that total to 46% of the seats in Parliament. If a contest were held between between the “Conservatives and Everybody Else,” it hard to see the Conservatives winning.

There is another publicity tack the Tories are taking that seems ill-advised. Conservatives are trying to make it seem as if the coalition maneuver is nearly illegal, and certainly illicit—unethical, if you will. A coalition may be highly unusual and a bald power play, but it is not illegal or illicit. The coalition could have formed a Government right after the election if the three losing parties had so wanted. A party with 46% of the seats (the Conservatives) doesn’t automatically have a property right to govern just because it is bigger than the next largest party.

On the other hand, if PM Harper were to go before the nation, express his dismay that the opposition parties will not let his steady leadership continue to assist Canada through a difficult economic period, and then (bowing to the express intention of the Liberals, NDP and Bloc), he were to ask the Governor General to invite Stephane Dion to form a new Government, here is what might happen: 1) After the champagne and back slapping was finished, gripes among the Liberals against Stephane Dion as Leader would re-surface. 2) With Conservatives still an imposing minority consistently voting against the Coalition, Inter-party Coalition strains inevitably would grow as various issues were raised. Inter-party coalition loyalty would be tested again and again, one controversial issue after another, and eventually would rupture. 3) Once the breakdown came, the Governor General would almost surely call an election, even though the public probably wouldn’t feel ready for one. 4) If this all happened in a few months’ time from now, Conservatives just happen to be better prepared to contest another election and would have a ready-made issue; namely, the demonstrated incompetence of all the opposition parties.

Of course, there is no predicting events. The Coalition could turn out to be a huge success and there might emerge a long-term stable Government from it. The Conservatives also could suddenly have their own leadership fight after the Coalition took over. (Some might ask, for instance, why Harper so antagonized the other parties after the election that they got over their own mutual antagonisms and formed their new alliance).

But, on balance, I wonder if centrifugal forces bidding to pull a coalition apart might not prevail in coming months against the centripetal forces that presently are pulling it together. Parties work well to enforce cohesion, while coalitions invite back stabbing divisions. Centuries of political experience in all countries show it.

So it seems to me that the Conservatives might be better off in both the next year and long term—and at the next election might even obtain the parliamentary majority that has eluded them so far—if in coming days they handed the opposition parties the very Government hot potato they claim to desire. The Coalition plotters could turn out in the end to have been “too smart by half.” The Tories are going to lose control of the House of Commons within weeks anyhow (unless the Coalition comes unglued even sooner). Why not let necessity become an intentional choice?

Mind you, of course, I am just an American observer. What do I know?