Thursday, April 28, 2011

From Conservative Minority to Majority, Part IV: The Conservative Edge

In Part III, I described why I believed that the Governor General would have little choice but to follow the advice offered to him by the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament, once a Conservative minority government falls on a vote of confidence, orchestrated by the Opposition as part of an effort to form a stable government. I indicated that it seemed to me that, based on Stephen Harper’s past statements, some of which were made quite recently to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, a defeated Harper would ask the GG to dissolve parliament, rather than follow the example of former Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Frank Miller, when he was defeated by the Liberals and the NDP on the throne speech back in 1985. While Harper could advise the GG to turn to the Opposition to govern, I can’t see how he could bring himself to do so.

And that means that we will find ourselves in yet another election before too long. Really, that shouldn’t surprise Canadians too much, in one respect: because Conservative candidates have been saying as much for the past 30+ days on the campaign trail. They’ve been using the threat of another unnecessary election as a reason for voters to give the Conservatives a majority government. Without a majority, Conservatives have said, expect another election.

Yet, if another election, whether it be in June or November (following a prorogation), is precipitated by a request from Stephen Harper to the Governor General, won’t Canadians hold that against Harper, and punish him at the polls?

No way.

If the Opposition Liberals and NDP get together to defeat a Conservative minority government, likely on the first matter of confidence which comes before the House (the throne speech), and Harper feels that he is forced to return to Canadians through an election, it is the Opposition which stands to be punished by voters, and not the Conservatives. In Part III, I discussed the notion of upping the level of rhetoric to an uncomfortable level, some of which we saw back in 2008 during the so-called “Constitutional Crisis”, where terms like “coup d’etat” were being used to describe the Opposition’s attempt to “seize power” from “winning party”.

If you think Harper and the Conservatives have been nasty on the campaign trail during this election when it comes to talking about the coalition, you haven’t seen anything yet. If Canada is drawn into another election, you can bet that the Conservatives will wrap themselves in the Canadian flag, and paint the Opposition coalition as no better than a gang of criminals trying to seize power from the legitimate elected government. If the Bloc Quebecois is involved at all, so much the better from the Conservative’s perspective (and you can bet whether the Bloc is involved or not, that the Conservatives will trot out the separatist bogeyman as yet another reason for voters to punish the Opposition parties).

The Opposition parties will be left with the unenviable task of having to explain a few things to Canadians. First, they’ll have to try to explain why they believed that their actions to replace the Conservative minority government were not only legal and legitimate, but also in the best interests of Canada. And second, they’ll have to explain why they never believed that their actions would precipitate yet another election that Canadians don’t want, given that they ought to have known that an election is exactly where their actions would lead to, given what the Conservatives had previously warned Canadians about.

Of course, the Opposition Parties will be able to claim that Stephen Harper has no honour, that he should have advised the GG to turn power over to them, er, that they could have formed a stable government without an election, but for the bad advice given to the GG by Stephen Harper.

As someone who has been involved with campaigns now on several elections, I can tell you from which side I would prefer to make my case to voters during an election.

At a debate held in Sudbury on Tuesday night, I watched the NDP candidate try to explain the NDP’s position on cap and trade, and how it would work. He couldn’t do it. His response was just terrible. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand the position, though. Only that explaining something as complex as cap and trade in a minute and a half, when put on the spot, is very difficult to do for anyone. Even I would have struggled.

Well, explaining how a cap and trade emissions scheme would work pales in comparison to the difficulty in explaining why the Prime Minister’s advise to the GG was wrong, and how the GG should have used Reserve powers to transfer governance from the Party that won the election to a coalition of parties that lost, and how actually a transfer of power without having an election is more democratic than going back to the voters and why it would have been in the interests of Canadians to allow the coalition to govern in the first place, not to mention why they ever thought they wouldn’t end up right where they did, given that’s where Stephen Harper and the Conservatives said we’d all be.

Ya, cap and trade would be a snap compared to that.

So, the Conservatives would start off by occupying the moral high ground, at least in the perception of many Canadians. Sure, there would be some who would understand what’s really going on, but with a compelling Conservative narrative, I can’t help but think they’d be in the minority. Especially if the Liberals and NDP had to work with the Bloc to orchestrate the defeat of the Conservative minority government. Remember that public opinion during the so-called “Constitutional Crisis” was clearly favouring the Conservative’s position.

Public opinion, too, is sure to be bolstered by the mainstream media. Now, I’m not at all suggesting that the mainstream media is going to get behind the notion that Harper had no choice but to call an election after his defeat (although many in the mainstream media will adopt that approach…indeed, I think I’ve made a pretty strong case for just that in Part III of this series). Why I believe the media will be complicit in selling the Harper narrative has to do with the media’s current and past track record of not actually questioning Harper’s assertions regarding the legitimacy of coalition governments, and whether parties have the right to form them.

Harper and the Conservatives, and indeed Ignatieff and Layton, seem to be able to say pretty much whatever they want to the mainstream media nowadays, and very rarely are they questioned on their assertions. Instead, the media moves on to the next story, before fact-checking the one they’ve just published. Indeed, there used to be a time when fact-checking would have occurred before publication, but in the 24 hour news cycle, who has the time or resources for that? If something truly egregious emerges, such as the Conservatives claim that the Liberals voted for an iPod tax, then the media will likely sort it out eventually, maybe even causing some brief embarrassment to the parties involved. And then the story is forgotten (remember when it was reported that the Conservatives used the words of Auditor-General Sheila Fraser out of context in a report, for which she rebuked them? That was only a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll bet most of you have moved on from this story after Stockwell Day publicly apologized to the Auditor General on national TV. Day, of course, isn’t running in this election, so he’s largely been absent from the media spotlight).

Who, then, will be left to challenge the Harper narrative? If the Opposition parties can’t do it, and the media won’t do it, that leaves only the little voices shouting in the sea of online social media. And trust me, unless someone can explain all of this in an exciting YouTube video, preferably one with singing children or cats falling off of furniture, best of luck to us social media types for getting the word out in a 35-day election.

Finally, let’s not forget what’s probably the biggest factor at play here: money. The fact is the Conservative Party will have enough money in the bank to fight two elections back-to-back, while the Opposition Parties will not. In fact, we can expect the Liberals and the NDP, along with the Bloc and the Greens, to have built up some debt as a result of this election campaign. That’s not unusual, especially since the Parties know that money will be coming back to them in the from of candidate reimbursements (for those ridings where more than 10% of the vote was won) and the per-vote subsidy.

If money is an issue, though, no doubt the Conservatives would benefit from calling a snap election right away, before Elections Canada has a chance to send out any rebates to candidates and parties. Without money in the bank, and with debt from one election, it’s not at all likely that the Opposition parties would be able to run successful national campaigns. This would put them at even more of a disadvantage to Harper’s Conservatives.

To recap: another election on the heels of this one benefits the Conservatives in many ways. The Conservatives will have compelling national narrative to present to the people of Canada in contrast to the Opposition’s need to present difficult, technical information. The Conservatives will continue to enjoy a free ride in the mainstream media, which will fail to ask the difficult questions as to why we’re having another election. And the Conservatives have the money in the bank to pull this off, while the Opposition parties will be broke.

With all of the above acting in favour of the Conservatives, a majority government is almost a certain outcome. A majority government is what Stephen Harper has been craving for a long while now; it’s been something which progressive Canadians have long feared.

In this series of blogposts, I’ve looked at why I believe that an immediate move by the Opposition parties to defeat a Conservative minority government will lead inexorably towards the establishment of a Conservative majority government. In the process, we’re sure to witness a further decline in the democratic health of our national discourse, with political mudslinging on a scale never before witnessed in Canada. Depending on how things play themselves out, we will run the risk of jeopardizing the very Canada that all political parties are intent on governing.

The Canada which emerges from this scenario is sure to be a damaged Canada, and potentially a Canada in crisis. A majority Conservative government will be given a free hand to provide the medicine that it thinks Canada will need in order to heal. For progressive Canadians, we can be sure that the medicine will be the bitterest and sourest on offer, and that it will do more harm than good. We’d call that medicine “poison”.

Given that, around the world, right-wing governments have used crises to tear down social systems and privative state assets, and given that there remains a multi-billion dollar hole in the Conservative’s budget (along with tens of billions of dollars of deficit), the Canada which emerges from the four or five years of a Harper majority after such a wrenching electoral crisis is almost certainly to be one unidentifiable to Canadians today.

Now, all of this may be for naught if the NDP continues to its meteoric rise in the polls, and we all wake up on Tuesday morning to discover that Jack Layton is going to be the Prime Minister. I’ll have to write about the problems with that scenario at another time!

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are more own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

From Conservative Minority to Majority, Part III: Fallout from the May 2nd Vote

Tuesday morning, May 3rd. Canada wakes up to discover that it’s elected yet another Conservative minority government. Just as all of the pundits were predicting prior to the vote of non-confidence in the Harper government. Sure, maybe the NDP and the Liberals have exchanged a few seats, and perhaps Harper’s majority isn’t as strong as it once was. And, oh look, there’s the Green Party making an elected appearance in the House for the first time. And maybe the Bloc has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Either way, though, the Conservatives have won the most seats. It’s to be…business as usual, right?

Well, Stephen Harper has been trying to sell to Canadians the notion that a Conservative minority situation will be anything but business as usual, and that’s why he’s been appealing to Canadian voters to give him a majority. Here in Greater Sudbury, I’ve heard the Nickel Belt candidate claim that if a Conservative minority government is elected on May the 2nd, we’re sure to see another election happening in the very near future.

What’s behind this is the notion that the Opposition parties, in some combination, whether in formal coalition or simply with verbal support, will try to bring down a Conservative minority at the first opportunity, and govern in its place. And frankly, why wouldn’t they? The Opposition has only recently expressed its extreme displeasure with the Harper Conservatives by voting on a motion of contempt of parliament. That was what directly precipitated this election. If the same group of contemptuous anti-democrats are returned to the House, and they continue to express their desire not to work with any other parties, why would the Opposition even try to pretend that a Conservative minority is the appropriate vehicle for governance?

Well, a Conservative might say that they should try because the Conservatives will have just won the election, and they have a right to govern. An Opposition supporter will say that while Harper may have a right to govern at the outset, if the Conservatives lose the confidence of parliament, Harper will have lost his right to govern, and since the Opposition parties are ready and able to govern, they should be allowed to form a government. Plus, don’t the Opposition parties actually have a greater plurality of seats in the House than do the Conservatives? Didn’t more Canadians actually vote for candidates who weren’t Conservatives?

It was this kind of friction which led to the so-called “Constitutional Crisis” of 2008. Back then, there seemed to be some confusion regarding who was right about what. With the prorogation of parliament, however, and a change of leadership in the Liberal Party, the crisis went away, and questions about which side was right were never answered. In 2011, however, we may find ourselves having to sort through that mess.

Let’s now turn our attention to how all of this might play itself out.

Clearly, as Stephen Harper is still technically the Prime Minister, and will remain so until the House resumes sitting after the election, Harper has the first shot at forming a government, whether his Party emerges from the election with the largest number of seats or not. Harper has said, though, that if the Conservatives don’t receive the largest number of seats, he will not try to form a government. And for once, I believe him. But, as of this moment, Jack-o-mania and the NDP surge isn’t yet threatening to displace the Conservatives from the top of the perch, so let’s continue along on the assumption that the Conservatives will have won the most seats, and thus will govern in a minority situation.

When the House returns, the first available opportunity for the Opposition to defeat a Conservative minority government will be on the Throne Speech. The Throne Speech, which lays out a government’s priorities for the coming session of parliament, requires a vote by the House, which is always a matter of confidence. Even back in 2008, before the so-called “Constitutional Crisis” struck, the newly elected Conservative minority government had presented a throne speech which received the support of the Opposition. Their support of this speech may have been a factor in the Governor General’s decision to prorogue parliament a few weeks later, when it looked as if the Opposition had completely changed its mind and was threatening a non-confidence vote.

If the Opposition finds that it is serious about governing, they’re not going to make the same potential mistake that they made last time. Discussions between Opposition parties will have all taken place prior to the House’s return, so a clear course of action will be on the table. The Governor General, and the Canadian people, will hear from the Opposition that there is a government-in-waiting. That happened back in 2008 as well, and I’m sure most of us remember just how horribly toxic the rhetoric got in the media and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, if the Opposition is serious about wanting to govern, the Conservatives will be defeated on the throne speech. Having lost the confidence of the House, Stephen Harper will be forced to go to the Governor General and advise

Hmmm….advise what? In Part I of this series, I wrote about how former Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Frank Miller, who had just been elected to a minority government, was defeated by the combined efforts of the Liberals and NDP on a throne speech. He visited the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and advised that the Opposition had indicated that it was able to govern (because they had signed an accord whereby the NDP promised to support the Liberals on matters of confidence, in exchange for the Liberal government implementing some NDP platform planks). The transition in Ontario was orderly and painless, because of Miller’s advice to the LG.

However, as I’ve indicated, I don’t think that there’s any way that Stephen Harper would ever offer similar advice to the GG if he is defeated on a matter of confidence. Quite certainly, back in 2008, Harper was on record that Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, whose party had just elected the second most members to parliament, had no right to govern. More recently, in attempting not to answer a pointed question from the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge regarding the legitimacy of a coalition government, Harper squirmed out a response that this was a constitutional matter. Those “in the know” scoffed at this weasel-worded response.

Again, I’m not a constitutional expert, but clearly there is no doubt that the Governor General can request the Opposition to form a government. That’s exactly what happened in Ontario in 1985. There are other precedents in other nations. It’s unusual, sure, but it’s absolutely not unheard of for the Opposition to govern without holding an election when the government has fallen on a matter of confidence. There is no question. That’s what Mansbridge was trying to get Harper to admit.

But, along with being cagey in his interview with Mansbridge, Harper had an ace up his sleeve: Peter Mansbridge had asked him the wrong question.

Mansbridge should have asked Harper what Harper’s advice to the Governor General would be if he was defeated by the Opposition on a vote on the throne speech. That’s the question which needs answering.

Put aside this nonsense about whether a coalition is legitimate or not legitimate, because it’s been answered by the Frank Miller / David Peterson Ontario example in 1985. Anything else is really just trying to obscure the fact. But as long as the media continue to allow Harper and the Conservatives to get away with obscuring this fact, and outright lying about the legitimacy of a coalition government, I’m sure that the Conservatives will continue to do so. Why? Because it serves their ultimate purpose to portray a coalition of losing parties trying to seize power as anti-democratic and un-Canadian.

Back to the scenario for a moment. Harper and the Conservatives have lost the confidence of the House, and Harper goes to visit his friend the GG, David Johnston (who was just appointed by Harper, after all; perhaps for, as Foghorn Leghorn would say about numbering his feathers, “for just such an emergency”). If Harper isn’t going to advise the GG to turn to the Opposition (and he’s not going to offer that advice, for all of the reasons above), the only thing he’s going to be able to request would be the dissolution of parliament, which would throw Canada into another election.

Would the GG follow this advice? In Part II, I discussed the GG’s relationship as the Crown’s representative with the State, and how, over time, the use of the GG’s Reserve powers (which allow the GG to ignore the advice of the Prime Minister) should only ever be used when democracy itself is imperilled by the advice or actions of the Prime Minister. While some might argue that a request for an election made by the PM is an abuse of democracy, I’m not sure that they would have a leg to stand on. Even if we had just went through an electoral process several weeks or months before.

If we had just gone through an election, would the GG use his Reserve powers to ignore the advice of the Prime Minister, and turn to the Opposition, under the assumption that an election isn’t necessary for government to function? Well, here’s what’s interesting about that. Sure, the argument that an election might be unnecessary would be a sound argument, and certainly it would be clear that the Opposition can govern in place of the Conservatives. But neither of these facts is relevant to the use of Reserve powers.

The relevant question which must be answered is whether the advice offered by the Prime Minister to hold another election so soon after an election imperils democracy. Another election could be viewed as unnecessary, and expensive, and even an “inconvenience” to Canadians. Certainly, calling another election is going to rile us up from coast to coast to coast. But how does a request to have an election, which is probably the purest expression of democracy at work, actually imperil our democracy?

I’m sorry…but it doesn’t. Whether we would need an election or not to produce a stable government doesn’t matter. What matters in this circumstance is whether it is appropriate for the Crown to exercise the use of Reserve powers, thus interfering with the interests of the State.

“Interfering with the interests of the State”. That’s a pretty strong term. How could the GG’s use of Reserve powers to stave off an unnecessary election ever be considered as meddling in the State’s affairs? Well, when it goes against the legitimate advice of the Prime Minister of Canada, that’s meddling.

So, would the PM’s advice be legit? Look at the circumstance, and you decide. And as hard as it might be, try putting yourself in Harper’s stated position for a moment. Harper’s Conservatives will have just won the most seats in the House; in the past, when this has happened, most often a minority government led by the dominant party has been the result. Certainly, that’s what we’ve seen happen in the last 3 elections from which minorities have resulted.

This minority, however, will not have been allowed to govern, because it had been defeated by the Opposition parties. Harper believes that the Opposition parties have “no right” to govern, and that a coalition of losing parties is illegitimate (in Canada, at least). Others in his Party have described this kind of attempt at seizing power as a “coup d’etat”.

If Harper really does believe his own rhetoric, his advice to the Governor General to return to the people of Canada would be advice offered in good faith. It would be advice which would not, in any way, shape or form, undermine Canada’s democratic principles. Indeed, from Harper’s perspective, if the GG didn’t follow this advice and allowed what is tantamount to a coup to take place, well, that would be far more of a threat to democracy than holding another election.

What might Canadians think of all of this? On the hand, the answer to that question isn’t relevant to whether the GG uses his Reserve powers to take action contrary to the Prime Minister’s advice. But on the other hand, the question is a very relevant one, because of where it might lead, and how knowing this might help influence the GG’s decision to acquiesce to the PM’s request.

Things were getting really bad back in 2008 with the rhetoric that was flying around. Pro-coalition demonstrations were being met by Pro-government demonstrators. There was little violence, to be sure, but clearly Canadians were beginning to polarize on the issue of the legitimacy of a coalition government. Had the situation continued for a few weeks more, I have little doubt that the opposing camps would have taken their conflicts off of the Editorial pages and onto the streets. The prorogation, however, put an end to that. Pro-government supporters felt that it was a victory, while pro-Opposition supporters believed that the GG’s decision to prorogue parliament simply put the inevitable off for a few more weeks. Of course, with Stephane Dion’s fall as Liberal Leader in the aftermath events that December, history tells a different story.

After May 2nd, however, events might move forward on their own, and prove to be unstoppable. Sure, it’s possible that Stephen Harper will delay parliament’s return to the House as long as possible, in order to avoid a confidence vote. He might even use that time to stoke the anti-coalition flames in the same way that the Conservatives did back in 2008. When parliament does return, and the throne speech is introduced, Harper might even try to prorogue parliament again before a vote is taken. Such a prorogation could last for several months, and technically could last as long as a year, although that’s very unlikely.

Either way, through a combination of delaying parliament’s return, and proroguing the House once the throne speech has been introduced, it’s quite possible that Harper might not actually have to face a confidence vote for several months, and maybe not even until the Fall of 2011. Maybe as many as 6 months might pass between May 2nd and the confidence vote.

Or, Harper might just want to get it all over with as quickly as possible.

Sooner or later, though, what we can be sure of is if the Opposition makes any suggestion that it wants to govern in place of the Conservatives, things are going to get very messy in Canada. You can bet that the Conservatives will do almost everything that they can to stave off this grab for power. If you thought the use of words like “coup d’etat” were problematic back in 2008, well, you’ve not seen anything yet.

And that’s the problem. Once these kind of terms enter our political discourse, there really isn’t any way for a politician to back down from them, even if he’s the Prime Minister. We have a Prime Minister who has already indicated that a coalition government is illegitimate. From there, based on past rhetoric, the notion that such a coalition would be illegal isn’t a stretch, and that a play for power by the Opposition is a coup worthy of a third-world military junta would be the logical conclusion.

When we reach this kind of rhetoric in our political discourse, things are bound to get dangerous. The Conservatives, for one, would not have anywhere to back down to. They would be forced to either admit that they were wrong, completely wrong, and apologize to the people of Canada for their deception, or they would have to continue to persecute the Opposition in an attempt to hold onto power.

The only thing that we can be certain of is that Canadians will become more polarized than ever before. Knowing that this outcome is inevitable, if the GG chooses to exercise the use of Reserve powers and allow the Opposition to govern against the advice of the Prime Minister, it is highly doubtful that a significant segment of the Canadian populace would ever view the government as being legitimate. Therefore, it would make all the more sense for the GG to follow the advice of the Prime Minister and dissolve parliament, because the alternative would actually threaten Canada’s democratic institutions to their very foundations. And that’s exactly what the GG would be trying to avoid when making a decision.

This situation can only be avoided should the Opposition choose not to bring down the Conservative minority government, OR if Stephen Harper, after losing a vote of confidence, advises the Governor General that the Leader of the Official Opposition should be given the chance to govern. The second scenario seems entirely unlikely, as it will be an admission by Harper that everything he and his party have said about coalitions was stated simply for the express purpose of misleading Canadians. It would be the end of Harper’s political career.

Clearly, the defeat of a Conservative minority government will put the Governor General in a difficult position, if Harper recommends “going over the heads of parliament” and “to the Canadian people” as John Baird did back in 2008, when the Conservatives were in a similar situation. As distasteful as it may seem, the GG will likely feel that he will have no choice but to grant the Prime Minister his request for dissolution, and call another election. The more time which elapses between when the GG must decide and the May 2nd election date, the easier this decision will be for him. But conceivably, even if this all plays itself out in May or early June, he may have no choice but to send Canadians back to the polls.

Some might think that a second election wouldn’t be in the interests of the Conservatives, if the Prime Minister asks for one. I don’t agree. In Part IV, I’ll share my thoughts on why I believe the Conservatives have everything to gain by having a second election fast on the heels of this campaign.

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be considered consitent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From Conservative Minority to Majority, Part II: Following the Advice of the Prime Minister

In Part I of this series, I expressed my own understanding about how parliament works with regards to the ability of parties to work with another and establish a government in circumstances where two or more parties, who don’t have the most seats, combine their efforts in government.

That’s currently the situation on the ground in Israel today, where Kadima won the most seats in an election, but where a coalition of smaller parties have formed government, centred around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and propped up by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Independence Party.

As far as I know, Stephen Harper has never suggested that the government of Israel is “illegitimate”. And that’s telling.

Now, I’m going to be wading into Constitutional waters for a little bit. I need to point out that I do not pretend to be an expert on Canada’s Constitution, or matters constitutional. These observations are my own, and while I’ve put some good thought into them, I simply don’t possess the academic skills to have more than a cursory discussion of these issues. Not that it’s going to stop me from sharing these ideas, mind you. I enjoy kicking a political football around as much as anyone.

The Scenario: No Prorogation

So, back in December 2008, the Opposition Parties have just defeated the Conservative minority government by voting non-confidence. Harper is forced to go to Governor General Michaelle Jean and…

And this is where things get interesting. What would have been Harper’s options in this situation? Clearly, he could have advised the GG, as Frank Miller did, that he had lost the confidence of the House and that the Opposition has indicated that they could form a stable government, and that the GG should turn to the Opposition now. After all, there had just been an election, so there needn’t be another one. Had Harper, in this scenario, offered this advice to the GG, the GG could have accepted it and turned to Stephane Dion and asked him to form a government. She also could have refused Harper’s advice, through the use of the GG’s Reserve Powers, and dissolved parliament, bringing about another election. Although it’s almost certain that she would not have done so. Certainly the LG in Ontario didn’t use those powers when Miller advised that the Opposition was a government-in-waiting.

But would Stephen Harper have ever offered the GG that advice? Harper was already on record saying that Stephane Dion’s attempt to seize power was illegitimate (“he does not have the right”); that’s similar to what Harper has been saying on the hustings during this campaign about a coalition government of losing political parties. Clearly, his position on this matter has been consistent (at least since becoming Prime Minister; his prior track record on this issue is as clear as mud).

After having said publicly that Dion doesn’t have the right to form a government, and after the Conservative’s hyper-partisan media campaign to convince people that the Opposition was trying to seize power from a legitimately elected government, it’s inconceivable to me at least that Harper would have advised the GG to invite Stephane Dion to become Canada’s next Prime Minister at the head of a Liberal-NDP coalition government.

Instead, he could have advised the GG that parliament be dissolved and an election be held.

This is where things would have got really interesting. Clearly, in this circumstance, the GG would have had the authority to exercise Reserve powers, and make up her own mind regarding a course of action that is in the interests of Canada. In this scenario, she could have decided to ignore the advice of the Prime Minister and turn to Stephane Dion anyway. We’d just been through an election, after all. What might another election have accomplished?

What does it mean, however, for the GG to use “Reserve” powers? I seem to recall at the time of the so-called Constitutional Crisis, that the Conservative Party had trotted out a number of constitutional experts which offered the opinion that, over time, the GG’s use of Reserve powers has become restricted, since that whole King-Byng affair took place back in the 1920s.

When you look into this matter of the use of Reserve powers, what you’ll find is that invariably, the GG just doesn’t use them. The notion here is that the Crown is going to interfere in the affairs of the State as little as possible. What the Prime Minister wants, essentially, is what the Prime Minister gets.

Regarding the use of Reserve powers, constitutional experts use phrases like “only in the most exceptional of circumstances” and “only when the advice or actions of the Prime Minister undermine the very foundations of the political system.” And I’m not at all certain that a Prime Minister, having just lost the confidence of the House, and requesting the dissolution of parliament and calling for an election, would be one of those circumstances which undermine our political system. I’m not sure that a strong case could ever be made that asking the people of Canada to vote in an election is, in any way, shape or form, an action which undermines our democratic institutions.

As I wrote earlier, Conservative cabinet Minister John Baird was already on record with his nebulous idea of returning to the Canadian people if the Conservatives didn’t get the permission from the GG that they wanted in order to prorogue parliament. Some have suggested that this might have been a reference to appealing to the Queen, or simply part of a larger media campaign to mislead Canadians. But what if Baird was telling the truth? That the plan was to face a vote of confidence, lose it, and have Harper advise the GG that an election should be held, going straight to the Canadian people?

Do you recall the toxic atmosphere which existed in late November / early December 2008? The rhetoric had been upped a notch, that’s for sure. The Conservatives were starting to use terms like “coup d’etat” to describe the Opposition’s attempt to form a coalition government. The term “coup” is not one to be thrown lightly around in political circles. Many Canadians, however, scoffed at the notion that the Opposition was engaged in a coup. Conservative supporters, however, clearly begged to differ.

From the point of view of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, Dion had “no right” to form government after “losing” the election, and that the attempt by the Opposition to form a coalition government was an illegitimate attempt to seize power by an extra-constitutional means. From a Conservative viewpoint, one that Harper would have expressed to the GG at the time had he found himself in the scenario I’ve here created for him, a strong case could be made that Harper’s call for an election would have been much more in keeping with Canada’s democratic values than what the Opposition was trying to do. Hence, there would have been no need for the GG to use Reserve powers.

What Actually Happened

Of course, the above-scenario never had the chance to play itself out, because the GG granted Harper’s request to prorogue parliament. Many expressed their outrage that the GG would allow parliament to be prorogued, in order for the government to avoid a confidence vote. Indeed, back in the 1920s, when Prime Minister MacKenzie King visited the Governor General, Lord Byng, on the eve of a confidence vote, and requested a dissolution of parliament, Byng used the GG’s Reserve powers and denied the request.

But, as I’ve indicated earlier, the King-Byng affair can be viewed as an anomaly in the context of the history of the relationship between the Crown and State in the Westminister system. Did you know that, in Canada (and in Britain), no request to a Crown head of state to prorogue a parliament has ever been denied, at least not since the passage of the 1867 Great Reform Bill. I have to admit, I didn’t actually know that until recently. And it certainly put into clearer context the decision of Governor General Michaelle Jean to prorogue parliament back in 2008.

It appears that a strong case can be made that the Governor General’s use of Reserve powers to act against the advice of a Prime Minister is not something which can be undertaken lightly, and indeed, should only occur in extreme circumstances where the very foundations of our democratic principles and institutions are at risk. In that context, the request to prorogue parliament for a period of time amounting to a few months was determined not to constitute such a risk, even if it meant that Harper’s government would avoid a motion of confidence for a while.

And that’s just it: the prorogation of parliament wasn’t actually the tool used to avoid a vote of confidence; at the time the GG granted the request, it simply was going to delay the vote until parliament’s return in the new year. What scuttled the vote of confidence in the House was the fall of Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, and the rise of his replacement, Michael Ignatieff. It was Ignatieff’s decision to withdraw from the coalition. Remember his, “A coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition.” (and with straight-talk like that, is it any wonder that Ignatieff’s Liberals have fallen so hard in the polls recently?).

In Part III of this series, I’ll explore the possible future scenario of a Conservative Minority government resulting from this election, and how all of the above might play itself out.

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be considered consitent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

From Conservative Minority to Majority, Part I: Revisiting the December, 2008 Prorogation Decision

“We will go over the heads of Parliament; over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General; go right to the Canadian people.” – John Baird, in an interview with journalist Don Newman, regarding Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to prorogue parliament, December 2008.

“Stephane Dion does not have the right to take power without an election.” – Stephen Harper in the foyer of the House of Commons, November 2008.

Peter Mansbridge: “But they (the Opposition Parties) have that right (to form a coalition government).
Stephen Harper: “Well, that’s a question, a debate of constitutional law. My view is that the people of Canada expect the party that wins the election to govern the country. And that’s what I think people expect. And I think anything else, the public will not buy.”

My initial reaction to hearing the above statements from prominent Conservatives was to dismiss them as so much hot air. Clearly, when a minority government loses the confidence of parliament, the Governor General has the ability to turn to the Leader of the Opposition and ask whether that Leader believes that they can form a stable government. If the answer is yes, we get a new Prime Minister and cabinet. It’s happened in Canada in the past, and likely it will happen again sometime, maybe even sometime very soon.

Whether one believes that a coalition of parties which did not capture the largest number of seats in an election is egregious or actually more representative of the will of Canadian voters doesn’t matter here, right? The question is do those parties have the right to govern. And the answer, as I’ve always understood, is “yes, they certainly do” despite anything that might come out of the mouth of Stephen Harper, such as the statement he made in the foyer of the House in November 2008 regarding Stephane Dion. Rubbish.

I mean, I remember living through what happened here in Ontario in 1985, when the Liberals received more votes than any other party, but due to the fact that rural ridings on average have a smaller number of voters than do urban ridings, Frank Miller’s Progressive Conservatives ending up winning the most seats in the Provincial legislature. Peterson got together with then-NDP Leader Bob Rae and struck a deal. The two Opposition leaders signed an accord, with Peterson agreeing to implement some of the NDP’s policies in exchange for the NDP’s votes on matters of confidence. Miller saw the writing on the wall, and after the PC’s were defeated on their throne speech, he went to the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and advised that the Opposition was ready to govern in his place. David Peterson became the Premier.

John Baird’s comments to Don Newman back in December, 2008, have always been of interest to me, because they are both revealing, and not revealing at the same time. Just what did he mean about “going over the heads” of Parliament and the Governor General, with regards to Stephen Harper’s request to the GG to allow for a prorogation of the House? In Lawrence Martin’s book Harperland, Martin indicates that Harper’s director of communications, Kory Teneyke, had suggested that the Conservatives were ready to appeal to the Queen if they didn’t get the result that they wanted from the Governor General.

Appealing to the Queen would have been an interesting manoeuvre for the Cons to have made if the GG had refused Harper’s request to prorogue. Certainly, it would be in keeping with part of what John Baird had suggested, about going over the heads of Parliament and the Governor General. But, in now way could an appeal to the Queen be considered “going to the Canadian people”. So Baird’s comments on the matter remain tantalizing elusive regarding concise meaning.

Perhaps Baird was simply referring to a media campaign to sway the hearts and minds of voters that something highly irregular, immoral and potentially illegal was happening in Canada with a coalition trying to seize power from an elected government. Since we saw just that occur anyway in the days leading up to parliament’s prorogation, perhaps that’s all Baird had in mind. However, the media campaign cut both ways, as I recall that the Opposition was also working the media to advance their case that a coalition is legal and that it happens all of the time elsewhere. Both the Conservatives and the Opposition wanted Canadian public opinion on their side; maybe that would have swayed the GG’s decision to permit a prorogation (and maybe it did).

Some pundits have expressed the belief that Baird was trying to deliberately mislead Canadians with regards to the constitutionality of a coalition government. Perhaps this was the case. But what if we took John Baird at his word? Could there have been a plan to go to the Canadian people? What might this have meant?

When I think of “going to the Canadian people”, I can’t help but think that this meant an election. Yes, back when Baird uttered these infamous words in early December, 2008, Canada had just gone through an election which returned a minority Conservative government. The government had just delivered its “business as usual” throne speech, and the Opposition parties had voted to support it. Things didn’t fall apart until a few days later when the economic update was being delivered, and the Opposition parties cried foul over either a) the lack of attention to the economic crisis; or, b) the elimination of the per-vote subsidy to political parties. That’s when Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe got together, and the Liberals and NDP entered into a formal coalition agreement with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, leading to the so-called “Constitutional Crisis”.

Were the Conservatives really prepared to go to the people of Canada through another election, even though we had just had one shortly before? If Harper had to face the vote of confidence on the Monday following an unsuccessful visit to the GG, what would he have done? It’s worth exploring now what he could have done, had he found himself in this predicament. That’s what I’ll be doing in Part II of this post.

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be considered consitent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Triumph of Substance Over Spin: An Electoral Epiphany at the Social Planning Council's All-Candidates Meeting

Last night, I attended one of the most unusual meetings of federal election candidates that I've ever been to. Hosted by the Greater Sudbury Social Planning Council, the all-candidates meeting consisted of the normal questions and answers. What made last night's meeting a bit of a surreal experience was the strange behaviour of all of the candidates. Let me elaborate about what I saw.

I saw...candidates answer the questions they were asked, and not provide answers to the questions they might have preferred to have been asked. I heard answers which were considered and informative, largely devoid of spin, and almost entirely devoid of anything akin to an attack on the policies or personalities of the other parties. I saw candidates compliment one another, and draw attention to the good work that other parties have put into their policies.

In short, I seemed to have stepped into some sort of Twilight Zone episode where a group of politicians, opponents in an election, engaged their audience in a respectful way, and provided substantive answers to questions, in an effort to provide more information to voters.

Where was I? I thought...I thought that we were in the midst of an election here. An election where spin trumps substance, where policies are reduced to sharp spear-points used to impale opponents, rather than broad discussion points used to engage voters. Where popularity, often defined by how effectively one can skewer one's opposition, counts more for careful and considered platforms and program options.

I absolutely need to congratulate the Social Planning Council for hosting this meeting, and for sticking to the format they have developed. If Sudbury voters wanted the straight goods from the political representatives who are seeking their vote, they could not have done better than to come out to last night's meeting. Sadly, most in the audience, like myself, clearly found themselves in the “minds already made up” category.

The meeting was attended by the incumbent, Glenn Thibeault of the NDP. Thibeault was engaging and charming as usual, and aptly advanced the platform of his party in a way that made sense to those in the audience. He provided a veritable buffet of solutions on issues such as eliminating poverty and crime prevention, hitting all of his party's high notes. Thibeault, who was a very effective and persuasive speaker in the 2008 election (despite being a political novice at the time) has upped his game since being sent to the House of Commons as Sudbury's MP.

Not to be outdone by Thibeault was Carol Hartman, the Liberal candidate. She spoke concisely and effectively about some of the major Liberal platform planks, and clearly explained how those planks would go far in building the kind of Canada that Michael Ignatieff often talks about as a Liberal Canada. I had never heard Hartman speak before, and I was extremely impressed with her ability to communicate her Party's positions in a personal and engaging way. Her story about canvassing and encountering young mothers who have told her that they would really rather be working but can't afford child care really hit home with the audience.

Veteran politician Fred Twilley of the Green Party was also extremely effective at sharing his Party's views on a wide range of social issues. As a strong advocate for restorative justice, he really shone when discussing crime prevention. Along with leaving the audience curious as to just what might be in his garage, Twilley received the biggest round of applause of the evening when answering a question about the need for parties to work together in Parliament. He suggested that “coalition” and “co-operation” aren't dirty words, no matter what some are saying. Twilley clearly conveyed his understanding of the importance of our democratic institutions.

Last but not close to being the least, Will Morin from the “new kid on the block” First People's National Party challenged the audience to think about the issues in a different way. Not simply from a First Nations perspective, mind you. Morin illustrated how we our entire society has started to find itself in a similar position to First Nation's people, thanks to rampant globalization, increasing poverty and the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us. Morin, I'm sure, left the biggest impression on the audience with his wisdom and his wit. Although representing a small political party, he showed repeatedly that he is fearless when it comes to the health of Canada's democracy. Morin is a man we must all keep our eyes on in the years ahead.

The only downer of the night was the absence of Conservative candidate Fred Slade. No explanation was provided by the Social Planning Council (which doesn't necessarily mean that they weren't provided with an explanation). However, this is the second all-candidates meeting which Slade has been absent from. Yesterday's Sudbury Star reported that Slade has also turned down an opportunity to engage with his opponents and educate Sudburians on his Party's policies and platform at the Good Green Town Hall, taking place at the Fraser Auditorium next week. Seems that Slade, an accountant, is too busy to attend, given the time of year. Scuttlebutt on the internet is that Slade will be at the Chamber of Commerce's all-candidates debate next Tuesday at City Hall. That may be the only chance that Sudburians have to ask Slade just where the heck he has been, and why he continues to think that he would be an effective representative for Sudburians in Ottawa, given that he doesn't seem to want to participate all that fully in our democratic processes.

Not to slam Slade, but the more he absents himself from public forums, the more important that it is that he come clean and address these issues. Sure, we know that Conservative candidates throughout Canada are avoiding debates. It's an effective campaign strategy for a front runner which is running largely on its record. Especially when those front runners have a bad habit of shooting their Party in the foot when they do open their mouths. Look no further than to the recent musings of Brad Trost, Saskatoon-Humboldt's MP, who wants to do all that he can to re-open the abortion debate despite his Party's best efforts to remain silent on it.

The candidates appearing at last night's meeting openly wondered about Slade's absence. It was my impression that the audience certainly wanted to know more about where Slade has been throughout this campaign, but the candidates kept their musings to a respectable level, and went on with the business of discussing their platforms and the issues with those in attendance.

And it's too bad, really, because with the format of last night's meeting, Slade would have had a great opportunity to share his Party's vision on social issues with Sudburians. There weren't any questions asked which could not have been answered effectively by someone knowledgeable with the Conservative Party's platform and performance while in government. And for once, it wasn't at all clear that there were any (ok, maybe there was one) clearly partisan questions from audience members, which is the usual fare at debates. People in attendance genuinely wanted to hear about where Canada's largest political party stood on the issues which were important for them. But it wasn't to be. Sure, I guess we can call Slade or send him an email. But you know, it's just not the same. And frankly, these absences are eroding his credibility. Sudburians are seeing that.

In my annual Crystal Ball Gazing blogpost which I wrote at the beginning of the year, I predicted that Glenn Thibeault would go down in defeat to Fred Slade, because Slade is a crafty political insider and a good communicator. What I didn't foresee was that Slade would ending up following the same route as so many other Conservative candidates (including his predecessor in the 2008 election here in Sudbury) and deliberately silence himself for whatever reason. Sure, he's had a few press conferences which have received requisite media attention, and sure, nothing horrible has befallen his campaign, but Slade has put himself in an unexpected and unnecessary hole with his absences from public forums. Given that his Party was just recently forced from government due to contempt for democracy charges being brought against them in the House, it surprises me that Slade would show this kind of contempt for local voters, despite it being an effective election strategy. Sometimes it's more important to do what's right for others than it is to do what's right for yourself. In my opinion, an election campaign, where you are a candidate and inviting people to vote for you, well, that's always one of those times.

I have just one last thing to add about last night's meeting. When I returned home, I had the chance to catch Stephen Harper's interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC's “The National”. After watching politicians honestly answer the questions put to them, it was very disheartening to watch Harper wriggle and squirm and contort himself into a pretzel to avoid answering Mansbridge's question about the constitutional legitimacy of a coalition. Look, I realize that it's not a question Harper would prefer to answer, but by avoiding a straight answer, he's left the issue dangling for further interpretation. Frankly, it does his Party and himself a great disservice, because we still don't know just what Harper believes about the legitimacy of coalition governments in Canada. He opened the door on this issue long before the campaign ever started. He owes it to Canadians to be straight with his answers, but instead he chooses to insult our intelligence by avoiding straight answers.

At last night's all-candidates meeting, I felt uplifted, engaged, and proud to be a participant (even a partisan one) in Canada's democratic process. It's too bad that all voters (and especially those whom choose not to vote) couldn't have witnessed what I saw last night. Opinions of politics and politicians might have been altered by the experience.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Unexpected NDP Surge Derails Media-Scripted Election. Thank Goodness Something Has.

Well, someone finally chucked out the media script for the election, and we’ve suddenly entered into uncharted territory. Throughout the day today, a number of polls have been released which show the NDP surging ahead of the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec. Further, the NDP appears to be tied in national polling with the Liberals.

This wasn’t in anybody’s game plan.

The NDP had a solid, if uninspiring, start to the election campaign. In the first few weeks, however, media interest in Layton began to wane, as the election fell into a media-driven faux campaign, with issues left behind in the dust in preference to stories about the election itself. Even today, it remains difficult for those who want to talk about issues to get much in the way of face time with the media. Clearly, election campaigns have degenerated into spectacle-driven popularity contests.

And in such a contest, the unexpected appears to have happened. In both the English and French language leader’s debate, Jack Layton was perceived as the individual winner. This had more to do with his image than his policies; presentation again trumped substance.

This doesn’t really surprise me. Layton is a popular and likable man, and the NDP certainly knows how to play it to the camera. If they spent as much time working on fully-costed policies as they do on promoting themselves through the media, it might be a Party that I could get a little more excited about. But I certainly can’t deny that when it comes to glitz and glam, the NDP has always outperformed.

This is Jack Layton’s moment, and although I think that the surge is surprising him and the NDP handlers just as much as it’s surprising the media, this is exactly with the NDP have been hoping would happen (although not in their wildest dreams did they ever think that a breakthrough in Quebec would be leading the way).

Apparently, in Quebec, they’re talking about the “Jack-istes” today, in reference to young, urban, francophone NDP supporters. We’ll have to see if those supporters translate into votes at the ballot box, however, as this age demographic has a bit of a reputation for staying at home (or more precisely, at the office or at the study hall) on election day, whereas the Bloc can count on solid support from an older demographic that enjoys casting a ballot, and indeed who still believe it’s their civic duty to do so.

Good for the NDP, I say. I expect that their “dancing with the stars” moment will continue for the duration of the election. We could be witnessing a sea-change in Canadian politics here, folks, one which no one predicted.

Of course, as the NDP moves ahead of the Liberals in voter intention, it’s quite possible that this will lead directly to a false majority Conservative government situation, as heretofore “hopeless” NDP candidates in lost ridings begin to appear to be viable to voters. This last quarter surge in popularity is certainly going to play havoc with those online strategic voting sites, that’s for sure. And I say good to that too, as I’ve always been opposed to the concept of strategic voting. If we end up with a false majority Conservative government, that’s the way it goes. It will be yet more ammunition to ditch our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system. It might even convince the NDP that they need to actually do something about it, rather than just talk about it.

A late NDP surge isn’t good for the Green Party, that’s for sure. It will more than likely lead to an increasing number of undecided voters to hop on Jack’s bandwagon. That’s really too bad for us, given that the NDP’s policies are often in direct contradiction to many of the things for which the Green Party stands, including the need to take serious action on fighting climate change.

Sure, in one breath, the NDP says that they want to do more to reduce emissions. In the next breath, they’re talking about cutting taxes on fossil fuels which heat homes and regulating gas prices at the pump. They just don’t get it. Rather than providing hard-working people with real choices about how best to spend their money and putting a firm, easily predictable price on carbon, the NDP (along with the Liberals and the Bloc I hasten to add) seems to want to line the pockets of bankers and traders by imposing an emissions trading scheme on Canadian corporations.

But when Jack Layton says that he’ll stand up to the oil companies on behalf of hard working families and the environment, he just sounds so gosh-darn convincing, doesn’t he?

There’s no denying that Layton had a good couple of debates, although it wasn’t at all clear to me that he “won” either of them. What I can’t help but lament is how different all of this might have turned out for the Green Party had Canadians been given the opportunity to hear from Elizabeth May about the Green’s plans for Canada. While I couldn’t in my wildest dreams think that May’s participation in the Leader’s debates might have driven our Party’s support above the Bloc’s in Quebec, I’m equally sure that the NDP pundits never had such dreams either before this election’s debates.

While we’re clearly starting to stray from the script provided by the media for this election, there remains no doubt in my mind that the election itself continues to be influenced to a significant degree by the media. In a campaign where style trumps substance every time, a Party that can put on the ritz and glitz is going to shine, given the opportunity to do so. The NDP have been masters at doing so, with Jack Layton playing the role of the charming, urbane rabble-rouser. After the Leader’s debates, the media handed him the opportunity to shine, and that’s what he’s done. Or do you believe that all of those stories about Ignatieff and Duceppe having to shift gears to combat Layton’s performance didn’t have an impact on today’s polling?

There are a few things which are beginning to crystallize for me today. The first is that the national media has way too much influence in our democratic electoral process. The hype around the Leader’s debates, and the exclusion of a political party running candidates in just about every riding (made by faceless star-chamber oligarchs…and no, I’m not being over-dramatic) has had a significant impact on voting intention. Canadians need to know about candidates and political parties before casting their ballots, yet our national media has clearly not wanted to provide Canadians with an opportunity to find out more about the Green Party. I can’t help but wonder why that might be. Knowing the policies of the Green Party in the way that I do, I can’t help but think that maybe there’s something in those policies which might upset the corporate elite owners of much of our national newsmedia.

The other thing that I’ve learned is that former Prime Minister Kim Campbell was right when she suggested that elections were no time to discuss policy (I’m paraphrasing here, obviously). Being a member of a political party which relies heavily on policy as a means of gaining public support, it’s clear to me that if the Green Party is going to experience much in the way of success in any election, we’re going to need to think about becoming more like the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives. Which is problematic, because the Green Party is kind of the antithesis of a political party. We pride ourselves on being unlike the other parties.

Clearly, though, the NDP’s surge is pointing the way to success in Canadian politics (at least in a first-past-the-post electoral environment). Greens need more glitz and glam. And then we need to figure out a way to get ourselves noticed. Wow. And how much did writing those two sentences remind me of how I felt getting ready to attend a Grade 8 dance?

But since politics today seems to be more about popularity, perhaps getting ready for a Grade 8 dance is exactly what we need to be planning for. Let’s head into an election looking our best, surrounded by our friends, and on the look out for more. When the music starts, rather than standing against the wall, engaging in conversation with other wonks like ourselves, we’ll need to strut our stuff on the dance floor. And when the journalism class comes to take our pictures, we’ll have to make sure that we pose just right, for even though we stumbled our moves a dozen times on the floor already, that one picture in tomorrow’s student paper is what is going to make or break us. How many phone numbers will we get then?

Jack Layton and the NDP have just went through all of that, and on May the 2nd, they might be in receipt of a lot of new phone numbers. Elizabeth May has been doing all that she can to get noticed by the journalism student with the camera. Her moves on the dance floor are way better than anyone’s. But she must have done something to tick off the camera man, because no matter the moves, the coverage just isn’t coming.

And the last thing that I’ve realized is that the Green Party just can’t be successful in that kind of circumstance, because that’s just not who we are. We’re not glitz over substance, and we never can be. So we’ll need to figure out another way to promote ourselves. The only other way that I can think of is by spreading our message, slowly but steadily, to one voter at a time.

We’ve been paying far too much attention to trying to get the media on our side to do the communications job for us. Guess what? They’re not interested. So that means that we Green volunteers need to invest the time and energy into the slow and steady task of recruitment and messaging. We’re going to need help from the Party. Yes, we can use social media tools to help us out (and we absolutely have to). More than that, though, the Party is going to have to invest time and energy back into good old-fashioned organizing.

We’ll never beat the other parties at their game of spin and confusion. But I believe today’s developments with the NDP are a good thing, because I very much want to take Jack Layton at his word when it comes to proportional representation. If a few more NDP MP’s in the House actually end up pushing for proportional representation, maybe as one of the items on which a minority government might have to concede if confidence is to be bestowed, all the better. When we have an electoral system in which every vote truly counts, that will be so much better for all NDP and Green supporters.

So don’t set your bar for co-operation with the Liberals and Conservatives too low, Mr. Layton. You might have a significant, if unexpected, opportunity to influence public policy to a degree you’d not dare imagine. Don’t let Canadians down.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Conservatives Left Twisting in the Wind by Media on G8/G20

Talk about media-driven election stories. Yesterday, Joan Bryden of the Canadian Press wrote about what was contained in a draft report from Auditor-General Sheila Fraser about spending on the G8/G20 summit. This January draft of the AG’s report was shared with Bryden by an opposition supporter.

The story created sparks almost immediately, over the notion that Parliament might have been misled by spending to the tune of $50 million which was ear-marked for Conservative Minister Tony Clement’s Parry Sound-Muskoka riding. Apparently, this money has been allocated by parliament as part of a larger offering to help with border improvements. Further, the draft report seen by Bryden alleges that decisions to allocate funds to particular projects were made by Clement in consultation with the Mayor of Huntsville and the owner of Deerhurst resort, and that this might have been illegal.

Well, needless to say, Bryden’s was the story of the day, arriving like a hand-grenade in the midst of the Conservative campaign. It certainly appeared that the AG was painting a very problematic picture of the Conservative government’s actions. John Baird had to take to the airwaves in an effort to calm the outrage which began seeping through the media and the other parties. Baird claimed that he had seen a later draft, and that in the draft of the report he saw, there was no mention of misleading parliament.

Later, Sheila Fraser herself urged Canadians to be cautious about a leaked draft report, and to reserve judgement until the final version of the report could be tabled with parliament.

All parties yesterday were calling on the Auditor-General to release her report, but Sheila Fraser was clear that there is currently no mechanism in the legislation under which her office operates that would allow her to do so. And that really should come as no surprise to Canadians, as the Opposition Parties had been demanding the release of this report for some time, and the Conservatives have (quite rightly) pointed out that since the AG reports to parliament, Canadians will have to wait until parliament is sitting again before the report is made public (which actually makes their call to the AG yesterday to release the report quite disingenuous, and very hypocritical).

Today, media outlets such as the Globe & Mail are calling for the release of the report, and Constitutional experts are chipping in that maybe the Speaker of the House has some kind of authority to either compel the release of the report or simply provide the public with a copy itself. And of course, we’ve seen leaks now of later versions of the report.

Lost in all of the calls being made to the Auditor General now are a couple of really important matters which have everything to do with our democratic institutions. First off, the Auditor General has made it clear that she believes that there is no legal way for her to make the final version of the report public until such a time that Parliament is sitting again. The Auditor-General reports to Parliament; she does not answer to the Prime Minister or cabinet, or the leaders of Opposition parties. She certainly doesn’t answer to the media, and she answers to Canadians only through parliament. Why are so many voices so very quick now to call for our Auditor General to break the law, and to abandon the paramount relationship that she has with Parliament?

If Fraser decides that it really isn’t important that she provide this report to Parliament right now, because of the current crisis, what about the next time there is controversy with a report? If she compromises her reporting relationship to Parliament now, how will we be able to ensure that she won’t do so again in the future? Given that the Auditor-General’s role is non-partisan and exempt from political interference, why do Canadians want to see this position diminished? The short term gains of finding out what, exactly, is in the final version of her report do not justify the long-term risks associated with politicizing the office of the Auditor General.

Secondly, what on earth is going on with our media, who have been the most active drivers of this entire election campaign? Joan Bryden ought to have known the hornet’s nest that these allegations would stir up for the Conservative Party. And really, she ought to have known that her story on this leaked early draft of the AG’s report would leave the Conservatives in a vulnerable position, given that there really is no way for the Cons to justify or deny this accusation – because the accusation itself might actually not have ever been made. Indeed, if Baird and accounts emerging today about later drafts are to be believed, the notion that the Conservatives “misled” Parliament about procurement have not been carried forward in subsequent drafts.

The fact that the Conservatives poured money into Clement’s riding for questionable G8/G20 projects has been known for a long while. That the money might not have ended up there in the most transparent way possible is very problematic. The twist to this story added yesterday had to do with misleading Parliament and potential illegal actions of a Minister of the Crown. But this was all based on an excerpt from an early draft. With there being no mechanism for the release of the final draft until after the election, the Conservatives have been put in a very awkward and unfortunate position, on the eve of the televised Leader’s debate no less.

I really have to question what Bryden was trying to accomplish here. Look, I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t have much love for the Conservative Party, but what happened yesterday wasn’t right. Did the Conservatives pork-barrel spending to Parry Sound-Muskoka? Absolutely, but again, there's nothing new there. The whole G8/G20 was an unbridled fiasco, in my opinion. But yesterday's accusations of misleading parliament and doing something "possibly illegal" will stick to the Conservatives now, even though they might not actually be true, or only partly true. What is known is that we just can’t know what the truth is until Fraser tables her final report.

This whole episode smells of political opportunism on the part of…well, somebody. Maybe one of the Opposition parties. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just political opportunism on the part of the media, who were out to create the latest news story of the election. Either way, though, this story has placed the Conservatives in a very awkward situation, where they can neither confirm or deny the accusations being made against them, because the only place where the truth of the whole matter lies is in a report which Parliament and Canadians can’t see until after the election.

Joan Bryden and the Canadian Press should have realized that their piece about a leaked early-version of the A-G’s report would put the Conservatives in this sort of bind. Since it wasn’t clear at all whether what was reported was in any way what is in the mind of the Auditor General, what good did it do to reveal this to Canadians? The only good that I can think of is to make the Conservatives look bad. And that is simply political opportunism.

We cried foul when the RCMP interfered in the 2006 election when the NDP released a letter to the media saying that Liberals were being investigated for releasing details of the budget. Really, what happened yesterday is no different, as this latest intervention has left one Party unable to confirm or deny much of anything. It wasn’t right in 2006 and it’s not right now.

What was reported yesterday wasn’t news. It was politically opportunistic innuendo, which used the Office of the Auditor General as a political prop.

Canadians should be concerned about the level of influence which the media is having in this election. Rather than simply reporting on the news, the media appears to be going out of its way to make the news during this election. It is to the detriment of our democracy that these circumstances appear to be pervasive.

Canadians Deserve Better From the Fourth Estate

I’ve been troubled by the mainstream media’s coverage of the 41st General Election so far, and by all accounts, it isn’t going to improve. Specifically, my concerns relate to the media managing, and creating, the messages being conveyed to the electorate in such a way that Party Leaders and policies have become a prop in the media’s own Campaign Story. While this isn’t new, it seems that in this election, the media’s role has been more important than that of the political parties.

When the media itself is making the headlines during an election, that doesn’t bode well for democracy.

Nobody Cares

The media have been telling the story, since Day 1 of the election, that this election isn’t really about anything, and that no one really wants the election. Contrast this message to that of the Liberals and the NDP, who want Canadians to believe that this election is happening because of the Harper government’s contempt for parliament. And contrast the media’s message against that of the Conservative Party’s, which has been to offer voters a choice between a Harper government or a coalition government, while telling voters that this election shouldn’t be happening. Neither Party is suggesting that Canadians shouldn’t care about the election (or that they don’t care, which is subtly different). Why, then, is the media reporting that Canadians “don’t care” again and again and again?

I’m sure the media will say, “Well, that’s the story; Canadians don’t really care. And we’ve got the anecdotes to prove it.” I’ve commented on this before, and wondered aloud about how many voters might remark to the media that they really do care about an election, but when they do so, the clips just never make it to air, because it doesn’t support the media’s narrative. I would suggest that, based on all of the polls released daily which show voters support for the various political parties (and which usually do not report on “undecideds” or on how many have said that they will not be voting), that instead of apathy about the election, the real story is that Canadians are engaged enough to be able to be able to identify with a political party which they would like to support.

The problem with the media’s message that no one cares about the election is that it hasn’t been supported by the facts (at least that I’m aware of). Yes, I guess it makes compelling copy, but is it for real?

A supplementary question, which might not be relevant for the media: how does coverage of this nature assist Canadians with making the very important decision of who to vote for in the election? Keep that question in mind throughout this post.

Top Stories

What have some of the top stories of this election been so far? Have we seen much in the way of hard-hitting analysis of the party’s promises, policies and platforms? To be sure, we’ve seen some of that, but in terms of keeping this kind of analysis in front of the public for more than a day, it seems that news about policy is stale by the next day. Who really remembers, for example, what the Liberals really promised about Education, or what the Conservatives had to say about income splitting? Clearly, policy stories haven’t been “tops” in this election.

What’s been driving election coverage for the better part of the campaign have been the following stories (beyond the voter apathy story):

The Debate About the Debates

The decision of the media consortium to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the televised debates was the starting point for this story, which then seemed to take off in a few other directions. A lot of space has been taken up during this campaign to analyze who the media consortium is, and how we might be able to develop criteria to establish an entry level into the debates for next time. Opinions regarding whether May should or should not be there have been expressed, and discussions have been had about debate formats, including Stephen Harper’s infamous challenge to Michael Ignatieff for a one-on-one, which Harper retracted the following day.

This week, we’ve seen all sorts of things about how Leaders prepare for the debates, about whether to go for a knock-out punch, and about the need to practice ju-jitsu to fend off an opponent’s attack. We’ve heard about how important the debates are in the electoral process, but not important enough to make Canadians decide between watching them or a Habs game. And we’ve been subjected, time and again, to watching Brian Mulroney tell John Turner that he had a choice.

How does any of this help Canadians decide who to cast their ballots for on May 2nd?

Vote Compass

CBC’s on-line voter aid, Vote Compass, gathered a lot of press in the first week of the campaign, and as a story, it hasn’t completely gone away yet. Vote Compass was unveiled as a means of assisting voters in identifying the Party which would most represent their interests. Pretty quickly, it came under attack by other media organizations (notably Sun media) for a “Liberal Party” bias. Greens, too, have been decrying Vote Compass as actually misrepresenting the policies of the Green Party.

Stephen Harper’s Bubble Campaign

The media have really piled on Stephen Harper for his decision to take only 5 questions a day. This has led the media to claim that Harper is campaigning inside of a very stage-managed bubble, and have done all that they can to justify the claim. As a result, we’ve heard from students who have been turned away from Conservative rallies because they have Facebook photos where they have posed with other Leaders, or because they are part of a University’s Environmental Club. In some cases, the media has contrasted Harper’s closed-door approach to that of Michael Ignatieff, or they have supplemented the story with images of students who are trying to tell Harper that student votes matter.

Michael Ignatieff Doing Better than Expected

And the news media, of course, have been all over the story that, wow, look at Michael Ignatieff go…that he’s not nearly as bad on the campaign trail as he is in…real life? Parliament? Anywhere else? Given that the media has been predicting for years that Ignatieff will excel on the campaign trail, this story has come as little surprise to anyone.


None of these “top stories” really tell anybody much about anything at all about the similarities and differences of those running for office, or what their points of view about the issues are. These “top stories” have defined the election to date, which is a sad commentary, given that they say nothing much about anything.

One story which has started to creep into the media is that voters really want to hear about issues. I think this came from today’s NANOS poll (and I’m not going to go on about polls today). If Canadians are so hungry to hear about the issues, can we expect the focus of the media to begin shifting over the last couple of weeks of the election? I’m not optimistic at all, because I believe that the media has a narrative which it will continue to pursue, unless something from outside of the election comes up.

Fact is, the only meaningful discussion that Canadians are likely to see about the issues in this election will be in the two televised debates. Of course, this discussion will be unfiltered, and as such, it will be filled with the spin of the 4 parties present (and missing the contribution of Canada’s 5th Party, whose Leader was excluded by the broadcast consortium with the notion in mind that she wouldn’t have anything to contribute which Canadians would want to hear about). It’s almost guaranteed that the media will focus on the insubstantial elements of the debates, such as a knock-out, or who held their own, or discussions about power-ties or the best zingers. Unless one of the Leaders uses this opportunity to make a bold policy announcement (and none will), you can bet that the substance of the debates will be forgotten after a few days, while the zingers keep playing until May 2nd.

And the media narrative will continue. The election will become a two-horse race, between a surging Michael Ignatieff and a slipping Stephen Harper who is trying to hold onto his support with an iron grip. The NDP will continue to be sidelined (even if the polls continue to show the same level of support), and the Green Party will have been forgotten, just as the Bloc is outside of Quebec.

And on May 2nd, it will be Harper’s election to lose. Whether a Conservative Majority or Minority is the outcome, we won’t know until the last ridings in B.C. report in. And wow…won’t that make for gripping television?

Canadians might not ever really find out what the different parties really stand for. Instead, we’ve been cast adrift in a sea which is all surface and no depth.

We know that the media can do better during an election. Why, then, has it come to this, when so much which is important is on truly on the line?

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

There's Something Happening Here in Greater Sudbury's Downtown

There's something happening here in Greater Sudbury. What it is ain't exactly clear. Well, actually it is pretty clear, and it's exciting, and even though I should be writing about the federal election, I just feel the need to share a recent experience that I had at Tom Davies Square.

Tonight, I witnessed something truly wonderful and miraculous at the City of Greater Sudbury's planning committee meeting. On tonight's agenda was the approval of a request to rezone lands owned by Centennial Enterprises Inc., on the fringe of the City's downtown (Brady and Paris, roughly), to permit high density development. Specifically, zoning permission was requested which would see three 17-storey apartment buildings constructed on a prominent hill top, overlooking City Hall.

The development proposal itself might come as no surprise to anyone living in Ontario. Other communities have been asked to integrate higher-density dwellings into the existing urban fabric. Cities such as Oakville and Brampton, however, have struggled with getting things right. And residents who live in proximity to where the intensified development is going to locate have often found themselves in front of the Ontario Municipal Board, pleading their case to not allow their neighbourhoods to be destroyed.

But here in Greater Sudbury, none of that happened. Instead, planning committee was treated to a number of speakers who politely demanded that the City approve this development proposal, in an effort to begin the process of revitalizing our downtown core. And planning committee easily made the decision to give this proposal the nod.

Bryan Wolofsky, the developer, spoke passionately about the need for the City to offer more opportunities for downtown living. He said that the towers on the hill would be a prominent feature of the Sudbury skyline, and that's in party why this location was chosen for high-density development. That and the fact that it is right adjacent to the downtown core, and within walking distance of 11 transit stops, including the City's transit terminal.

The process which this proposal went through to arrive at where it did tonight wasn't a fast one. Area residents had initially expressed some concerns regarding the scale of the development, massing on the site, and concerns about traffic. These concerns were valid. This development proposal really will alter the character of the existing neighbourhood.

The developer demonstrated that over the months since the application was made to the City, that he had been working to address these concerns where possible. The number of units dropped from 1,000 to 800, as a result of removing one apartment block from the plan. Internal roadways were re-routed away from the lot lines of existing low-density lots. And concerns about access were in part addressed by providing opportunities for multiple vehicular and pedestrian access points from different parts of the site (including the provision for a pedestrian elevator or escalator, to assist with moving foot traffic up and down the cliff-face along Brady Street).

Tonight, the City's planning committee made a decision which is going to start changing everything. It was a bold, and progressive decision, made easier by a developer who clearly has the interests of the community in mind, and who engaged in an open process to work with residents, rather than against them.

The City is currently in the process of finalizing the Downtown Master Plan, which will be calling for more residential development in the City's core. Adding 800 small apartment units, fit for singles, young families and seniors, will go a long way to meeting this goal. A safe and vibrant downtown is a downtown which is used throughout the day and evening, where a healthy mix of commercial and residential uses co-exist side-by-side (or better yet, on top of one another!)

Greater Sudbury's downtown is slowly resurrecting itself, and in the process, it is defining itself as the go-to part of the City for central office locations, boutique retail, excellent cuisine, and a vibrant walkable nightlife. With tonight's decision to permit high-density living in the downtown, the core is sure to become the place for Sudbury's creative class to want to live, work and play.

There's something happening here in Greater Sudbury's downtown. And it's just great!

A Conservative Majority Government Election Scenario Worth Pondering

So, Stephen Harper keeps telling Canadians that they have two choices: it’s either give him a Conservative Majority government, or instead they’ll end up with a Coalition of Losers, which include socialists and separatists. In the past, Harper has avoided talking about majority government for his party, for fear that average Canadians might still harbour concerns about his hidden agenda. This election, he’s turned the tables on the Opposition Parties, so now “average Canadians” are in fear that Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton might become Deputy Prime Ministers in a second-rate Ignatieff-led parliament. Which would be bad for the economy, by the way.

But, what if Canadians don’t give Harper his (false) majority? What if, instead, we end up with a parliament very much like the one we have now? Harper says that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc would defeat a minority Conservative government at the first opportunity, and attempt to seize power by forming a coalition government. While acknowledging that the “rules” would allow the Opposition parties to do so, Harper labels such a government as being “illegitimate”. Others in his party have used the word “coup” to describe a process which is completely within keeping of our Westminister style of parliament.

Back in December of 2008, during the so-called Constitutional Crisis (which wasn’t a constitutional crisis at all), you may remember that Harper and other prominent Conservative MP’s, and conservative media pundits, were talking about the legalities and morality of a Liberal / NDP coalition government, supported by the Bloc Quebecois. To stave off a confidence vote, Harper decided to approach the Governor-General with a request to prorogue parliament. At that time, some of the discussion about the legitimacy of a coalition government of defeated parties began to turn into a discussion about whether the Governor-General had the authority to say No to the Prime Minister’s request to prorogue.

I recall hearing from a number of conservative thinkers that they believed the GG’s powers to say no to a Prime Ministerial request had been restricted over the years since King-Byng. Some believed that the GG must follow the advice of a Prime Minister, and essentially do as the PM pleased. Now, many other prominent thinkers held alternative views: that the GG’s decision was hers to make, and although it was incumbent upon the GG to listen to the PM’s advice, she did not have to follow it.

Yet, follow it she did, by agreeing to prorogue a parliament which was only days old, and in order to stave off of vote of non-confidence. Many at the time thought that the GG’s decision was pretty bizarre, given that there was a formal agreement in place between the Opposition parties which would have led to a more stable government than the current minority situation.

Of course, a question was put to John Baird, regarding what might happen if the GG refused to prorogue parliament. The answer given was that the Conservatives would go over her head. To the Queen? No, to the Canadian people.

Given that the Conservative Party was on record with their opinion that the Governor-General has to follow the advice offered by the Prime Minister when making a decision, and given that there remains hanging over all PM / GG dealings this threat about going over the head of the GG to the “Canadian people” (despite there not being any formal mechanism to do so), and given the 2008 prorogation precedent to avoid a confidence vote, and given that a new Governor-General appointed by Stephen Harper will now have to make decisions, could events in the near future play out like this?

And yes, this is only speculation on my part. But, I think it’s worth considering. What might happen if the Conservatives are returned with a minority government? Michael Ignatieff has gone on record saying that he won’t form a coalition, but is it maybe realistic to think that, with the support of the NDP and the Bloc, as articulated in some form of agreement or accord (in line with the one which NDP Leader Bob Rae entered into with Liberal Premier David Peterson in 1985 to oust the PC’s under Frank Miller), Ignatieff might try to govern? Or perhaps Ignatieff might simply say that a Harper government is still a government with contempt for parliament, and as a result, a vote of non-confidence in the thrown speech is warranted. And given the change in circumstance, Ignatieff might very well say that he will form a coalition government with the NDP, supported by the Bloc.

With an Accord, or an informal agreement, or even if a coalition is back on the table, I believe that there is a very good possibility that the Opposition parties will get together in a bid to oust a Conservative minority government after this election, if one is returned. The fact of the matter would be that a minority government would still be composed of largely the same individuals who showed such contempt for parliament in the past that an argument could be made that Canadians deserve better. And of course, the results of the election will show that more Canadians didn’t vote for Conservatives than those that did. The Opposition would be in a position to indicate clearly to Canadians that they should be allowed to form government, given this result.

But to do so, they first must defeat the Conservatives on a matter of confidence, such as the throne speech. And to be a legitimate bid for power, it really must be the throne speech on which the defeat occurs, as it will be the very first matter of confidence before the House. Back in 2008, the Opposition parties did not try to defeat the new government on the throne speech, and as such, many Canadians were left wondering how it could be that the Opposition had confidence in the government one day, and a few days later, they lost confidence. Maybe it was the move to take away the per-vote subsidy in the budget after all.

This time, the Opposition can’t afford to make that mistake. If they’re in agreement that they will try to form government, they must defeat the Conservatives on the throne speech. And doing so will mean that the Conservatives will have little opportunity to prorogue.

So, the Opposition parties vote against the throne speech, and the Conservatives lose the confidence of the House. Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes a walk to his friend, the new Governor-General, whom Harper and the rest of the Conservative Party believe must follow the advice of the PM. Harper says that he’s lost the confidence of the House, and…

That he would like to go to the Canadian people for a new mandate to govern. That the Governor-General should immediately dissolve parliament and call the 42nd General Election.

Wait a moment, I can hear you say. Wouldn’t the GG turn to the Leader of the Opposition first, to find out whether he believed that a stable government could be formed? Well…I would agree that the GG has the ability to do so, and right now, media pundits who are debating coalitions and how Ignatieff might become PM even without winning the most seats in the house – they’re all saying that the GG could do this. In fact, it’s almost as if the media is assuming that the Governor-General would turn to the Leader of the Opposition to form government if the Conservatives lose a confidence motion. This would provide for a stable government, at least for a while, and avoid another costly election.

But why wouldn’t Stephen Harper and the Conservatives rather fight another election, immediately, after the “illegitimate” coalition once again tried to “seize power” from the victors of the election? With enough money in the bank to go all-out in a second election in three months, and with what is likely to be the weight of public opinion on their side, surely Harper isn’t going to go to the GG and request that the reigns of power be handed over to the Leader of the Coup, Ignatieff, and his deputies, Layton and Duceppe.

The only question I have is whether the GG will play ball with Harper. And I think that he just might, claiming that the will of Canadians needs to be respected, because the victors in the election aren’t being allowed to govern. Remember, the new GG has conservative baggage at the back of his closet. And recall that Conservatives have already advanced the argument that the GG is there to follow the advice of the PM, period, and not to think for himself. And, whether or not the GG believes that he has to follow the advice of the PM, certainly he might choose to do so himself anyway; there’s nothing which would require the GG to turn to the Leader of the Opposition.

This would all mean another election, starting likely in late May or early June. And it would almost certainly lead to the Conservative Majority government that Harper craves. Ignatieff’s credibility about a coalition would be shot, and the Opposition Parties would be vilified by the mainstream media and the electorate for trying to seize power from the winning party (despite having the constitutional ability to do so). Can you just imagine the level of rhetoric in such an election? Harper would tell Canadians that the coalition has needlessly plunged Canada into yet another economy-damaging election. Nevermind reality here folks; it’s the spin that will matter most.

Yes, this could very well be the route that Harper and the Conservatives get their Majority government. With the advantage of destroying the Liberal Party in the process.

You heard it here first.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)