Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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)


rww said...

Except that parties do not win elections, Members of Parliament do and whoever can gain the confidence of a majority of them gets to form a government

Sudbury Steve said...

@rww: well, you and I may agree on that, but there are a number of people running for office who don't see it that way. They clearly see the Party's victory as paramount over those of individual MP's. Rightly or wrongly (and we both agree that this is wrong), when viewed through this lens, what it means to "win" an election looks quite different to those involved.

I hope you continue reading future parts of this series.

ck said...

That part of "Harperland" has stuck with me as well. I remembered that meeting between harper and Michaelle Jean took a few hours. The fact a request to prorogue took a few hours had fascinated many amongst the chattering classes. It was never revealed why she granted the prorogation. There is no law requiring the GG to reveal this information. However, if I were a betting woman, I suspect that much of that meeting was spent Harper making all sorts of vile threats. "Nice GG job & perks you have there..."

It is even more suspicious that the next prorogation, New Years 2010 was done so easily, over the phone, no less.