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)