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Backed into a corner
Dec 04, 2008

Regardless of what tactics Prime Minister Stephen Harper uses to counter the threat of a Liberal-NDP  coalition, the present crisis is of his own making.

Last Sunday afternoon, Craig Oliver of CTV’s Question Period sized up the situation best while interviewing federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. When the minister said the Harper government was prepared to consult with the opposition parties on a future economic stimulus package, Oliver looked on incredulously and asked Flaherty: “Why didn’t you consult before now? Why didn’t you do what Obama is doing — reach out to the opposition?”

Flaherty mumbled something to the effect that Conservatives had a firm hand on the economy, while repeatedly using the phrase “steady as she goes.”

“Sometimes steady as she goes is not a good idea,” said Oliver, “especially if you’re headed for the rocks!”

What Harper did with his so-called economic statement was back the already reeling opposition parties into a corner. Instead of throwing the opposition parties a bone — a small scrap for them to gnaw on — he acted like a bully and smacked them squarely in the jaw, forcing them to bite back.

Harper may have seen the Liberals as cowering in a corner after their beating at the polls in the last election, but he mistook opposition weakness as a sign that he could do virtually anything he wanted despite leading a minority government.

What is particularly troubling is that the present constitutional crisis, which forced Governor General Michaëlle Jean to cut short her European trip, was totally unnecessary. 

Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin told CJOB radio talk show host Richard Cloutier, “Stephen Harper blew it.” Martin said the Harper could have reached out to the opposition parties, but “instead he listened to Tom Flanagan (former Reform Party strategist and Conservative campaign director) and reached across the aisle and slit his opponents’ throats ...” Former Elmwood-Transcona MP Bill Blaikie, noted as one of this country’s leading parliamentarians, commented to the same radio host that if Harper had sought a consensus with his opponents “that would be leadership ... if he had he wouldn’t be in this spot.”

The Harper government has since backed down on some of the more contentious matters in the fiscal package, but it was too little, too late to stop the momentum from building in the ranks of the opposition parties to create a coalition to replace the Harper regime.

Harper also delayed the vote on the economic statement until December 8 in order to buy time to come up with an alternative plan to deal with the coalition threat. As the situation now stands, Harper will lose the confidence vote.

While the constitutional crisis provides plenty of fodder for media pundits, it does little to soothe Canadian anxiety about the mounting economic uncertainty within the country.

The merits of the Liberal-NDP  coalition forming the next government are questionable, especially having to rely upon the separatist Bloc Québeçois to support the government during confidence votes, but Jean has been forced to address the issue, interpreting constitutional convention to come up with a ruling. It’s a dilemma she would have probably preferred to avoid.

Among the constitutional precedents now being discussed is the Byng-King affair of 1926. In June of that year, Prime Minister Mackenzie asked Governor General Julian Byng to prorogue parliament in order to hold a general election. King was convinced that his government would lose a confidence vote in the House and the Conservatives would assume power. Byng refused and asked Conservative Leader Arthur Meighen — the only Manitoban to hold Canada’s top political office — to form a government. 

At the time, the Conservatives actually held more seats in the House than the Liberals, who held onto power through a deal with the Progressives. The Progressives, primarily a Western-based agrarian party with a strong following in Ontario, was diminishing in importance by 1926. It had been the Official Opposition  in the House in 1921, but the party’s leader, Thomas Crerar from Manitoba, had become disgusted by the Progressives’ lack of political coherence and resigned. By the 1925 election, the Progressives were a fractured party, although with enough MPs to prop up King and the Liberals in the House.

Meighen and the Conservatives lost a vote of confidence in the House after being in power for just three months. In the subsequent general election, King and the Liberals successfully claimed that Byng had abused his authority by refusing to call the election request and appointing Meighen as prime minister. King’s exploitation of the Byng-King Affair resulted in a Liberal majority in the House. 

Constitutionally, Byng had been within his rights to refuse King’s request and appoint Meighen, but the outcome of the Byng-King Affair was to reinforce the convention that the governor general accept whatever election advice is offered by a prime minister.

Jean can accept whatever Harper requests, such as proroguing Parliament until the New Year (at press time, she was meeting with Harper), or chart her own course. If there is a confidence vote on December 8  and it is lost by the Conservatives — extremely likely under the circumstances — Jean would be within her rights to ask the coalition, which with BQ support has a majority of the members in the House, to form the government. She could also accept Harper’s potential advice to call an election.

Under the circumstances, Jean has significant power within constitutional convention in a parliamentary democracy system to resolve the crisis that could have been avoided. Although appointed by a prime minister who is the political leader of the nation, the governor general is constitutionally the head of the Canadian government as the Queen’s representative in this country.

Whatever her ruling, the Conservatives will probably not remain long in power, provided the coalition can hold together into the New Year. Harper’s mistake in judgement may also spell the end of his days as the Conservative Party leader. Instead of being able to celebrate a second election victory with significantly more seats won than in the previous election, the Conservatives find themselves on the cusp of disaster, a situation that they can thank Harper for creating.