Friday, December 5, 2008
Liberal-NDP Coalition versus Harper: What now?
A couple of friends have asked me whether I feel angry about Governor General Michaelle Jean's decision to prorogue Parliament until late January. The answer is no, not really. I feel frustrated at the whole situation, I suppose, but not really angry at Michaelle Jean. I think that she more or less followed constitutional protocol, which, as I understand it, declares that the Governor General is obligated to follow the advice of her first minister (i.e., the Prime Minister) before all others, so long as the PM does not openly counsel action contrary to the interests of the nation. And, unless Stephen Harper is a yet bigger fool than he has lately shown himself, in his private conversation with Jean, he won't have told her that he wanted a prorogation because (as Bob Rae aptly put it, he is "afraid to show up for work") but rather, he would have argued blandly that since the stability of the country and the demands of the majority opposition both demanded a sound financial plan, and since such a plan cannot be written overnight, a suspension of parliament was necessary. I'm quite sure that Jean, as a small-l liberal, was gnashing her teeth when she heard this, knowing that Harper was a disgusting hypocrite who only wanted to hold on to power; but perhaps she was hoping that the very fact that Harper was willing to have the country go ungoverned for two whole months (!) during a national crisis would demonstrate conclusively to Canadians just how bad a leader they were stuck with. In short, she may be expecting that, through his crass attempts to save his job, Harper would have destroyed his career. It's certainly likely that he will now NEVER win a majority, because he has alienated Quebec so far with his anti-separatist hysteria that they will be unable to ever convince them of his honesty again.
But, alas, if the Globe and Mail polls are accurate, the rest of the country has not, apparently, yet realized what a disastrous mess Harper has made with his egoistic approach to governing. Most of the country still blames the crisis on the coalition parties, not on Harper. That is a crazy notion that seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of parliamentary democracy. I am not sure whether the saturating effect of American television is to blame here or not, but most Canadians apparently still do not understand how their system works; and when Harper's apologists speak of our government as if it were a republican system, crying out, more or less, that Stephen Harper was "elected" leader, and that to depose him would be a usurpation of the duly elected head of state, people seem to believe this. Yet, the fact is that we do not elect Prime Ministers or Premiers, we elect Members of Parliament, and those people, along with other party members, choose party leaders. The Governor General, in deputation for the Queen, is our head of state, and one of her jobs is to invite a leader and party of her choice to form the government. By convention, she invites the party which has had the most members of parliament elected, because the crucial point is that the government of the day must have the confidence of the house. So, in the case of a majority government, the choice is a no-brainer. But in the case of a minority government, the matter is not so straightforward. To take a theoretical example, suppose we had a parliament in which as many as twelve parties were represented by elected members, and one of them was an extreme-right party like the Nazis, which had, simply through a splitting of the centre-left vote, gained the most members of parliament---albeit still a minority, just a larger minority than the other parties, for whom a fascist government, naturally, would be anathema. Well, in that case, the GG might, quite legitmately, declare that she did not believe the Nazis held the confidence of the house, and instead invite a plausible coalition of non-fascist parties to form a government, provided they could sustain the confidence of the majority of the house. That's how it works. So a leader of a minority government is forced, in such a situation, to consult and co-operate so as to sustain the confidence of the majority of the house, and we thereby see democracy in action. At least, in theory that's what happens.
However, in this case, although Stephen Harper had secured the confidence of the house with his Speech from the Throne, he then promptly lost it by (a), refusing to offer or vaguely promise or even seriously consider a financial strategy consonant with those which virtually ALL economists and other world leaders declared was necessary given the financial crisis; and instead (b), using the occasion of the greatest financial crisis facing the country in eighty years and the opportunity presented by a lame duck Liberal leader to viciously undermine the other parties by removing the per-vote financial support which a previous bill had put in place. (The notion of that per-vote support was to level the playing field, so that a party that attracted very rich voters with promises of high income tax cuts (e.g., the Harper Conservatives), would not be able to buy elections by easily winning the financial support of the very rich and thereby buying the most effective election advertising.) Harper did this without consulting the rest of his caucus. His arrogant bet was that the Liberals were too weak and would never dare to risk an election by removing their confidence, and he certainly never dreamed that they would be angry enough at his combination of complacent ineptitude and mean-spirited pettiness to cut a deal with the NDP, let alone the Bloc. But he was wrong. He ruined himself through hubris.
Now, of course, Harper is in full panic mode. His request that parliament be suspended for two months is an outrageous abdication of responsibility, but under constitutional protocol, the GG could hardly be expected to deny the request. I only wish that there were at least a little more public indignation about his ostrich strategy during a time of national crisis, which, surely, with a little nudging, even the most partisan idiot can see represents an unacceptable dereliction of duty.
However, having said that, I am no longer eagerly awaiting the coalition to take over, as I was last weekend. I have regretfully concluded that, at this point, we are really better off sticking with a (presumably, for public appearances anyway) contrite Harper and his party for the next year, because as things stand, the Liberals have just got to get another leader in place before they can govern effectively. Stephane Dion badly screwed up his last best chance to redeem himself by botching the video response to Harper's attempt to portray the coalition as some sort of anti-democratic usurping force. Dion's was a weak and banal speech in any case (and it would have been so EASY to make Harper look like the duplicitous manipulator that he is!); but even setting aside the underwhelming content of the speech, the technical ineptitude with which it was assembled and communicated is simply inexcusable. After all, this was possibly the most important television address of his career, and yet Dion seemed to have handed responsibility for making the recording over to Laurel and Hardy. In case you haven't read, the thing arrived more than an hour late, at the wrong address, and in the wrong format, and in the video Dion is positioned before a bookshelf upon which, prominently displayed, is a book entitled "Hot Air" just to the upper left of his head. Was this deliberate sabotage, perhaps? That would explain something. At any rate, Stephen Harper must have been crowing with laughter.
But I was just depressed. Up until then, I had been rather hoping that, in January, when Harper tabled his budget, the three oppostion parties would give a vote of no confidence and then, when the inevitable election was called (it being no longer five or six weeks after the election, but a full three and a half months), the NDP and the Liberals would go into the election with a sort of non-agression pact that saw them making a pact in which one or the other removed candidates for ridings in which, by presenting the electorate with either a Liberal candidate or an NDP candidate, but not both, they could unseat a Conservative. Now, however, I think it would be a bad idea because the chance to allay the suspicions of Canadians was botched the other day, and the whole enterprise now looks likely to backfire. And on that note, I also believe that it's a really, really bad idea to have Bob Rae, of all people, as the points-person for this coalition. Personally, I like and respect Bob Rae, but we must be realistic: if he has an albatross around his neck, it's the perception of the flakiness of his Ontario Provincial NDP government of the early nineties, with, first, its year of wildly impractical overspending, and then, when it became obvious that this could not be sustained, its years of desperate cutbacks. There might well be mitigating factors, but as things stand, Rae is only going to bring the taint of suspected head-in-the-clouds socialism to the whole idea of the Liberals getting into bed with the NDP, let alone the Bloc. Certainly, the Liberals could benefit from making SOME headway with the left, but mainly they need to win back the centre which has, bizarrely, been wooed over to the Harper Conservatives. People look at Harper and they mistake his banality for moderation.
At any rate, I now believe that the best scenario for those of us of whom Harper has made enemies (such as people with some respect for the arts, some concern for the environment and some compassionate sense of fairness with regard to gay Canadians) is this: the Liberals limp along until May, and in the meantime take advantage of the golden opportunity to show up Harper as the small, spiteful, incompetent, duplicitous man that he is, and also to allow the Conservative government to begin to feel the pain of the financial cataclysm to come in the next six months. Then, in May, the Liberals might be able to perform a rebirth at the leadership convention, and after a summer of subtle campaigning Ignatieff might win the election when they call a vote of confidence in Fall of 2009.