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Harper finally gets his comeuppance

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A few weeks ago, with the electoral wars over, Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated a willingness to abandon the confrontational approach that had been the hallmark of his first stint as prime minister. This seemed to be an acknowledgment of something quite basic: Since recourse to another early election was not an option, this Parliament needed to work, not least because of the impending financial crisis. Regrettably, Harper's conciliatory tone proved an aberration at best and, at worst and most likely, a sham and a crass political ploy. Neither in this nor any future Parliament is the opposition ever likely to trust him again.

Like Richard Nixon, Harper seems obsessed not merely with defeating his opponents, but with destroying them. The fact that he could not restrain himself, even in a minority position, bespeaks a kind of sickness better explained by pathology than politics. It is poetic justice that after Harper's repeatedly goading, taunting and humiliating his opponents, they finally sucked up their guts and kicked him in the privates.

In consequence, he has achieved the improbable: a coalition against him. If it endures, he faces the near certainty of being defeated in the House, the only question being one of timing. The fury of his current attacks, media blitz and wholesale distribution of various forms of propaganda can only inflame the situation further. Aided by conservative media, the Conservatives have worked themselves into a frenzy that combines legitimate political concerns with all sorts of doomsday predictions calculated to appeal to the credulous and to many Canadians who have never had much reason to think about the workings of our parliamentary system.

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There is obviously much confusion and misinformation out there about how parliamentary systems derived from the so-called "Westminster model" actually work. Unlike Americans who elect a president separate and apart from electing a Congress, we elect a House of Commons, the makeup of which determines which MP will be prime minister. Much of the time that is obvious: If one party has a majority, the leader of that party becomes prime minister. If no party has a majority, the Governor General would usually invite the leader of the largest party to become prime minister and form a government -- which could and would remain in office so long as it had the confidence of a majority of the members of the House. Even that, however, is not an iron-clad rule: in the election of 1925, the governing party not only lost its majority but emerged as the second-largest party in the House. The then prime minister exercised his right to meet Parliament, believing that the third party in the House would support his government and, for a time, it did.

Therefore, though it is usually the case, there is no requirement that the prime minister be the leader of the largest party -- or, indeed, a party leader at all: In 1940, when Winston Churchill became prime minister, he was not the leader of the Conservative party and did not become so until later. What all this means is that, in principle, any party can form a government if a majority of the House will support it; most of the time that doesn't happen for political reasons. There is no constitutional rule preventing it. The confidence of the House is the critical factor.

It follows from this that, under our system, a government can change without recourse to an election particularly if an election has recently been held -- as in Canada in 1926, Ontario in 1985 -- and Canada in 2004 if Harper, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton had been successful. For it to occur in the present situation will depend on several considerations, one of which, unfortunately, is the unattractiveness of both Harper and Dion. If either leader were replaced by someone else in their respective parties, that party's appeal would undoubtedly increase immediately. More fundamentally, however, the question turns on whether Harper, losing a confidence vote in the House, is granted a dissolution.

Though Harper called the October election at his own convenience, the new Parliament does not exist merely for his convenience: It was elected by the people of Canada, whose collective decision was to deny him a majority.

Though Parliament is now prorogued, when it resumes in January, the Governor General still could not simply agree to a dissolution without first satisfying herself that no alternative government is possible without an election. Given the $300-million cost of an election held only seven weeks ago, and given the magnitude of a looming financial crisis, the Governor General would be justified -- indeed, required -- to canvass all options, including the one proposed by Dion and Layton, assuming it is still on the table. This is one of the few areas where the Governor General has real discretionary power -- not to use it would be an abdication and reduce the office to a mere cipher. It would also mean that, hereafter, minority prime ministers would be free -- as Eugene Forsey once said -- to act as though the electors have simply got their arithmetic wrong and must be put through elections over and over again until they get it right.

 

wnwfp@mts.net

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2008 A13

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