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Canada’s new solitudes

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Canada cannot be both a parliamentary and a populist democracy.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/04/2009 (5043 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Canada cannot be both a parliamentary and a populist democracy.

Parliamentary Democracy In Crisis, an explosive new book analyzing December’s constitutional showdown, written by 15 of Canada’s leading parliamentary experts, says Canada must bridge its two largely irreconcilable democratic cultures or face an uncertain future.

Canada’s two solitudes are no longer Quebec and English Canada. Today, the two solitudes are Historic Canada and The West.

Polls taken during the crisis found that Historic Canada — Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes — backed parliamentary democracy and the Liberal-NDP coalition supported by the Bloc Quebecois. Under parliamentary democracy, the government of the day must win and maintain the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament to retain power.

The West overwhelmingly supported the populist outcome — a two-month prorogation allowing the minority Conservative government to avoid defeat on a confidence vote. Populist democracy, as promulgated by Reform Party leader Preston Manning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his former chief strategist Tom Flanagan, favours the American presidential model of one directly elected leader not responsible to the legislature but answerable only to the people.

In the Oct. 14 election, the Conservatives won 143 seats and 37.7 per cent of the vote. The Liberals, NDP and the Bloc Quebecois together captured 163 seats and, with the Greens, 61.3 per cent of the vote. Almost half (71) of the Conservatives’ seats came from the West.

Most authors say Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean had no option but to grant Harper prorogation given the Conservatives’ populist — and incendiary — vow to "go over the heads" of MPs and the governor general "directly to the people."

But they warn the new precedent opens the door to autocracy by giving future prime ministers facing defeat on a confidence vote the right to slam shut parliament’s doors and rule by fiat.

All strongly condemn as irresponsible and reprehensible Harper’s decision to hang on to power by demonizing "socialists and separatists" and driving a huge wedge into Canadian unity.

The University of Toronto’s Grace Skogstad provides the most hope for the future. She says Western Canadians’ rejection of the coalition was based on democratic self-interest.

"Simply put, with very strong representation in the Conservative government, Western Canada rejected an outcome that would put its power to an end." The Conservatives held all but 21 of the West’s 92 seats and westerners wielded far more clout than under either the Diefenbaker or Mulroney majorities.

Ten of Canada’s 12 coalition governments have been in B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Skogstad notes. But to be legitimate in western eyes, she continues, coalition governments must be led by the party with the most seats. Stéphane Dion’s Liberals had just 77 seats to the Conservatives’ 143 — a fatal flaw.

Her prescription for resolving the constitutional/unity crisis is proportional representation. Imagine how differently western Canadians might have reacted to the Liberal-NDP coalition if the 2008 election had been run under PR rules. Skogstad calculates that PR would have delivered 40 to 41 of the West’s 92 seats to the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens — twice the number they won.

Queen’s University professor C.E.S. Franks says the prime minister’s rhetoric was "the most anti-Quebec and, by inference, anti-French, of any major party, let alone a government, of at least the post-World War II period." The Governor General was left with a Hobson’s choice. She could ignite fury in the West, split the country and witness her office brought into disrepute. Or she could grant prorogation to a government to avoid defeat and set a dangerous precedent for Canadian democracy.

She chose prorogation.

Jean would have been correct to refuse prorogation, Franks continues. But "the rhetoric of illegitimacy and anti-democratic behaviour would have prevailed."

Simon Fraser University professor Andrew Heard says Harper’s prorogation was "unconstitutional… (T)his type of manoeuvre is simply unheard of among modern established democracies. It is a fundamental abuse of power to shut down a newly elected parliament at the moment when it is poised to vote non-confidence in the incumbent government."

The University of Toronto’s Peter Russell says the crisis has "left a legacy that could be the basis of a serious constitutional crisis in the near future: a country dangerously divided over the fundamental principles and the rules of its parliamentary democracy."

The most damning indictment comes from David Cameron, chair of the University of Toronto’s political science department. "Stephen Harper demonstrated that there was no bridge he would not burn, no low road he would not take, to stay in power. Beyond the deceit and the intentional obfuscation, what could not be forgiven was the prime minister’s willingness to conjure up our national-unity demons…

"Successive prime ministers have seen it as their duty to manage the national unity file with prudence and care; to light a match near a can of gasoline — to set east against west… simply for the sake of personal political survival was to scatter this primordial leadership obligation to the four winds."

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