The crisis in Canada

Extraordinary things have been happening in Canada. Just two months ago they had a general election, and as I blogged at the time it was very sucessful for the incumbent minority Conservative Government of Stephen Harper. They missed out on winning a majority in Parliament (something very hard to do) but they gained 19 seats, the Liberals lost 27.

It was such a trouncing that the Leader of the Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion, announced he was resigning as Leader, and elections are underway to select his replacement. These take several months as they involve party members. Anyway next week Dion may become the 23rd Prime Minister of Cabinet. How? Well it’s an intriguing story.

First of all you need to understand that the tradition in Canada is that the largest party gets to form the Government, even as a minority. They may not last the full term, but they usually get a couple of years at least of governing. On top of the the two main parties you have the New Democratic Party which is like the Alliance in NZ and generally wins seats in British Colombia in the west, plus the Bloc Québécois who win most of the seats in Quebec and are a separatist party.

Generally after every election these two smaller parties will give confidence and supply to the largest party, even though NDP is a lot closer to Liberals than Conservatives. They do not guarantee it for the full term, but if they change their mind, normally it triggers a new election.

After the October election, the Conservatives had support from both the NDP and the Bloc. It was business as normal. But the credit crisis hit, and the response from the Conservatives was to trim Government spending such as no pay incraeses for Judges, restrictions on MPs travel, cancellign Xmas bonus for publuic servants. This was bad enough for the leftwing parties, but even worse Harper’s Government announced it would save money by trimming the $27 million of taxpayer state funding for political parties.

This threat to the other parties funding base (since state funding they had become very dependent on it) was intolerable, so they got together to roll the Government on the grounds of an inadequate response to the credit crisis.

Now what they have done is not force a new election, but they have formed a Government in waiting. The Liberal, NDP and Bloc parties have written to the Governor-General announcing they wish to form a new Government being a Liberal-NDP coalition, with support from the Bloc.

The Liberal and NDP parties are usually fiercious rivals, but have put that aside to agree NDP get one quarter of the Cabinet seats in the first ever coalition between them.

But the extraordinary thing is that they have agreed to make Stéphane Dion Prime Minister despite Dion getting the worst result in history for the Liberals – just 26%. He will be PM for half a year or so until the Liberals elect a new leader.

Now this is all constitutional – Parliament can form whatever Government it wants. But is it what the Canadian people wanted or voted for? There was no pre-election possibility of NDP and the Bloc supporting the Liberals if they came second.

It also creates a headache for the Governor-General (who is flying home urgently from an overseas trip) as she has to decide what to do given the following scenarios:

  1. PM Harper asks the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament until next year. The Governor-General has the legal right to refuse a request from the prime minister to prorogue, and in NZ would arguably refuse such a request as the PM can no longer demonstrate the confidence of the House. But most experts in Canada say the GG would grant the request. The prorogue would mean that the no confidence vote scheduled for Monday would never be put. Parliament only has to meet once a year, so it could be prorogued until late next year in theory.
  2. PM Harper asks the Governor-General to call a new election. Again the same dilemma – does the GG follow the advice of a PM that no longer has the confidence of the House?
  3. Parliament is prorogued but the Opposition Leader demands the GG appoint him Prime Minister as he has a majority of MPs supporting him. Does the GG have to wait for a confidence vote to determine that the House has lost confidence? In NZ I would say they do not, but in Canada this is new territory.

In 1926 the Canadian Governor-General, Lord Byng refused a request by Prime Minister King for a general election as Byng did not have the confidence of the House.

The bigger question is what will the public make of it. The Conservatives already have ads playing quoting a speech from Dion during the last election campaign in which he ruled out a coalition with the NDP. “You cannot have a coalition with a party that has a platform that would be damaging for the economy, period,” he says in the clip.

The Conservatives are using the lines that Dion has done a deal with the socialist and the separatists to seize power. Now that is emotive but little things can matter to people. When the three opposition leaders announced their agreement to change the Government, the Canadian flag backdrop was removed from the room of their press conference because the separatists don’t believe in Canada existing in its current form.

It is not impossible that this deal could see other provinces such as Alberta threaten to leave Canada. Also the Bloc have only promised support to the new Government in waiting until June 2010, so more elections are likely at some stage.

Also in a twist to the crisis, the NDP accidentially sent details of one of their conference calls to a Conservative MP and he taped the call and released it to the media. It revealed that the NDP had been trying to get the Bloc to agree to support a new Government for longer than previously though. The NDP are asking for Police to prosecute the Conservatives over the recording.

It is going to be fascinating to see what the PM does, what the Governor-General does and also what the Canadian public do.

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