Thursday, December 04, 2008

Going (pro)Rogue

With a recent election overshadowed by Obamamania to our south, the Canadian government decided to draw some attention to itself with a recent parliamentary crisis. In that election, the Conservative Party earned more seats than any other single party, but not enough to command a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. Still, they were asked by the Governer General, to form a minority government with Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. This is what normally happens, and what everybody expected (read: took for granted) based on the distribution of seats after the election. Typically for a minority government to last, they have to play nice with the other parties to reach compromises in order to get a majority of votes in the house. Mr. Harper somehow didn't realize he didn't have a majority and pushed an economic statement that was sure to not sit well with the Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois members that make up the majority of the seats in parliament. They didn't like it, decided "hey, we're in the majority, if we band together we topple this government and try to replace it with a coalition made up of the majority of MPs". This was to happen Monday in a vote of confidence on Harper's ability to lead.

So, less than two months after a federal election, and even less time sitting, Harper saw the writing on the wall and decided instead of letting government, you know, govern (during this worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, yadda, yadda) to take his ball and go home, suspending parliament (called proroguing) to buy time to figure a way out of this mess. The Governer General agreed to his request this morning. So until Jan. 26, this parliamentary showdown has been averted, as well as the ability of parliament to do anything. But it has made for interesting times, one of the most interesting parts being the revelation of how few Canadians understand how their government works. Hopefully this has been an opportunity for learning. Larry Moran at Sandwalk has been following what he calls Conservative Lies more closely, and hopefully we can also clear up some misconceptions here at the Bayblab. First an explanation of our parliamentary system (from a Sandwalk commenter):
Let me refresh your memory as to how a Westminster-style Parliamentary system works. The people of Canada do NOT elect a government; they elect members of the House of Commons. The members of the House choose the government. By tradition, the legal Head of State (the Governor-General, in our case) asks the leader of the party with the most seats in the HoC to form a government; that is, to form a cabinet to try to pass laws.

If the majority of the members of the HoC lose confidence in the ability of the minority, they have the right to express this through non-confidence votes or votes against bills that deal with government's ability to spend money.

In this case, the Prime Minister must ask the GG to dissolve Parliament and call an election (remember, the GG is our head of state, and the only one who can call an election). The GG has the legal option to ask another party or parties to form a government, if he or she feels that this party or parties has the confidence of the majority of the HoC (for instance, if a majority of the legally elected members of parliament got together and forged a formal agreement...).

This proposed coalition is absolutely in keeping with Parliamentary law and tradition. It has been forged by people who have been legally elected by the people of Canada. Of course, the GG is completely within her rights to call an election at the request of the Prime Minister. She will have to decide whether it is in Canada's best interest to hold the 4th election in 4 years, and second election in 3 months, or if it is in Canada's best interest to bring in a duly-elected government that has the pledged support of the majority of the HoC, and has proposed specific measures to rectify certain issues currently facing us.
Some of the misconceptions that have been repeated during this debacle:
I voted for Stephen Harper for Prime Minister.
In Canada, a federal election is a series of local elections. Unless you live in a specific riding you never cast your vote for Harper (or Dion, Layton, Duceppe). Yes, many people vote based on party affiliation and pretty much all the time the Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the most seats but the reality is that you vote for a parliament, not a governement.

The Liberal/NDP/Bloc coalition...
The Bloc Quebecois would not be part of a coalition governement (they would have no cabinet positions, for example). They have simply agreed not to bring down a proposed coalition government within 18 months (which some reservations, I would imagine). Furthermore, the accusations of the coalition 'being in bed with separatists' are divisive, offensive appeals to emotion. It suggests that the duly elected officials from Quebec shouldn't have a role in government and that votes from that province shouldn't carry as much weight as from the rest of the country.

A coalition government is undemocratic
Which is more undemocratic: a broad, cross-party agreement between elected MPs who represent the majority of Canadian voters, or shutting down government and locking them out? A coalition government (common in many other democracies where minority governments are the norm) or a PM going (pro)rogue?

Read the coalition agreement here and their economic plan here [pdf]


Anonymous Coward said...

Great just when we need immediate action to dampen the effect of the financial crisis the parliament shuts down. Knowing the conservative strategists, they are probably going to try suing and run attack ads. I for one am in favor of the coalition. We need to make significant investments for our future that will dictate how we get out of this mess and come back stronger. It's not a time to be partisan.

The Doc said...

As a New Zealander - and therefore someone who is used to a Parliamentary Democracy, I find this whole thing quite interesting.

Firstly, there is no 'constitutional crisis'. Absolutely everything that has been done so far is quite happily within the constitution of Canada, and the only crisis I have seen is that in Harper's office.

Secondly, I'm glad that you spelled out the Bloc's part in this at the end. I was going to tear you out after the first paragraph, because it implies that the Bloc have some sort of part in the coalition - and they don't. They've signed a supply and confidence agreement.

I am more concerned, personally, with the Conservative's arguments before this fun and games that they were going to try to 'save money'. I've only seen economists recently state that this is the time for SPENDING money by governments... to get economies working again.

The Doc said...

Actually, reading the economic package - which is the only one the bloc is involved in - it seems the bloc have even less part to play than a supply and confidence arrangement. It seems they really are just agreeing not to topple the goverment until 2010.

Anonymous said...

I think this crisis is not recent - it has just recently culminated. But common - we had four elections in eight years! Something is wrong here...
How this coalition can work? Dion is politician from Quebec, who's ideology is strictly anti-separatist. And what about NDP - didn't they criticize Liberals very often in the past? Unity of this trinity is very fragile...

The Doc said...

Simple. Separation of Quebec isn't part of the deal. Nor are the Bloc.
Dion is also still stepping down as leader/PM in May. Nothing has changed about that.

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