Larry, Moe & Curly Size Up the Curtains

So much has been written in the past few days on the whole subject of the Big Switch, as the Conservatives look forward to trooping back to the East Side of the House and the Opposition shifts over to the West Side Government benches in a coalition government, that in one sense it’s all been said, more or less. Still, there are a few things to think about, yet.

The Governor-General’s Role

Much has been made about the reserve powers of the Governor-General, deriving from Queen-in-Parliament. It is the role of the Governor-General to ensure that Canada has a functioning Government — not just a ministry that can act by Order-in-Council, but one which can command and hold the Confidence of the House. This is what gives rise to the generally-accepted notion (seen any major media lately that disputes it?) that the Governor-General will simply have to turn the keys to the Langevin Block and 24 Sussex Dr. over to the coalition as a given.

But, caution! The key word to keep in mind here is “functioning”. Governors-General are not a law unto themselves — they are bound in a web of tradition, common law practice and the like — but they are as near as you can get in Canada, thanks to Section 6 of our Constitution (“The Queen is the sole executive authority in Canada”). This is why we have Speeches from the Throne: none of us elected either a Government or a Prime Minister (or, despite the rhetoric, a “Prime Minister in Waiting”). No, we, each and all of us, only elected a Member of Parliament for our riding. These have been duly sworn in as members of Canada’s 40th Parliament, and have duly elected one of their number as Speaker of the House. That is the constitutional fact-on-the-ground, and nothing beyond it.

By tradition, (s)he-who-was-Prime-Minister-before-the-election is given first chance at meeting the House with a new Ministry, which must seek the Confidence of the House before it is really empowered to act. This the Rt. Hon. Her Excellency the Governor-General has done by accepting Stephen Harper to form that Ministry. It has now acquired the Confidence of the House, with the passage of the Throne Speech vote last week.

Suppose, therefore, that the Government fails the next confidence motion, be that one placed by one of the Opposition parties or on one of its own measures. Former Prime Minister Martin has already established the precedent of simply ignoring a confidence vote and continuing to govern (2005), so if the Harper Government simply ignored an Opposition motion he’d be pilloried — but on ground first tilled by the very parties trying to take him down. (His ground would be far less firm if he ignored one of his Government’s motions declared a confidence matter.)

So Stephen Harper could proceed over to Rideau Hall, and simply say “I shall attempt to regain the House’s Confidence” — and the Governor-General would be well within her prerogatives to accept that. Good-bye, coalition hopes, at least before Christmas.

Secondly, he could go and say “Your Excellency, my Government has lost the Confidence of the House, and I do not believe any other combination of MPs can hold it long enough to pass and implement a budget. I therefore regretfully request a new Writ of Election: let us let the Canadian people decide our country’s future course of action”. Oddly enough, the Governor-General would again be well within her prerogatives to accept this and call an election, without calling on the Opposition Leaders, should she agree with that advice.

Thirdly, of course, Stephen Harper could lose a confidence vote, go to the Governor-General and resign the office of Prime Minister. Now life gets interesting, for the Governor-General could (a) decline to accept his resignation, (b) decline to accept and issue a Writ …

Or, (c) call upon another person to lead a Government anchored in the Conservative MPs. That person need not even be a member of the current Conservative caucus. (It is also not without precedent.)

Or, (d) the Governor-General could invite someone to try and form a Government from amongst any or all MPs, be this a “unity” government (shades of Sir Robert Borden in 1917) or the coalition being discussed so eagerly in the country these days.

But It Doesn’t Matter

Here’s the thing, though. The decisions don’t matter because no alternative to the Harper Conservatives is likely to last through the first Opposition Day Motion (if that long).

Picture a motion, put forward by the (now) Opposition Conservatives, aimed at additional socio-cultural recognition of Québec. (Leave aside the distaste this might leave elsewhere in the country for a moment: we’re dealing now in tactical politics in the House.) The BQ can’t vote against “a Québec interest” — which means they vote (even by abstention) to topple the coalition. At which point we’re back at point (a) again …

At that point the obvious answer would be an election. But, if it’s all that obvious, then it’s that obvious now. This is why I think there’s better than even odds a failure of confidence in the Harper Government will lead directly to another election.

Besides, Who Would Lead Such a Coalition?

Again, the presumption is that Stéphane Dion would lead such a coalition, thus escaping the fate of Edward Blake (the only [so far] Liberal Party of Canada leader never to assume the Prime Ministership). But is this necessarily so?

It’s all very well for Liberals to talk about a premature end to their leadership contest, and an immediate handing over of their party leadership to Michael Ignatieff, thus retiring Dion early, but that doesn’t guarantee the Governor-General would approach a coalition débutant and hand over the keys to the kingdom simply because of internal politics in one party. Remember (c) and (d): the Liberals could change leaders, and the Governor-General could still call on Dion; likewise, Dion could go as the coalition M. le Premier Ministre présumé and the coalition’s opportunity could be handed to Ignatieff … Rae … LeBlanc … even Layton or Mulcair. All of these, of course, are unlikely options, but the power is in the hands of the Governor-General, not the Opposition parties.

Indeed, the Governor-General could ask the Opposition Leaders to attend her and offer their advice prior to answering Stephen Harper. (After all, if you want to use part of the residual powers of the Monarchy for your own ends, you’d better be prepared to accept that all of them may be in play.) So, having heard from the “coalition of the power-hungry”, she may just decide that, yes, an election is inevitable, might as well get on with it…

In other words, Larry, Moe & Curly ought not to be sizing up the curtains in the PMO and planning on the décor changes at 24 Sussex Drive just yet, no matter how encouraging the press is.

And the Results of That Election?

Let’s be clear where I stand: Harper’s tactics in jumbling in the removal of the per-vote subsidy with the economic statement were deplorable — very bad form and a sign of his own hubris — but the removal of that subsidy is actually a plus for Canadian citizenship. Parties (and candidates) should have to work to convince me to pay for them. (Raising the limit from $1,100 per party and $1,100 at the candidate/EDA level to $2,500 at each level should make the work in reaching enough donors worthwhile.) If I had my way, he’d lay that measure before the House Monday and call for the vote — let’s get the Opposition parties on the record in a clear manner regarding this.

Of course, Harper has said “no” to that, and a replacement economic statement and early budget have been bandied about. Malheursement, one error compounded on another.

Still, the platform would be clear:

We’ll invest in tomorrow but not in yesterday;
Canada has been different from the rest of the G-7 for a decade & we’re not in the same troubles they are;
Re-elect us and we will squeeze unnecessary and past-their-prime programs to the max;
We’re looking for no deficits, tax reductions and more focused spending;
Politicians will be hit as much as anyone;
We believe in Canadians, not handouts and make-work programs.

A 37 day campaign — be adamant that the Greens do not belong in any debates (maybe even just outright refuse to debate given how short a time it’s been since the last election) — and get out of the bubble and into the faces of Canadians.

That should be a majority-winning campaign.

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12 responses to “Larry, Moe & Curly Size Up the Curtains

  1. The vast majority of this is true enough. But let’s not forget that Constitutional convention is as important as– perhaps more important than — any powers formally granted to the Governor General.

    Because she’s essentially a figurehead, the Governor General is expected to defer to elected officials.

    If the Liberals and NDP do manage to put together a coalition, Michaelle Jean could be argued to be bound by Convention to reject that request, seeing as how that coalition, combined, would be smaller than the Conservative caucus.

    The only option other than an election is for Jean to ask Harper if he wants to seek to regain the Confidence of the House.

  2. The first half of this post is pretty sharp, and certainly kept my interest. The second half is opinion, and I beg to differ.
    What you are proposing is straightforward gerrymandering. It is tinkering at the margin of the finance laws in a manner calculated to benefit the Conservatives. By doubling the contribution limit, the CPC, with a database containing over 100,000 wealthy donors will be in a position to immediately vastly increase their funds raised. Since their donors are intimately interested in reducing their taxes, policy driven fundraising asks are a no-brainer. In effect, the parochial interests of a narrow portion of the electorate will reinforce the disproportionate impact of political funding on the electoral process. Most Canadians, who do not share these interests will be limited by financial constraints from donating such large amounts repeatedly. If we accept the principle that every elector has an equal stake in the outcome of the election, then what is wrong with limiting the ability of parochial interests to significantly influence the electoral outcome?

  3. BlueGreenBlogger: Welcome; glad to have you aboard.

    Oddly enough, I suggested raising the limit because the original ‘deal’ put forth by Chrétien was to eliminate corporate/union/etc. donations in favour of a $5,400 limit. Yet a limit that high does favour those who really want to contribute to the maximum — who are not necessarily those with the most money, just the most passionate ones. I’d be very comfortable, in fact, with retaining the $1,100 limit currently in effect.

    On the other hand, most donors to the Conservative Party are not wealthy. As I understand it, the typical donor makes between $30,000 and $70,000 per year. In other words, they’re ordinary working people who believe that they need — in amongst all the other things demanding their limited cash — to pay to try and achieve the policies they favour.

    Oddly enough, you don’t see this kind of behaviour amongst the other parties’ supporters. I’ll pick on the BQ, for instance: one would think that the future Québec nation would be a cause worthy of financial support, yet the BQ has absolutely the worst track record at raising money from supporters of any of the Federal parties represented in the last debate (as, indeed, the PQ does provincially).

    So wealthy donors are somewhat of a red herring. Most Conservative donors donate $100 per year at most. If NDPers, Greens, Liberals, etc. want a donor base, the deal is $8.33/month. If they can’t raise that little per head, then perhaps either their message isn’t particularly motivating — or, as in countries all over the world, the Left expects someone else to pay.

    So, $1,100 — $2,500 — even Chrétien’s $5,400 — that’s not the point. The point is $0.00 from the public treasury. Let them all get out there and hustle.

  4. Patrick: Good to see you again.

    I’d left aside the question of the coalition’s size, although it ought to weigh on the question, in that if all three decide to go (two forming the Ministry and a third with a letter of co-operation) that’s really no different than the Ontario NDP giving a letter of co-operation back in 1985 to work with the Ontario Liberals to oust the Ontario PCs.

    It’s the prospects for winning a series of confidence motions that should weigh on the Governor-General, not the absolute numbers.

    Although, I must say, I would not object to Her Excellency thinking as you do.

  5. Let’s toss them all out:

    http://www.wernerpatels.com/2008/11/would-that-obam.html

    Québec will probably elect Pauline Marois on December 8, now more so than ever, since Quebeckers can clearly see that Ottawa is a disease.

    I, for one, am more determined than ever in my own separatist sentiments. Alberta would be better off without those clowns in Ottawa.

  6. According to the most recently available information, the Bloc will not be part of the coalition.

    The coalition would be smaller and less workable than the Conservative minority government.

  7. Werner: It’s harder and harder to avoid that sentiment.

    Patrick: “They are and they aren’t” — I just love how the Liberals and the NDP think we’re all too stupid to figure the game out.

  8. Interesting. Bruce, would you care to ask Werner precisely what he thinks Alberta is going to do when the oil runs out?

    Then remind him that he doesn’t like the people in power in Alberta any better than he likes the people in Ottawa. Some people would wonder just what Werner imagines is going to be left after he finishes slashing and burning everything he doesn’t like. Westjet?

    Also, the Charest Liberals are sitting at 45% in the latest polls in Quebec — to the PQ’s 32%. Maybe you’d like to remind Werner that it’s federalists who get ballot box bonuses in Quebec, not separatists.

  9. bluegreenblogger

    You responded:
    bas1809 // December 1, 2008 at 12:53 am
    Thanks for your’ welcome, and careful writing.
    I sat on the national GPC Fundraising commitee in 2004-2005 and ran a fair chunk of the fundraising activities in ’05.
    The $8.33 per month was our lowball ask, but given the large proportion of students, and genuinely broke, but politically involved people, I was surprised how many were able to scrape up $20 for a membership renewal. Things have changed for the GPC since then, and we raise more than the Conservatives do proportionally from our membership, by a fair margin. With respect to the CPC, the average don0r is a little over $100, I believe it’s about $130, while the median is much lower. The impact of raising the contribution limit to $2,400 will not impact the median donation level, but the average will skyrocket. Those at the top end will donate the max even should it go up to $5k plus. It would be an enormous CPC windfall, and would even make a large part of their own donor base increasingly irrelevant to the CPC.
    I am not on the left at all. My arguments about campaign and electoral finance are not about making someone else pay, they are about limiting the impact of donors on policy formation, and implementation. It is certainly true that the CPC in particular appeals to donors with policy related asks. ‘Donate to us so we can cut your taxes’. Rest assured that the fundraising chair has significant input to policy wording, and earned media releases and notices.
    This is neither tasteful, nor beneficial to the polity. The electoral finance reforms were an excellent start, and they didn’t simply limit donations. They also attempted to govern spending, third party spending, in kind donations, campaign loans, and a number of other ‘pernicious influences’. There are loopholes galore, but the intention was actually pure, and well founded, in my opinion.

  10. Without disputing the accuracy of your post, the GG’s options are actually pretty straightforward when the govenment falls on a vote of non-confidence. If she thinks there is a viable alternative government in the wings, she is obligated to allow them an opportunity to try and govern. If not, she must call an election.

    With a written and signed accord in place, it will be difficult to argue that there is not an alternative government available. Whether it will actually turn out to be viable remains to be seen, but once they are in power, they will be under a lot of pressure to make it work. This is a huge gamble for the Liberals. If it turns out badly, they are toast.

    On party financing, the reason we support political parties with public money is so they will be beholden to voters, not to donors. In a true democracy, people vote and dollars don’t.

    Parties do have to convince you to support them, because to get your money, they have to get your vote. This is the right incentive structure.

  11. I agree, Wayne, that the Liberals are toast if this doesn’t work. In fact, I’ll go further: they’ve signed their slide into oblivion either way. NDP Ministers overcome the notion that the NDP can’t govern (and Jack as Environment Minister helps dig a hole for the Greens). “Dealing with the Devil” is a slap in the face of the Trudeau mythology that motivates many Liberal voters.

    On the dollars/voters question, I feel compelled to continue to disagree, and hold Obama’s campaign stateside as an example. No public money required, and little owed (as the big money all went to Hillary).

    As someone who has financially supported the Greens, the NDP and the Conservatives in this decade (and others in the past: my first political donation was made shortly after I became eligible to vote in 1972) I consider it important to judge whether or not the parties and candidates (because I do support local candidates) have enough on the ball to motivate me to open my cheque book. Democracy is not free, nor should it be paid for from the public purse. If that means those who out-motivate win the money battle, so be it. That problem corrects itself.

  12. bluegreenblogger

    Just a quick one in passing. You said:
    “(and Jack as Environment Minister helps dig a hole for the Greens). ”
    Simply not the case. There are no holes to dig for the Greens. Support is low proportionally. With very poor GOTV organisation, the Greens don’t really bring in many floaters on election day. The core support is what we actually end up with. The NDP is anathema to most Greens. Either they were never there, or they’ve been there, done that. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the only group that attracts more vitriol from a room full of greens than the Dippers, is the new CPC.
    Growth is steady and sure, and pretty well inevitable.

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