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.