Liberal-NDP-Green alliance : could it ever happen?

Aug 15th, 2008 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

OTTAWA. AUGUST 15, 2008. [UPDATED AUGUST 18]. So now Canada’s Conservative minority Prime Minister Stephen Harper “hints he may force election,” “threatens election to end ‘dysfunction’,” and/or “hints he will engineer his government’s defeat, trigger fall election.” At the same time, a new poll suggests the Conservatives “could have difficulty maintaining their minority government, much less winning their coveted majority.” In fact, according to pollster Jeff Walker: “What I see in this [latest] data looks like a Liberal minority.”

Until recently we’ve been wondering just how good any such development would be for the country writ large? But a few sad days observing the so-called “in-and-out” hearings in Ottawa have begun to change our minds – a little, maybe. As the fall of 2008 draws near, perhaps it could actually be that a new Liberal minority government, more or less somewhat systematically supported by the New Democrats and Ms. May’s new Green Party (even if it still has no seats in Parliament?), just might start laying some constructive groundwork for Canada’s increasingly challenging future – especially if Barack Obama does become President of the USA? The crucial question of course is whether there’s even a remote chance that progressive Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens could co-operate enough to make it happen? (Meanwhile, Liberal leader Stephane Dion is still apparently hinting that maybe there won’t even be a fall election. And who knows just what he may or may not mean by that?)

1. It is Mr. Harper who has no functional theory of minority government …

Assuming the realities of Canadian politics are now such that no party is going to win a majority government in any foreseeable future (which assumption may or may not be true of course, of course: it is politics we’re talking about after all), one argument for considering a Liberal rather than a Conservative minority at this point in time is that the Conservatives have no functional theory of how to make a minority government work. And the accidental history that has allowed them to keep their 2006 minority government in office for a surprisingly long time anyway is now about to come to and end. (Or so it has started to seem over the summer of 2008.)

Briefly, that it to say, Mr. Harper has been kept in office because for their own good reasons first the Bloc Quebecois and then the Liberals have not wanted to precipitate a fresh election so soon after the late January 2006 election. So they have been prepared, at crucial times, to vote in Parliament to sustain his government, even though they did not agree with its policies. And to another surprising extent he has been able to govern as if he had a majority – even though he was elected by barely more than 36% of the electorate, and is well under two dozen or so seats short of even a bare parliamentary majority, even in Canada’s somewhat strange traditional “first past the post” Westminster parliamentary electoral system.

The extent to which these circumstances have begun to change this summer are reflected in the genuinely painful-to-watch “rare summer hearings into the Tories’ in-and-out’ advertising scheme in the 2006 election campaign,” under the aegis of a parliamentary committee chaired by the Liberals. And to ponder what Mr. Harper and other Conservatives have said in reaction to all this is to seriously wonder whether these gentlemen (and a few ladies who sit with them) are philosophically and/or otherwise capable of running any kind of worthwhile (or indeed “functional”) minority government that they may or may not win in any future federal election, whenever it may come. Consider, e.g. this recent report from the press:

Mr. Harper’s made his threat [to topple his own government and precipitate a fresh election] as he and other government officials grew increasingly testy over four days of rare summer hearings into the Tories’ “in-and-out” advertising scheme in the 2006 election campaign.

He warned the opposition two weeks ago that he would not tolerate parliamentary committees acting as “kangaroo courts,” but a senior Conservative official said yesterday it doesn’t look as though the opposition was listening.

A number of Conservative Party workers refused to appear this week before the House of Commons ethics committee, which is probing $1-million in transfers between Conservative headquarters and local campaigns two years ago.

The Tory no-shows increased the chaotic nature of the proceedings and fuelled opposition attacks against the Harper government. But Conservative MPs argue the committee is biased and is ruled by a “tyranny of the majority.”

… Mr. Harper said he will quickly see whether Parliament can work when the House and the Senate start fall sittings in mid-September. If Liberal Leader Stphane Dion can’t decide to bring down the government or support its legislative agenda, he said he will take matters into his own hands.

“In the past few months, and particularly over the summer, we have seen increasing signs that this Parliament is really not working very well any more. It is becoming increasingly dysfunctional,” Mr. Harper said.

“Quite frankly, I’m going to have to make a judgment in the next little while as to whether or not this Parliament can function productively,” he said.

Conservative officials refused to issue a specific ultimatum yesterday or state exactly how the government could fall, but they added their threshold is not only surviving confidence votes, but also enacting laws.

“Governing is more than not just being defeated in the House. It’s also being able to pass legislation,” a senior Conservative adviser said.

2. “Tyranny of majority” is how democracy works …

The main trouble with all this, of course is that the “tyranny of the majority” is how democracy works. Of course, there are fundamental laws to prevent this principle from violating basic human rights and so forth – like our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution Act 1982. And these fundamental laws are very important. But in the ordinary day-to-day operations of any democratic government, the working principle is that the majority rules. And if you cannot respect and adjust to this principle, one way or another, you will just not be able to run any kind of democratic government successfully.

Thus in a parliamentary democracy of the sort we have in Canada, in a minority government it is the government’s responsibility to devise policies that are able to win the support of the majority in parliament. It is not the responsibility of the majority in parliament to support any policies a minority government might devise, simply because the government has more (or a mere “plurality” of) seats than any other party – in the interests of “making minority government work.”

Even in our Westminster (or “British”) parliamentary system, and even in circumstances of minority government, proposed legislation only becomes law when it is supported by a majority in parliament. And as the long international history of the institution since the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 shows, it is the responsibility of the executive (or the government) to court parliamentary majorities for what it wants to do. It is not the responsibility of parliament to pass whatever legislation the executive wants. (That theory of government is known as “the divine right of kings” – and in the Westminster parliamentary tradition Charles I was beheaded because he refused to abandon the theory, on January 30, 1649, on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall in London, England.)

When they talk about the “tyranny of the majority” Mr. Harper’s Conservatives only seem to be telling us that – now the Bloc and the Liberals have apparently lost their reasons for supporting the government no matter what it does – “Canada’s new government” is not really prepared to accept the compromising rigours of making minority government work in a parliamentary democracy. They have run out of patience with democracy unless they have the majority to themselves, by hook or by crook, etc, etc. I.e., give them a real majority of seats in parliament – or vote them out of office altogether!

3. But can the Conservatives still engineer their own defeat … after their fixed election date act … (and/or does anyone really care)?

One so-called Conservative “democratic reform” proposal that a parliamentary majority has accepted and duly passed into law has been Bill C-16 of 2006 – which “requires elections on the third Monday in October every four years, starting with October 19, 2009.”

Traditionally, under the logic of parliamentary democracy, a prime minister has been able to call elections pretty much whenever he (or she) wanted, in response to perceptions of the governing party’s strategic interest. In the interests of making the system more democratic, Mr. Harper claimed, he has taken that power away from the prime minister with his new fixed election date law. As explained by Wikipedia, however: “Parliamentary expert and Queen’s University political science professor Ned Franks maintains that despite the new legislation, under the Parliament of Canada Act, the prime minister is still free to request an election at any time.”

Daniel Leblanc at the Globe and Mail has also provided a handy list of various ways in which Mr. Harper might topple his own minority government, as it were, regardless of his new fixed election date legislation:

Dissolve Parliament [i.e. follow Ned Franks’s advice]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes to the Governor-General and asks her to dissolve Parliament. This move is politically risky given that Mr. Harper brought in legislation to fix elections every four years, with the next one scheduled for Oct. 19, 2009. [But again: how many voters out there really care about this – or even know about it, all that well?]

Opposition action

An opposition party uses one of its allotted days in the House to table a confidence motion, and the three opposition parties use their combined majority to express their desire to go to the polls.

Confidence motion

Mr. Harper declares that a bill on an issue such as crime is a confidence measure, and all opposition parties unite to defeat the bill.

Money bill

The opposition defeats a money bill, such as a measure that flows out of the fall fiscal update that will be presented by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Involve the Senate

The government repeats a tactic used earlier this year when it said that if the Liberal-dominated Senate did not quickly pass a crime bill, the government would rule that it has lost the confidence of Parliament. [This to us seems the least convincing item on M. Leblanc’s list.]

4. Second thoughts about the “at least a Harper minority government combats Western alienation” thesis?

In the past at least most of we counterweights editors have tended to believe that while a Stephen Harper Conservative majority government could easily do some considerable damage to Canada’s future prospects as an independent forward-looking 21st century democracy that works for the great majority of its citizens, at the present juncture another Harper Conservative minority government in a fresh federal election would probably be better for the country writ large than a Liberal minority government.

Our key argument here has been that the federal Liberals at the moment just do not have at all enough support in Western Canada, which is playing an increasingly strategic role in the Canadian economy – and which is home to an increasing share of Canadians and an increasing share of the nation-building energy that will be important for a strong Canadian future. (We have counted ourselves as supporters of at least two Harper minority government Canadian nation-building policies with what at least seems to be substantial Western support as well: Senate reform and Arctic sovereignty.)

It has also been our impression that, whatever else, the present Harper government has at least had a great deal of support in Western Canada. While this still seems true enough in many respects, the latest Canadian Press, Harris-Decima survey referred to above has prompted us to start re-examining our position here. Note, e.g., some key regional results as reported in the press:

Nationally … Liberal support was up slightly to 33 per cent, statistically tied with the Tories at 32 per cent and followed by the NDP at 15 per cent and the Greens at 13 per cent … In Quebec, the Liberals appeared to be benefiting most from a collapse in support for the Bloc Qubcois. Liberals were at 30 per cent, virtually tied with the Bloc at 29 per cent, followed by the Tories at 24 per cent, the Greens at eight per cent and the NDP at six per cent … In Ontario, the Liberals enjoyed a healthy lead with 40 per cent, compared to the Tories with 31 per cent and the NDP and Greens with 14 per cent each … In British Columbia, a three-week average of weekly telephone polling results suggests the Tories were ahead at 32 per cent, with the Liberals and NDP tied at 26 per cent and the Greens at 15 per cent …In Atlantic Canada, the three-week average suggests the Liberals led with 37 per cent to the Tories’ 32 per cent, the NDP’s 21 per cent and the Greens’ seven per cent..

On these numbers, in BC – the largest province west of the Ontario-Manitoba border – the Conservatives currently only have about the same level of support as they do in Ontario, or Atlantic Canada. The big difference between BC and Ontario is that the NDP is stronger (and the Liberals weaker) on the Pacific Coast than in the Great Lakes. Similarly, although not counted in the numbers reported here, Manitoba still has an NDP provincial government. One reading from all this is that Mr. Harper’s Western Canadian support is increasingly concentrated in the Prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan (and especially Alberta of course, where he won every seat in the 2006 federal election). Even taken together, Alberta and Saskatchewan account for less than 14% of the total Canada-wide population. (And on this score at least, a Canada run chiefly in the interests of Alberta and Saskatchewan makes even less sense than a Canada run chiefly in the interests of Ontario, which has just under 39% of the Canada-wide population.).

Finally, under a Liberal minority government that was more or less somewhat systematically allied with the NDP and the Green Party, in order to get its legislation passed and remain in office, Western Canada would be better represented (through NDP members) than under a Liberal majority government (the great bulk of whose support would no doubt come from Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada). And who knows? If there is an Canadian federal election in 2008, David Emerson from Vancouver might be persuaded to run for the Liberals (as he did in 2004 and 2006), rather than the Conservatives, to whom he switched after the 2006 election. (Well … this is a joke, just to be perfectly clear. But again it is Canadian politics: who really knows?)

5. But could there really be any kind of serious Liberal-NDP-Green Alliance in any case

No seasoned observer of Canadian federal politics nowadays can have very much confidence that any kind of progressive Liberal-NDP-Green alliance in or immediately after a 2008 election is all that much of a serious practical political possibility – of course, of course, of course.

Jack Layton’s NDP, e.g., has for some time been strangely obsessed with the prospect that it actually has some serious chance of replacing the Liberals as Canada’s largest mainstream progressive political party in the early 21st century. As the numbers above for BC (and/or even in some degree Atlantic Canada) suggest, in some parts of the country this is not a totally insane proposition. But (again as the same numbers suggest) it makes no sense at all right now in Ontario and Quebec. This may be sad, but it is also quite true. Period.

Will the NDP come to a view of its mid-term future more in line with this kind of political reality? Who knows? To no small extent there is a Conservative minority government in Canada now because the NDP lost it head in the late fall of 2005. The current Liberal front bencher Bob Rae is a former NDP premier of Ontario. But many in the NDP were happy to see him go. Anything can happen in politics, and especially in Canadian politics. (Note reference to Mr. Emerson above, e.,g.) And a Liberal-NDP-Green Alliance is in theory probably the best Canadian progressive hope at the moment. But alas even ardent proponents have to allow that it is almost certainly not very realistic at this exact juncture in the history of Canada either.

The Green Party is another great unknown right now as well. Ms. Elizabeth May is an attractive leader with diverse political experience (including some work many moons ago for Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government in Ottawa). The Greens are close to the NDP nationally or federally in the poll above, and in Ontario, and have good poll numbers in BC too. But there is nothing to suggest that they will win even one parliamentary seat in any part of the country in any 2008 election. Still, they seem a natural member of any progressive Liberal-NDP-Green Alliance that just might, in principle, stand some chance of pulling Canadian federal politics out of the noxious cesspool into which they now seem to have descended. Keep hope alive, etc, etc!

6. (And don’t forget the by-elections on September 8)?

Whatever else, the next big event remains the three federal by-elections now set for Monday, September 8. Or, as reported in counterweights way back on July 26:

“The Canadian federal by-elections on September 8 (a Monday) will be held in two vacant Quebec ridings, Westmount-Ville Marie in Montreal and nearby Saint-Lambert, along with the southwestern Ontario riding of Guelph.’ Before they became vacant, the Liberals held Westmount and Guelph, and the Bloc Qubcois first won the long-time federalist riding of Saint Lambert in 2004.’

“The conventional wisdom seems to be that if the Liberals do well in these contests – take all three seats, e.g., or even just hold on to the two they used to have – they will likely try to engineer the Conservative minority government’s defeat in the House this fall, and precipitate a fresh Canadian federal election at last. Liberal leader Stephane Dion has even lately prompted such headlines as Canadians in mood for vote: Dion … More Appetite’; Liberal leader hints at election by year’s end.'”

Now it seems that Mr. Harper will be pleased enough to fall in with the same mood. No doubt, however, the exact results on September 8 will be colouring everyone’s colouring book in one way or another. So keep your ear to the ground – put your faith in God and keep your powder dry. There must be some way we can get out of our current Canadian political funk. Now that we seem to be doing so badly at the Olympics in China, we increasingly have to show that we are good at something. And maybe miraculously putting together improbable political alliances (like Canada itself?) would be one good place to start!

UPDATE AUGUST 18 – FOURTH BY-ELECTION ON SEPTEMBER 22 NOW: Campbell Clark at the Globe and Mail reported this morning: “Another by-election will test the strength of Stphane Dion’s Liberals, this time in the Liberal-held Toronto riding of Don Valley West, before a fall showdown in Parliament that could trigger a general election.

“The riding has been held since 1993 by former cabinet minister John Godfrey, but before that had swung back and forth between Tories and Liberals. If the Conservatives were to win the seat this time, such an inroad into urban Toronto would be seen as worrisome for Mr. Dion’s party.

“Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced yesterday that the Don Valley West by-election will be held Sept. 22, two weeks after three by-elections in Ontario and Quebec set for Sept. 8. The Sept. 22 by-election will come just one week into the Commons fall session, and likely before any parliamentary vote can defeat the government.

“Three of the four ridings being contended are held by Liberals, so losses in Westmount-Ville Marie, Guelph or Don Valley West could cool the party’s desire to force a general election. The fourth by-election is in Saint-Lambert on Montreal’s South Shore, which is held by the Bloc Qubcois.”

PS ON OLYMPICS: Today it seems Canada is at least not doing as badly as it was this past Friday. Compared to the US, e.g., we now have about as many medals as our relative population size would warrant.

On the other hand, our fellow former British self-governing dominion of Australia, which only has about two-thirds of our population, has already won many more medals than Canada, and certainly does continue to make us look like athletic wimps. So in our books the point above still stands.

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