This is the week that will be .. night thoughts in the last calm before the 2011 Canadian federal election storm?

Mar 20th, 2011 | By | Category: In Brief

[UPDATED MARCH 21, 22, 25]. At the edge of what promises to be one of the most dramatic weeks in recent Canadian political history (in both official languages), I am surprised that two excellent Globe and Mail pundits are still raising doubts about the need for the Canadian federal election almost everyone else seems to believe will lie at the end of the drama. (See  Jeffrey Simpson on “Why we’re headed for an election we don’t need” and “The case against a spring election” by John Ibbitson.)

My surprise increases when I see the same excellent newspaper’s latest update of its online opinion poll on “Do you want a federal election this spring?” — which began a week ago today. It now shows 75% of more than 33,000 respondents answering YES (up from 59% of more than 14,000 respondents just this past Wednesday)!

Readers of the Globe and Mail online are certainly far from any representative sample of the Canadian people. But they are also unusually well informed about and interested in Canadian federal politics. And they are probably more geographically dispersed than any other Canadian newspaper’s readers. If three-quarters of more than 33,000 Canadians of this sort want an election, there arguably is some kind of increasingly palpable need for such a thing.

It seems true enough that election fever is less frenzied on the websites of the Vancouver Sun or the Calgary Herald — or even the Halifax Chronicle Herald. But … as I write the front page of the Sun website does lead you to “Conservatives announce $1B worth of funding in one week … Half of the funding goes to Quebec.”  The Herald quickly coughs up “Anyone who breaks lobbying rules will face ‘full consequences,’ Harper says.” (For deep background here see “A pretty girl is like a melody” on this site this past Friday.) And on the Chronicle Herald site way down east, it is not at all hard to find “Oda sorry for funding ‘confusion’ … Minister blames office’s process in decision prompting contempt probe.” [For UPDATE click on “Read the rest of this page” and/or scroll to end of this page.]

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Yesterday’s print edition of the Globe and Mail did include a report first posted on the website on Friday at 9:15 PM ET : “Budget to take spotlight off contempt vote —  for a while.” This tells how the “coming federal budget is emerging as the Harper government’s last hope to stave off an election as the opposition forges ahead with plans to find the Conservatives in contempt of Parliament … However, it will be at least a week before any motion of contempt can be lodged … during which time Tuesday’s budget will jump back to the forefront of Canadian politics.”

On Friday as well, the Toronto Star published “Layton still waiting for the budget to make up his mind.” But this did not hold out too much hope for the Harper Government’s alleged last hope to stave off an election: “New Democrat Leader Jack Layton concedes it is getting harder to ignore the growing number of juicy scandals surrounding the Conservative government, but insists his party still plans on giving the budget serious consideration … ‘It becomes more difficult because the political context has changed,” Layton said  in an interview … ‘You just start going through the list and you realize that you have a government here that is increasingly showing contempt for our democratic institutions.’” And that “certainly makes it a bit more difficult to find the possibility of supporting the budget.”

The two key dates this coming week would seem to be Tuesday, March 22, when the Harper minority government will present its proposed budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, and Friday, March 25 — apparently the earliest day on which the opposition majority will be able to vote non-confidence in the minority government (for whatever exact reasons), and precipitate a general election to chose a new and hopefully slightly less dysfunctional parliament, sometime early in May. (The 2nd or the 9th are still the preferred dates among Ottawa fortune tellers.) Monday, March 21 may be interesting too, as a kind of kick-off for opposition efforts to bring some formal motion of censure against the government for contempt of Parliament. As noted by the Globe, however, this process will “take at least a week” to reach fruition. And that may mean that the rubber won’t finally hit the road on any defeat of the government until some time not too long after Friday, March 25. The week that lies immediately ahead  now will nonetheless be important, and could prove decisive. So … stayed tuned, and hold onto your hats, etc, etc, etc.

My own very quick view about the need for yet another Canadian federal election this spring runs something like this. Ever since the election of the Paul Martin Liberal minority government on June 28, 2004 Canadian federal politics has been a kind of perpetual election campaign — and nobody has been “governing Canada” with the short-term public-interest focus and longer-term democratic vision that the current tough circumstances of the global village demand. Some say the solution is for the Harper Conservatives to win a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons at last, so that they can give the country four solid years of stable government, unblemished by constant electioneering. Others say the Liberals and New Democrats together need to be given a chance to form a more stable and co-operative minority (or even “coalition”) government that has the support of a dependable parliamentary majority for four stable years. Still others say the traditional centre-left political culture of Canada has to make it clearer to Mr. Harper that he cannot continue vainly trying to run a minority government as if it were a majority government. The first of these alternatives strikes me as altogether the least desirable. But it may be the most likely prospect at the bottom of the most recent opinion polls. (And if this does unhappily prove our Canadian destiny for the next four years, it could have some long-term benefits for the Liberals and New Democrats.) Whatever happens, it seems clear enough to me that our politicians in Ottawa need to shuffle the deck again, to see if they can come up with some fresh arrangement that is at least more sensible — more workable, less fractious, more civil, and much more about building the stronger Canada we’re going to need to survive the 21st century — than anything we’ve had since the summer of 2004!

UPDATE MARCH 25, 12:30 PM ET: Assuming all goes according to schedule in the Canadian House of Commons, the Harper Government will fall one hour from now, and we will be on our way to a spring election at last. Randall Palmer at Reuters has an interesting article on the broader picture: “Harper to push for elusive majority.” Our blogger here (and sometime economic development specialist, Dr.) Randall White believes that, whatever else, the coming election will have some practical benefits for the country. See his “Canadian federal election 2011 is its own economic action plan!

2:22 PM ET: Just under an hour later than indicated above, the Harper Government has been defeated, 156–145,  on a “Contempt of Parliament” motion of non-confidence, for the first time in Canadian history (and perhaps even in some wider history of parliamentary democracy?).  Now,  “PM to visit Governor-General Saturday morning” (ie tomorrow) — after which the exact date of the election (probably May 2, 2011?) will be announced.

UPDATE MARCH 22, 9 AM ET: Some prospects of serious last-minute hi-jinks have now been raised. See our Citizen X on “Will Jack Layton’s New Democrats really back Harper Government budget and stop spring election?

UPDATE MARCH 21, 1 PM ET: The Canadian Press has reported: “A Commons committee has passed a report recommending the Harper government be found in contempt of Parliament … The move could trigger a non-confidence motion and a spring election … The document is to be tabled in the House of Commons today and a formal vote is likely Thursday — although the government could try to delay it … The 12-page report concludes the government is in contempt over its refusal to fully disclose the cost of its tough-on-crime agenda, corporate tax cuts and plans to purchase stealth fighter jets … No government has ever been cited for contempt before … The committee is separately considering a possible contempt citation against International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda for misleading Parliament.”

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