The Harper Doctrine


I’m trying to piece together Harper’s theory of democratic legitimacy in a minority situation in Canada, given the existence of the Bloc Quebecois.

Here is what we know:

1. Harper has, in  the past, relied solely on the support of the Bloc Quebecois to keep his government afloat.
2. Harper has spent the last week decrying the role of the Bloc in supporting the proposed Liberal/NDP coalition.
3. In his speech last night, he made it clear that he considers a coalition supported by the Bloc to be undemocratic. He said “Canada’s government cannot enter into a power-sharing coalition with a separatist party.” He also said that “the opposition does not have the democratic right to impose a coalition with the separatists they promised voters would never happen.”
4. Today outside Rideau Hall, he said, in response to questions, that he thinks it is vital that the government be supported  by the federalist parties in the Commons, that it should not rely on support from a party whose only interest is that of Quebecers, not of Canada as a whole.

It is hard to make all of this fit together as a coherent account of what constitutes democratic legitimacy in Canada right now, but here are a few possible suggestions for the principle that Harper sees as at work here:

A. It is illegitimate for a government to survive a confidence vote with the support of only the Bloc.

This puts  1 at odds with 2,3, and 4, in which case we can conclude that the Prime Minister is either being inconsistent or has simply changed his mind.

B. It is ok for the government to  rely on the Bloc for occasional support, esp. when the other opposition parties are voting against the government on a confidence motion, but it is not acceptable to be forced to rely on Bloc support for  every confidence vote

This theory would square 1 and 2 above, though the cost is making a distinction without a difference.

C.  The Bloc support of the coalition is illegitimate because it contradicts a promise the opposition parties made during the election.

This would make 1-4 hang together, but it is undermined by the fact that Harper has broken many election promises himself. In which case, his principle could be something like, “It is ok to break an election promise except a promise not to be supported by the Bloc in a coalition,” which achieves consistency at the expense of being extremely ad hoc and arbitrary.

D. During an economic crisis, it is imperative for the government to be supported by national parties that want to serve the national interest.

The Bloc Quebecois, by definition, is only concerned with the interest of Quebecers, which will make it hard, if not impossible, for the coalition to push through a stimulus plan that serves all Canadians. This principle also helps bring consistency to 1-4 above, although it is hard to see why it should be restricted only to times of economic crisis. Everything that parliament does should be focused on serving the national interest, and it is hard to see why it would ever be legitimate for the  government  to survive only with the support of the Bloc.

In the end, I think that Harper has achieved yet another tactical victory, but has delivered a significant hostage to fortune.  Assume when parliament resumes in January that two things are the case: That the economic crisis continues, and the NDP and Liberals intend to vote against the budget. What if, then, the Bloc could be persuaded to support the budget? On what grounds, by Harper’s own lights, could the government legitimately survive?  I don’t see how he could, in good conscience, accept the Bloc’s support.

My best, most charitable reading of Harper’s new position on the role of the Bloc in parliament is that Harper has essentially rejected the Bloc as a source of legitimate support for the government. That is, he is now committed to surviving in power with, and only with, the support of either the Liberals, the NDP, or both.

Which is another way of saying that Harper has now pledged that Canada shall only be governed by a coalition of federalist parties. Let us call this principle, “The Harper Doctrine.”

Which means that the NDP now has a colossal amount of bargaining power. I wonder what cabinet position Mr. Layton will be offered.

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