Will an extra week of vacation alter Canadian history? Governor-General Michaëlle Jean’s decision Thursday morning, to accept Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament does guarantee a longer Christmas break for MPs. (The House had been scheduled to adjourn on Dec. 12. The scheduled return-to-work—Jan 26—hasn’t changed, but the first order of government business will now be the tabling of a new budget.) Whether it has any greater significance depends on who you ask.
Allan Tupper, the head of the University of British Columbia’s political science department, worries about the precedent. Governments in danger of Parliamentary defeat appear to have been granted a new escape route, he says. “They now have a capacity to avoid the most basic accountability that our system has to offer—the one that allows for its peaceful transition. Whether it’s six months, six weeks, or six days, it means they do not have to face the House. That’s the crucial point.”
The big winner, says Tupper, is Harper, who has managed to buy his embattled Conservatives more time to undermine the fledgling Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition. Over the coming weeks, the Tories can continue to court public opinion, painting their opponents as undemocratic, hammering the unpopular Stéphane Dion, and casting doubts on his and Jack Layton’s “dangerous” alliance with Quebec sovereignists. Even if the Tories fail to drive a wedge between members of the “Gang of Three,” he says, they may well succeed in weakening the coalition, increasing the likelihood of an another election rather than a change of government. Tupper says he wasn’t surprised by Jean’s decision: “There weren’t many options here. And she took the one that many people thought she had to.” But he wonders whether it is healthy for Canadian democracy, and the future of her office. “If there was ever a time you would have expected a Governor-General to judge this another way, this was it,” he says. “There could be considerably deepened tensions and partisanship in Canadian society over the next six weeks. Just look what we’ve seen in the past six days.”
However, Ted McWhinney, a Constitutional expert and former Liberal MP, who wrote the 2005 book, The Governor General and the Prime Ministers: The Making and Unmaking of Governments, says Jean made the entirely correct decision. “I think it’s almost a textbook example of a Governor-General understanding the Constitutional parameters of her office,” he says from his Vancouver home. “There isn’t any issue with prorogation. It’s 100 per cent routine. The Prime Minister requests it and he receives it.” McWhinney says he knows of no precedent in the world’s Westminister-style Parliamentary democracies where such a request to adjourn the House was denied. With Harper having committed to a firm, and relatively rapid, return date, it is hard to make a case that he is somehow abusing the system. The next federal budget and its expected stimulus package, he notes, will actually be delivered in a much shorter time frame than usual, an almost certainly more quickly than if the coalition were to take power in the coming days. And now Canadians, and their government, will have the benefit of knowing exactly how Barack Obama’s administration intends to tackle issues like the auto industry, before committing to costly interventions.
But while McWhinney maintains that Jean has embraced a “reasonable solution,” her choices going forward will be no less difficult. If the Harper government falls in a confidence vote, she will be required to carefully scrutinize the coalition before offering Dion the opportunity to form a government. At present, says McWhinney, the agreement between the Liberals and their would-be partners doesn’t pass the Constitutional test. “The document that has been submitted is an agreement between two parties [the Liberals and the NDP] with 114 seats. It really isn’t satisfactory.” The Governor-General will need a more formal assurance that the Bloc and its 49 MPs will support the new government. Something like the very detailed agreement struck between the Ontario Liberals and the NDP in the mid-1980s, which even spelled out the coalition’s legislative agenda. “This document just doesn’t take the Governor-General over that hurdle.”
The Canadian people it seems, are no less divided on the current political crisis. An Angus Reid survey, released Thursday, found that 47 per cent of respondents wanted Jean to prorogue Parliament, while 37 per cent wished she would leave the Conservatives to their fate and give the opposition a chance to govern. And following Stephen Harper’s prime time address to the nation, the same percentage, 37, said their opinion of him had worsened. Forty-two per cent said they thought less of Dion following his speech, which was marred by community-access television production values. On the other hand, another poll show the Conservatives actually gaining electoral support. An Ekos survey, also released Thursday, has the Tories at 44 per cent, up substantially from their 37.6 per cent share of the popular vote in Oct. The Liberals trail at 24 per cent, says Ekos, with the NDP at 14.5 per cent.
Errol Mendes, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, says the adjournment is at best a temporary lull in what promises to be a nasty political battle. “It’s a victory of tactics. But the greatest victim in all of this is the country. This was so totally unnecessary.” Harper, he says, must take the blame for precipitating a crisis by so nakedly seeking partisan advantage—his proposal to strip his opponents of their funding under the guise of budgetary restraint—during a time of global economic turmoil. Mendes believes the atmosphere in Ottawa is so poisoned now that the government’s failure is inevitable; Harper having not just lost just the confidence of the House, but its trust. And the academic expresses his sympathy for the woman caught in the middle. “I feel really kind of sorry for the Governor-General. Whatever she decides will not satisfy a large percentage of the public.” Should the Tories fall in late January, it will be just four months since the last federal election. Lord Byng denied Mackenzie King’s request for a vote because it had been a “too short” eight months. “Michaëlle Jean will be placed in the same dilemma yet again,” says Mendes.