“An odd (!) understanding” of how Parliament works

by John Geddes

As I did yesterday, I turn to Prof. Don Desserud, the University of New Brunswick expert on our parliamentary system, for insights into what is being said by Stephen Harper about that much-debated episode in 2004—you know, back when he was cooperating, but not coalition-conniving, with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe.

This time, I asked Desserud about the prime minister’s fuller explanation today of what exactly he had in mind when he signed that joint letter to the governor-general with the NDP’s Layton and the Bloc’s Duceppe.

The three of them hoped to stop then-prime-minister Paul Martin from forcing an election. On that they agree. But Layton and Duceppe say the plan was for Harper to become prime minister with their cooperation, although not in a formal coalition. Harper insists this is false—that he never intended to head a government without first winning an election.

But then why write to Adrienne Clarkson, the GG at the time, to ask her to consider “options,” should Martin seek an election? What options? Today, Harper finally offered some clarity about what he meant, on his third day facing questions about it.

“As opposition leader I was seeking to put pressure on the government to influence its agenda without bringing it down. Without defeating it and replacing it,” he told reporters at a campaign stop on Vancouver Island.

And he elaborated: “My position was… the governor-general should come to us and I would have told the governor-general, ‘We in fact are not trying to bring the government down. All Mr. Martin has to do is sit down and talk to us and I’m sure we will find a resolution’.”

Interesting. But would the range of options open to a governor-general include, as Harper now suggests, refusing a prime minister’s advice to dissolve Parliament for an election, and accepting instead an opposition leader’s advice to urge that PM to find a way to work with his rivals in the House?

Desserud says that’s not the way it works. In an email, he says Harper has “an odd (!) understanding of the GG’s role and what would have happened.”

Here’s what Desserud flaty says would have transpired: “First, had Martin requested an election in 2004, he would have been granted his wish.” But what if—and this is unlikely—Clarkson thought an election premature, as her predecessor Lord Byng did in the famous King-Byng affair? In that case, Desserud says she would have asked Harper if he was able to form a government.

“At that point, we are supposed to believe Harper would have said, ‘No, I can’t—I just want the PM to cooperate more.’ Then the GG would have said, ‘Okay, since there is no viable alternative, I hereby grant Martin’s request’.”

In other words, Dessurud doesn’t see Harper’s scenario—the governor-general exerting pressure on a sitting PM to accommodate himself to the opposition—as being in the cards at all.

That leaves two possibilities. Either Harper was poorly advised in 2004 on his real tactical options, or he did envision, as Layton and Duceppe claim, the possibility of forming a government with their support without an intervening election.




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“An odd (!) understanding” of how Parliament works

  1. Harp has odd ideas alright, and not just about the GG's role.

  2. Dessurud is exactly right and that's what I've been saying around these parts.

    In the infamous Harper letter, Harper says asks Clarkson to consider all her options if Martin asks for dissolution before granting him his wish. He knew very well that she only had one option and that was to ask him if he could form a government.

    What else do we know as fact. I mean, aside from both Layton (5 years ago before "coalition" became a dirty word) and Duceppe confirming that it was clear Harper wanted to become PM without an election even though he didn't have the most seats?

    We know that he spoke about an "agreement" with the opposition parties. We know that he considered that agreement as the "first phase" of his cooperation with them. (See CPAC clip.)

    We also know that Harper has never denied what Layton said in his book about that even was untrue, and he's had lots of time for that, or that what Duceppe said was untrue.

    Layton and Duceppe's version of events is far more consistent with all the other facts than Harper's convoluted excuse that he was just playing political games and didn't know how the Constitution works. And far more believable.

  3. 100% agree with Messrs. Geddes and Desserud.

    Harper's explanation leaves more questions than answers. As I posted before and is repeated above, the GG had two options:

    1) call an election; or
    2) ask Harper to become PM

    The GG has no ability to do what Harper was trying to claim today he intended.

    Agree with the above that either Harper is misinformed or lying, except I don't believe Harper is that stupid as to be that grossly misinformed.

    He needs to explain himself better.

    • It's always the cover-up and never the crime.

  4. What can one say? We have a Prime Minister who is now on the public record as saying that in his view a Governor General may, indeed should, be open to discuss matters of statecraft with persons not his/her advisors PRIOR to a PM and his ministry being defeated on a matter of confidence. Eugene Forsey is spinning. For a GG to undertake such a pre-defeat venture would be utterly inconsitent with any understanding of the Westminster system as it has developed over the last 150 years and expose the GG to naked political peril of a sort unseen in this country since 1926 and perhaps longer. Pleeeease some reporter ask Mr. Harper if he would have approved of Mr. Johnston or Ms. Jean sitting down with the opposition leaders at any time during the last 26 months to discuss making Parliament work better.

    • I especially liked this line…'And he elaborated: “My position was… the governor-general should come to us and I would have told the governor-general, '

      Thinks well of himself eh? No understanding of either the GG's role, or the word 'vice-regal'.

  5. I remember making a comment some weeks back about the fact that Tom Flanagan, despite his reputation as a Harper "Mentor," really seemed to like stirring up the sh*t for his protegé.

    Well he's at it again … and I think it's funny as hell.

    A key adviser to Stephen Harper during his days as Opposition leader says the “co-opposition” arrangement Mr. Harper negotiated with NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe in September 2004 was seen by Conservatives at the time as a potential avenue to a Harper-led minority government — without seeking Canadians' approval in an election.

  6. Another excellent question arises. Why could Harper not, on his own, issue a letter urging the GG to talk to him about her options when the government fell if all he intended to do was to ask her to tell the Martin government to try again for confidence. Why did he need to join forces with the Bloc and NDP to send the GG this message.

    In other words, his explanation doesn't make any kind of sense, and is probably a lie. Poor guy. He's twisting in the wind on this one.

    • Or he could just have spoken to Martin himself…they saw each other all the time after all. Why drag the GG into it at all?

    • Poor guy. He's twisting in the wind on this one.

      You're far more generous than I am… I don't feel an ounce of sympathy for a guy who falls into the dirty trap he was setting to kneecap someone else. Poetic justice.

  7. Harper was not found in contempt. The government was. Oda was almost. And Peter McKay was almost.

  8. It is nice to see that Brian has forgiven Stephen and is back giving him advice on how to be forthcoming about his past activities.

  9. And more on the point, is what SH is saying perhaps is that opposition parties can have their non-confidence cake and eat it too? Yes GG, we did vote no on a matter the government declared was one of confidence, but we really didn't mean it, just tell Paul to make nice with us and we'll take it all back. I MEAN REALLY WHO IS HE TRYING TO KID! Under the Westminster model, a successful non-confidence motion yields one of sonly two results, an election or a change of ministry. A do-over is not a third option, never has been, never will be.

    And don't they learn that its never the deed, its the attempt to cover up that gets them in trouble.

    • http://cpac.ca/forms/index.asp?dsp=template&a

      But if you watch the video, you will hear that the opposition parties were trying to define the meaning of motions of conficence also. They were dismayed that the Martin Liberals had pick and choose of when to call an election. The opposition parties wanted to make Parliament work, if there could be enough cooperation, not only between the 3 opposition parties, but cooperation with Martin's Liberal government too. Watch the video. It is really informative. I am not kidding you. The video isn't even partisan. It's what the opposition parties tried to accomplish at the time, and you have to keep the timeframe in mind because there were different circumstances and different sort of problems to sort out, yet, some of the problems were the same as they are now.

  10. And so we have the Canadian version of the "birthers".

    Harper was tried and punished for his contempt by the vote of non-confidence bringing down his government.

  11. "Expert" cherry picking 101.

    There's plenty of knowlegeble people who agree precisely with Harper's point.

    But those folks aren't invited to the hyperpartisan liberal party that is today's Macleans blog.

    • Heya Chet, knowledgeable people would conclude that Harper doesn't have a point, he has a flimsy lie. I would also like to understand more about who qualifies as "knowledgeable people" for you when it comes to the rules and conventions of a democratic Canadian government.

    • No-one is censoring your posts here. How about providing a few references to your plenty of knowledgable people?

      • Please refer to: "Expert" non-replying 101.

    • The problem with this comment is that chet/biff lies, and thus likely considers himself one of those "knowledgeable people" to which he refers.

    • Yeah yeah, you're a True Victim of our powerful Leftist media conspiracy. If you don't like rational discussions, go start your own blog instead of whining all the time.

  12. Kady O'Malley already dealt with this.

    Short version: There's nothing in Canadian law or parliamentary tradition to prevent Harper or anyone in his government from running again.

    I don't like it…I think there should be something to prevent them from running again…but there is no legal reason why they can't.

  13. As much as this is entertaining, tedbetts is correct. Stephen Harper has not been found guilty of anything. We don't need this kind of nonsense.

  14. There is an old political expression, chet – campaigns matter. 3 days in and Harper is knee deep in manure,

    • According to Heather Mallick he is. But I read she's in a lot of trouble too. Soon the reader won't believe anything she's writing about. Knee deep indeed………………….

    • Campains do matter Jan.

      And according to Harris Decima, the last poll done to March 20 showed the CPC with a six point lead.

      Their just released poll shows the CPC with a FOURTEEN point lead.

      Yes, the onset of the election very much matters indeed.

  15. Yeah, but now people who don't normally follow politics will start to pay attention. We shall see if Mr. Harper can maintain this.

      • If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck,…

        • Coming down off your Heather Mallick high??? How does that feel?

          • Don't know never had an HM high. How does it feel to blindly follow a hypocrite; that should be easy for you to answer?

  16. Not for long if Harper keeps getting caught lying and being a hypocrite. I imagine if I was shut-out of the real world, and read only this blog daily, I couldn't help but to bust back into the real world and kick those that work social media for insecure, lying, snaky political parties, in the nuts.

  17. Canadians and their hapless media functionaries have accepted five years of political, scientific, constitutional and legal nonsense from this guy without appropriately freaking out. Not likely they will start worrying about his lying ways now.
    incompetent, in contempt and in power. oh Canada
    chet can rest easy

  18. Here's the thing: in 2004, the letter written and signed by Mr.Layton, Mr.Duceppe and Mr.Harper addressed to the GG stated within that options were available to the GG in light of a minority government failing.

    The three opposition leaders at the time were very dismayed that the Martin government could pick and choose the time to call an election. In fact, the opposition believed the minority government could work if it would agree to discussing the proposals so outlined within their 2004 signed agreement.

    In any case, I think everyone should take the time to watch this video, including the professor:
    http://cpac.ca/forms/index.asp?dsp=template&a

    The video is not just interesting to watch because of the coalition dispute but for general understanding how the mood was back then, and how some of the things they talk about are of relevance even today. CPAC is probably the most objective news service right now, and in any case, the entire video let's the horses' mouths speak at all times…………………

    • It was very sweet of the opposition parties to write a letter to the GG to outline her options. I wonder, did they also write a letter telling her she had options for a cell phone carrier or cable service? No? Did they really think she needed them to tell her there were options if Martin asked for an election? Do you think she did not know? Did THEY think she did not know? Were they calling her stupid?

      Face it – the only sensible conclusion is that they were telling her Harper could govern with the support of the separatists and socialists.

      Sorry, but that is the truth.

      • The truth is, Gayle, I didn't have such a bad day after all. What about you?

        I would guess you are too busy to watch the video.

        We all make our choices.

        • Yup. I make mine based on facts, and it seems you make yours based on fantasy.

          To each his own.

    • I accept fully that that letter does not show they had, and that Harper and the "socialists and separatists" were not tring to, form a "formal" coaltion. There was never and will never be a coalition-like sharing of power like the coalition in Britain right now, the coalition in Australia right now, the coalition in Ireland the last few years, the coalition in Israel, … (is there any Parliamentary system not in a coalition right now other than Canada?).

      But that's the simplistic bit. There clearly was a coalition of some sort (using the dictionary) or some more formal agreement than just "let's write a letter together". Harper, in that CPAC presser, admits they had reached an "agreement" which he hoped was only the "first phase". They wrote a letter suggesting the GG ask Harper if he could form a government without an election despite being a "loser". We have Layton confirming that 5 years ago in his book when "coalition" wasn't a dirty word. We have Duceppe now. We have Harper's then Chief of Staff confirming it. We have Mike Duffy confirming it back then.

      So all of the things that Harper now claims are illegitimate and wrong, other than a "formal" written power-sharing coalition, he claimed his entitlement then. THAT is the point.

    • But on your other point, it is indeed an interesting historical point.

      The whole fixing democracy in Canada thing is the "Big" issue of this generation and we don't even realize it. Like social safety net of the 1930s to 1960s, like healthcare in the 1960s and 70s, like the Constitutional wrangling in the 1970s and 80s.

      Not just because Harper has shown such contempt for our democratic instutions or because Ignatieff and the Liberals are making it their focus.

      Democratic reform was a fundamental, core raison d'etre of the Reform Party through the Preston Manning years. It was so important to Martin that he had no less than three democratic renewal/reform cabinet ministers of some sort. Democratic reform like in that video was a key plank in Harper's 2006 platform. Prorogation, 3 contempt motions, make-parliament-dysfunctional manuals, breaking fixed election date laws, etc. have all really brought democratic reform into the consience of Canadians again.

      This is the buildup. Someone will ride in on this.

      • Prorogation for specific reasons.

        If you believe that the House should not have been prorogued at the time of coalition forming with the BQ, in 2008, then you don't understand at all what Harper tried to say, or is still trying to say.

        Take a closer look also at how the Liberal government of Chretien, in particular, and Martin governments behaved and see what the BQ and the NDP had to say about the Liberal performance in the House.

        And how many of Chretien pushes were counter pushed? Hardly any because he had majorities by luck of the Conservative parties having been split in two at the time, running as separate parties during election time. Chretien was nothing special. And btw, he announced the agreement to the Koyoto accord when he was out of the country. He didn't even have the decency to announce signing on to the Koyoto accord when standing in the House. And what about the Norad thing? How was that handled in the House? Ask Layton about it, or Duceppe. See if they come up with different verbal turn of events again, and again….. Harper may turn out to be the most consistent in HIS STORY telling.

        • I was stepping out of the one undemocratic moment and conceded there is a buildup to this. Thought it was a bit of reach out for common grounds with what you were saying and what Harper used to believe in, across partisan lines so to speak.

          Ah well.

          Harper has prorogued three times. Once was normal. Once was to avoid a confidence vote. Once was to avoid accountability questions.

          What I was saying was the things Harper used to believe in, as shown in that video, have a deeper current that is flowing more quickly. Our democratic problems did not start with Harper at all. Indeed, Trudeau I would point to as the real break from a longer Parliamentary tradition where the MP mattered. Harper maybe gets more than he is due because he was elected on promises to fix specific things and he's made them far worse. Like confidence votes only on budgets. Like making MPs and Parliamentary committees stronger, not more controlled by the party. Like unelected senators. Like senators blocking the will of the elected members of Parliament. Everything pretty much he talks about in that clip apply back at his government doubly.

          As for who to believe – Harper, Duceppe or Layton – the balance on this has to go to Duceppe and Layton. Layton wrote it in his book 5 years ago when it didn't matter. Now Harper's then chief of staff agrees with them. EVen quotations from conservative commenter now Conservative Senator from 2004 agree with them.

          • How many times did Chretien prorogue? I have no idea and so you could perhaps tell me. And also accompanied by reasons for doing so, of course.

            Look, the right to ask for prorogation is handed to the PM. And sitting PM. The GG is the one who has the right to grant one, or not.

            There is no position, other than the position of being PM of this country which holds the right to ask for prorogation. It is the right of the PM to decide when prorogation will be asked for.

            If, on the other hand, we, the voters of this country do not agree with such picking and chosing of any PM's actions, then we, the voters, may tell him so at election time. If we didn't like his decisions, we don't vote him back in. And if another leader belonging to another party is to become PM, then we will see how such particular individual PM will handle the situations as presented before him. Such is as it goes.

            You are not going to tell me that it is up to you or me, or Jeffrey Simpson to decide when or when not the PM can exercise his rights, are you? Because if that's what you are trying to tell me, than you really, really need to read up on the belonging of rights.

          • How many times did Chretien prorogue? I have no idea and so you could perhaps tell me. And also accompanied by reasons for doing so, of course.

            You're not new. You know the answers. You just keep asking the questions so as to create a false cloud of uncertainty around the subject.

            See also: teaching the controversy.

          • You are welcome to believe whomever you want.

            For me it's clear: either Duceppe and Layton were really, really good fakers back in 2004 (as doing their part within the CPAC video) or they are even better fakers now.

            You know, past events are not so easily to recall five years hence. But a video does not change over history. But take your pick. No skin off my back. I just don't like to avoid the truth when it's staring me in the face. What would that tell about me?

          • "You know, past events are not so easily to recall five years hence"

            Good thing we don't have to rely only on Harper and Duceppe's words today then isn't it.

            Let's see:

            - on one side: we have Layton's recollections which were written 5 years ago before any of this was an issue, we have Harper never contradicting Layton until he was in an election now, we have conservative commentator and now Conservative Senator Mike Duffy saying in 2004 that that was what they were doing, we have Harper's own letter the only implication of which is that he wanted the GG to ask him to form a government, and we have Harper's own former Chief of Staff.

            - on the other side: we have Harper's word.

            Hmmmm.

    • Seeing as you've posted this link a dozen times, let's analyse the video.

      When asked if he would defeat the government and form a government with support from the NDP and/or the Bloc, Harper hedged instead of denying by saying it was hypothetical. This does not contradict what both Duceppe and Layton have said their understanding was behind closed doors. The only option available to the GG other than allowing dissolution would be to allow someone else, presumably Harper, to form government. What else could he have possibly meant?

    • So even in your scenario Harper's not only a hypocrite but broke his own election law rule to complete the circle — if harper's argument is that martin would have been wrong to ask for an election in 2004 but should have been forced to play nice with the opposition, which completely goes against logic, nevermind even more film and quotes of harper's chess-playing mind at work.
      That koolaid must be potent. your arguments are dying before they hit the screen…

  19. And this has what, exactly, to do with the fact that Harper has been exposed as a hypocrite and possibly an outright liar?

    Oh yeah, nothing, Nothing at all.

    Try again.

  20. And Layton's is even higher than that. And Broadbent's was even higher than that.

  21. chet, you actually made me laugh. The first time today. That's good! :)

  22. Mr.Coyne, today I watched Peter Van Dusen and he had a panel on in regards the coalition issue. Two of the panelists were professors (forget their names) and the other was John Gormey from Saskatoon (radio).

    All three of them did not seem to consider the BQ party to be any different or to be any form of obstacle in relation to coalition forming, either informal or formal. However, I do believe the BQ is the white elephant in the room, because, there are two important things to bring into this discussion regarding Canada and coalitions:

    • Not to worry.

      Duceppe said in 2004 he would never enter into a coalition. He didn't enter into a coalition in 2008. And he vows today not to enter into a coalition.

      • Then why did he sign the coalition agreement in 2008? Why did he sit at the table in front of a Canadian and Quebecois flag, signing an agreement for everyone to see?

        • Let me correct you on a few factual errors.

          Duceppe didn't sign the coalition agreement in 2008. Like in 2004, and like now, he says he will support a federalist party but not enter into a coaltion. Dion and Layton's signtures are the only ones on the coalition agreement as you can plainly see right here.

          Duceppe agreed to support a Dion government just like he agreed to support a Harper government in 2004. Not a coalition but an agreement.

          There was Quebec flag because Quebec is a province of Canada. You think they should have held a press conference with all of the provincial flags except Quebec??? That is just so outrageous and offensive that I'll give you the benefit of doubt and assume there's a misunderstanding.

          Perhaps you're referring to the rumour that there was no Canadian flag? That was a lie spread by the Cons. In fact there were 3 Canadian flags as you can clearly see.

          Sorry if it's coming as a shock to you that the Cons lie as often as they breathe. But they cannot be trusted with anything. Say Anything Steve will say anything.

          You are welcome for the lesson.

    • Why does everyone think Geddes is Coyne?

    • Are Quebecers not Canadian citizens? Are Bloc members not Canadian citizens? So we have a party made up of Canadian citizens voted on by Canadian citizens. The problem?

      I realise you don't agree with their policies and values, but they are Canadians and as such have a right to participate in Parliament.

  23. You forgot the most important possibility: that Harper is full of sh*t.

  24. I'm sorry, I made a mistake in my previous post by mentioning the wrong minute mark.

    The minute mark in the CPAC video should be at 27:35 ish minute mark instead of the 14:00 for my previous (rather long but important post) to make sense. Duceppe talks about healthcare at that point!

  25. Unlike FVerhoeven,

    I do not find it strange that "academics" like those featured in this blog post, overlook startling facts that you so scrupulously presented, when forming their opinions contra Harper.

    A significant part of academia today is a cauldron of leftist ideology, wherein the discussions in the faculty lounges (and sadly in the lectures) resembles the far left rantings of the commenters of leftists sites like this one.

    That the far left commenters on this blog, go hand in hand, with the featured "academic" should surprise no one.

    • How do you know when chet/biff is lying?

      When he clicks "submit comment".

      Or to be less crass about it, am I the only one who notices chet/biff makes broad statements and never once actually substantiates them? It is almost as if he thinks simply saying something magically makes it come true.

  26. Let me explain it this way, so it might be easier to understand for everyone, including parliamentary experts and the likes:

    Let us say Harper wins a minority government again, similar to the last one, and such government falls on a cofidence motion on the presented budget (same as the one we had) and the NDP/Lib coalition forms government with "coalitional support" from the BQ.

    The CHT (Canada Health Transfer) negotiations with the Provinces are now in full swing and, in order to reach a deal with ALL the Provinces, some of the BQ demands in the CHT will not be met. You can count on it that the BQ will NOT support the Coalition Federal Government on this, so the House may fall UNLESS the Conservative with MORE seats in the House than the LIB and NDP combined, must therefore prop up the Coalition Government, otherwise the Coalition NDP/LIB government will fall, soon.

    So, are the parliamentary experts saying that the BQ will support the LIB/NDP coaltion government in case the LIB?NDP coalition government does not include everything the BQ demands?

    Or, are the parliamentary experts saying that the Conservatives, who would hold a greater seat count in the House than the LIB?NDP combined, should prop up the coalition government?

    I know for certain that the BQ so-called ""support" of a LIB/NDP coalition will not last long (even when it is in writing and signed as it was in 2008) if the Coalition LIB?NDP government goes against BQ's list of demands.

    Who must the federal government negotiate on behalf of? Would the federal government (coalition style or not) negotiate on behalf of the federation, or would the federal government netotiate on behalf of the Quebec people???

    • What, no replies yet? No one arguing against my points being made?

      That strikes me as very odd!

      Could I be right?

  27. its pretty simple. In 2004 the opposition led by Harper was not asking the GG to remove the elected government. Period. No amount of spinning can make it so

    In 2008 the oppositoin tried to remove a duly elected government. Period.

    In 2011 if the Conservatives are held to a minority, the coaliton will install itself as majority government with no mechanism for the electorate or opposition to remove it.

  28. Oh come on !! Let's not even begin to give Harper the benefit of the doubt. We all know darn well he knew the options all along, so why are we kidding ourselves ? Attempting to justify his explanation is engaging in trivial pursuit. People can easily read through that kind of bovine excrement. The media should bite down hard onto this issue like a Baird pitbull, and showcase the big Harper lie, seeing his whole campaign seems to hinge on the evil 'coalition' propaganda.

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