How late is too late?

At the risk of dwelling upon the Prime Minister’s words, it is probably worth noting all of the questions raised by Mr. Harper’s offhand remark last week about the December 2008 coalition—questions that might be asked of Mr. Harper and probably should be asked of the Governor General.

First, a useful reminder of events. The 2008 election occurred on October 14. On November 19, the House reconvened and the Throne Speech was presented. Eight days later, on November 27, the government presented its economic update. Shortly after, the Throne Speech passed the House.

On the evening of November 28, with that update facing mounting criticism, the Prime Minister announced that an opposition day scheduled for December 1, the following Monday, would be pushed back a week—thereby postponing a vote of non-confidence the Liberals intended to bring.

On December 1, the coalition accord was signed and Stephane Dion sent a letter to Michaelle Jean informing her of his ability to form a government. Three days later, on December 4, the Prime Minister asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament and she granted his request.

All of which makes the Prime Minister’s contention that the opposition parties “waited too long” and were thus “too late,” all the more curious.

Firstly, it would be worth knowing what the Prime Minister meant by “too late”—how he defines “too late” and by what authority he does so. Is this based on his own reading of convention or is this informed by discussion with Michaelle Jean?

After the vote of October 14, Stephen Harper obviously remained Prime Minister. Only with his resignation or defeat in the House of Commons, could a coalition government have replaced him. Would he have resigned without facing the House if a coalition had formed the day after the election? Will he if such a coalition forms after any subsequent election?

In lieu of such a resignation, the only opportunity for the opposition parties to defeat the Conservatives in 2008 was on the Throne Speech. But barring such a resignation, and in lieu of any further explanation from Mr. Harper, there are at least three ways to read his suggestion that it was “too late” when the coalition accord was signed on December 1:

1. In failing to defeat his government on its Throne Speech, the opposition allowed Mr. Harper to employ the sort of procedural delays—rescheduling an opposition day, requesting prorogation—that ultimately undid the Liberal-NDP coalition.

2. In failing to defeat his government on its Throne Speech, the opposition effectively granted Mr. Harper the authority necessary to have his request for prorogation granted.

3. In failing to defeat his government on its Throne Speech, the opposition forfeited any claim to replace the Conservatives with a coalition government.

The first is merely tactical. The second and third options go directly to practice and execution of parliamentary convention—and they lay out standards that have not been publicly clarified or sanctioned by Governor General David Johnston, nor his predecessor Ms. Jean. Indeed, the third scenario seems particularly pivotal, drawing, as it would, a very clear line in the proverbial sand.

And so, again, there are questions that need be asked of Mr. Johnston.

1. If a prime minister, faced with both an opposition set on forming on a coalition and an impending confidence vote, requests prorogation, what impact, if any, would the passage of a Throne Speech have on the decision to prorogue Parliament?

2. If a coalition is formed and wishes to replace an incumbent government, must it defeat the government on the incumbent’s Throne Speech?

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