What better way to start your day than with a ringside seat for a constitutional cage match? Especially on the eve of the budget, with a government under the gun and a coalition that so far refuses to curl up and die.
Good morning, constitutional democraphiles! Are you ready for some rock ’em-sock’em debate over coalition politics, minority government and what the heck happened last month with that whole parliamentary meltdown? I hope so, because ITQ will be liveblogging two action packed hours of that very thing, live from the floor of the Sheraton Hotel. As I type these words, Public Policy Forum president David Mitchell is recapping the last few months down the constitutional rabbit hole – which I’ll spare you, because anyone reading this far probably doesn’t need a refresher course on tHe Madness – but the combatants are already assembled along the table beside him: Richard Van Loon, Peter Russell and Luc Julliet, three lofty academics who have deigned to descend from their respective ivory towers to get down and dirty over the short- to medium-term future of parliamentary life as we know it.
Is anyone the least bit surprised to learn that Colleague Potter is here? Well, he is – grinning like a Cheshire cat, likely at the prospect of cheering on his beloved democrats as they take on the motley crew of almost-but-not-quite-anarchists that make up Team Parliamentarian.
First up; Richard Van Loon, who tells us that he’s not here to talk about the budget, but the concept of coalition government, from the more loosely defined models in which members wander back and forth, depending on the issue at hand, and more formal alliances that tend to crop up almost exclusively under proportional representation.
He stresses that he is *not* arguing that the proposed coalition (which may or may not be dead depending on how much faith one has in the inside knowledge of certain unnamed sources, and their willing emissaries on the op-ed pages of the national press). He accepts that it is, at least technically, legitimate under the Westminister system. He’s also not arguing that the PM “didn’t make a perfect screwup”, confidentially speaking, during the economic update. What we don’t have in Canada, however, are conventions or precedent.
To demonstrate how those conventions, at least such that exist in other countries, where coalition governments aren’t as wildly uncommon as here, would argue that the Triumvirate is not “legitimate”, at least in a moral sense, Van Loon lists some of the similarities that successful coalitions share: no element of surprise, the party tapped to take power commands either a plurality of seats relative to the other parties, or a higher percentage of the vote than the winning party.
For better or worse, Van Loon suggests, Stephen Harper won his first confidence vote by winning the election.
Van Loon concludes by saying that, while the Triumvirate may meet the criteria under the Westminster system – and he’s not sure if it does – it doesn’t have the democratic legitimacy to govern. “I’ll sit down, and wait for the attacks,” he jokes as he takes his seat.
Next up: University of Ottawa professor Luc Juilliet, and I’ll skip the bio, what with Google existing and all. He apologizes for not having as extensively prepared opening remarks as Van Loon – they were told to keep it short and informal, he points out in his own defence – but addresses a few of the questions he suspects will arise during the discussion.
Well, that’s refreshing: Juilliet admits that he found the events of last month to be fascinating – and necessary, given the attempt by the government to take advantage of the economic update to launch an unprovoked attack on the public financing system. Unlike Van Loon, with whom he clearly disagrees on pretty much every single point, he believes that this would be an “entirely legitimate” coalition, and he blames the Conservatives’ “disinformation campaign” for misleading Canadians on the nature of our system. He understands *why* the government would have wanted to undermine the coalition, politically, but in this case, they may have gone a bit far, which elicits murmurs of somewhat timid agreement from the crowd.
A shoutout to Don Martin – specifically, his WHY WON’T YOU DIE NOW?!? tubthumper in this morning’s National Post, in which he called upon the coalition partners to “put aside childish things”, which is actually Kipling, not the Bible, isn’t it? Anyway, he doesn’t think much of Martin’s contention, particularly given the change in leadership for the Liberals, particularly since much of the most petulant behaviour emanated from the government side, not the opposition benches.
On the Governor General’s decision to prorogue, he admits that at first, he was a bit taken aback when she granted the PM’s request, but he now believes it was a “wise move”; it provided a much needed cooling-off period, which allowed the opposition parties some time to decide whether the agreement forged in crisis could really form the foundation of a stable coalition government. Oh, and he may agree with the GG on granting prorogation, but he still thinks it was outrageous for the PM to *ask* for it.
And now – Peter Russell, constitutional expert and unabashed devotee of minority government – he’s even written a paeon to the majesty thereof, which, he points out cheerfully, can be purchased for a surprisingly reasonable price.
He has very merry eyebrows, this gentleman; he believes that it is time to govern, not careen from election to election, and he waggles his finger at the punditerati for imposing as conventional wisdom the idea that the latter is inevitable. Why, just look at the first Harper minority government for lessons on how to do so without crisis: with the support of, depending on the issue, the Liberals, the NDP and even the Bloc (more slightly apprehensive chuckling from the crowd at that), he managed to govern for nearly two years.
Russell – who has raised the intensity of the discussion by several orders of rhetorical magnitude – keeps turning to make his case directly to Van Loon, who is busily making notes and presumably preparing his rebuttal. Luc Juilliet, meanwhile, is listening raptly to Russell, as he characterizes the more recent Conservative approach to crosspartisan cooperation: “In your face, opposition parties!”
More griping – no, that’s the wrong word; this is more passionate than mere gripeage – about the appallingly inaccurate perception Canadians are being given on the reality of the parliamentary system, which is everyone’s fault, although the PM, Tom Flanagan and certain unnamed columnists are centred out for special attention.
Lest PMO be preparing to declare Russell a seditionist and enemy of the state for his ferocious defence of the coalition, they should be aware that he is, in fact, hoping that next week’s budget will pass – provided, that it is, that it reaches out to Canadians. But even in that instance, he thinks that we can no longer continue to rely on an “unwritten constitution” when it comes to questions of confidence; that, he avers, is a genuine crisis for legitimate government. The Governor General’s decision could be seen as a coup d’etat, and it’s time to “nail down” a political consensus on the fundamental rules of parliamentary democracy.
On that vaguely to-the-barricades!-y note, the Q&A session gets underway with a query from the PPF master of ceremonies, David Mitchell, who wonders, somewhat worriedly, whether there is any way that a minority government *or* a coalition can actually, you know, govern. He initially poses the question to Van Loon, who defers to Juilliet on the grounds that he’s immersed in his preparing his rebuttal to Russell, which nearly rhymes. Juillet points out that, although efficiency is important, it isn’t the end all and be all of government: what’s happening now, he suggests, is also government, just of a rather messier variety.
Peter Russell notes that past minority governments – at least the ones that have survived more than a week – have always relied on robust backroom relationships between parties; even if the leaders don’t get on, there are always those within the caucus who do, and who can keep the lines of communication open.
Van Loon, however – I keep accidentally typing “Van Loan”, which is so wrong in so many Freudian ways, y’all – knows a surefire way to win ITQ’s HoC green heart, calling on the governmernt – or Parliament, more accurately – to make more use of committees, and points to a report by Tom Axworthy – or like, a dozen reports by Tom Axworthy, really – that lays out exactly how that could be done.
First question from the audience – which I should note are actually written queries that the moderators have been quietly collecting since the panel began – is on the legitimacy of the coalition, and isn’t that a bit *broad*, really? Julliet points out that the polls seem to say more about how people feel about Stephane Dion – or Michael Ignatieff – and Stephen Harper more than anything else; it’s hard to use public opinion polls to guage whether Canadians are genuinely opposed to the notion of coalition government.
Van Loon doesn’t completely disagree, but points out that the best measure of public opinion is an election, which, as it happens, we happened to have just weeks before the coalition question arose.
Van Loon really isn’t at odds with the idea of a coalition on philosophical grounds, and accepts that it could, in theory, be possible for a coalition to win democratic legitimacy after the fact, but he just can’t get past the fact that in this case, not only did Canadians *not* vote for a coalition, but they voted after the possibility of such a thing was explicitly dismissed by the leader who subsequently signed onto the agreement with the NDP.
Meanwhile, Peter Russell once again voices his most fervent hope that the goverment survives next week’s budget showdown. AT the same time, he once again tempts charges of treason by pointing out that the Bloc Quebecois is, in fact, a legitimate party, with members who represent the will of many Quebecois voters – and, he adds, one that has added substantially to public debate on justice and social issues.
He believes it is “dangerous” to characterize the Bloc as separatist, or traitor – they are sovereignists, and yes, there is a difference. It’s like calling democratic socialists “pinkos and commies”, he says.
Van Loon, for the first and possibly last time this morning, agrees completely: the Conservative attack on the Bloc was “awful” – utterly unCanadian, in fact. His objection to the coalition has nothing at all to do with the presence of the Bloc Quebecois. It is simply irrelevant, as its members are parliamentarians, equal to all others. In fact, he one-ups Russell, some of the best parliamentarians in the House are members of the Bloc Quebecois, and he’ll get no argument from ITQ on that front.
Is anyone even the slightest bit unsure of where Julliet – or, for that matter, anyone with even a nodding familiarity and/or affection for the parliamentary system – stands on the legitimacy of the Bloc Quebecois? I didn’t think so. He does note that when he made an offhand comment that made it into a subsequent article in the National Post, in which he dismissed the idea that the GG should call the Queen for advice as “too colonial”, only to be told off, in no uncertain terms, by the legion of politely outraged emailers that make up the rapid response team of the Monarchist League of Canada.
Back to Peter Russell’s contention that the days of getting by on unwritten rules of parliamentary procedure are over: in order to codify, the political leaders have to be on side, and given the alternative – that such a decision could ultimately fall to the Supreme Court – a political solution would seem greatly preferable.
Bad/good news for ITQ fans, depending on your perspective: Nobody – not one of the three panelists, that is – holds out much hope that committees will improve in future, given the almost irresistable temptation for any exexutive to control the outcome of such a potentially anarchic process.
Russell, however, doesn’t think it’s good enough to just write off the committee system as irredeemably broken. Look at what’s happening south of the border, he points out: they’re changing the tone, and that can happen here, too. Well, sure – in theory.
Van Loon – and I’m guessing the other two as well – doesn’t think that goverments should be able to avoid votes of confidence indefinitely; once the opposition indicates that it wants to hold one, that should happen as soon as possible.
A final burst of questions, mostly related to the Governor General as a “rubber stamp” and whether the PM is likely to treat her as such. Van Loon hopes that he’s learned his lesson, although notes that this particular PM does seem to be a slow learner – only when it suits his purpose, ITQ would content. If the government falls next week, he can see no other legitimate option but for the GG to send us to the polls – no coalition, no way, no how.
Also, he has never said that the coalition – well, this coalition – would be unconstitutional, and he’s appalled at being lumped in with “the Harper-Flanagan set” just because he doesn’t think the Triumvirate has democratic legitimacy, and given what he’s said today, I can hardly blame him.
Julliet, meanwhile, picks up on the issue of whether there should be a written record of the meeting between the PM and the Governor General – or at least a statement of reasons for her decision. He’s a bit unsure about the first suggestion, but agrees that the office has, perhaps, become too distant from the people. He, too, thinks the budget will go through, since he doesn’t want an election at the moment.
And – that’s it! I feel so much smarter now, and hopefully at least a few readers have stuck it out til the bitter end. Cheers! I’m going to check whether there is anything left on the muffin tray.