Monday, December 01, 2008

Prime Minister... Dion?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

How Canada’s Opposition Parties Have United to Bring Down the Conservative Government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper

UPDATED BELOW.

Over the weekend, Grace noted that "there [were] rumblings that two of [Canada's federal] opposition parties, the Liberals and New Democrats, [were] in the process of brokering a deal to throw out the Tories and form a coalition government with the support of the Bloc Québécois."

(Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, or "Tories," won the most seats in October's election, but they only won a minority and so formed, or re-formed, a minority government.)

Well, the deal is done. And, if Harper's government falls (and, then, if Governor General Michaëlle Jean asks the opposition parties to form a government), the new prime minister will be...

Stéphane Dion, whom I supported for the Liberal leadership way back when but whose performance as leader, culminating in October's election (he is currently a lame duck, having announced his resignation and awaiting the selection of a new leader), has been, well, a disaster.

With the Liberals utterly rudderless, though -- the new rudder, er, leader, will likely be either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae -- Dion is pretty much the only suitable compromise. (He leans left and so is suitable to the left-wing NDP and the left-leaning BQ.) Besides, he'd only be the interim PM until a new Liberal leader is selected next spring.

As a Liberal, more or less, I'm all for this. The Conservatives didn't win a majority in the last election (see the full results here), and so this is hardly some sort of coup. If the three opposition parties think they can govern together, and have a deal to that effect, then they should be allowed to do so -- if the Conservatives genuinely lose the confidence of the House. It is unlikely that yet another election would solve anything, and so the only alternative -- and ones hopes that Jean, whom I find rather underwhelming, understands this -- would be to turn to the Lib.-NDP-BQ coalition. And yet, questions abound:

-- Would Dion try to stay in office? (Likely not. The three leadership candidates -- Ignatieff, Rae, and LeBlanc -- all support the coalition but surely want Dion out. What's more, Dion just isn't that popular in the party anymore.)

-- How would the Liberal leadership candidates handle themselves in Cabinet? (Fairly well. After all, they have an interest in making it work.)

-- Would it work? (For a time, probably. It would formally be a Lib.-NDP governing coalition -- the Liberals would get PM, Finance, and most of the other Cabinet spots, though NDP leader Jack Layton would no doubt get a top position (foreign affairs?) -- with the BQ, according to the Globe, "expected to promise to support the coalition to survive for at least a year, which would allow for the passage of two budgets." And the emphasis, at least for now, would be on the economic/financial crisis: "The coalition deal includes a multibillion-dollar stimulus package for the troubled economy." But after that second budget? Who knows? And while there seems now to be agreement between the Liberals and the NDP on the economy, what about other issues like Afghanistan and global warming?)

-- Would Canadians support it? (Probably. Harper is calling it a coup, but it's not, it's just parliamentary politics. And let's not forget that Harper didn't win a majority of seats, let alone a majority of the popular vote. Of course, Conservatives could spin this as an Ontario/Quebec-based plot to seize power from the country's democratically elected government, and some in the West, where alienation and anti-Central Canada bias run amok, may buy it, but it's not like Harper and his party are hugely popular across the country. If anything, Canadians may welcome the change, not to mention the multi-partisan effort to address the economy. The Liberals and NDP may also be accused of cozying up to the BQ, a separatist party, but the Tories have a long history of doing just that, and, at the moment, the economy is a far more pressing issue that independence for Quebec. Basically, many Canadians have had it with Harper and are looking for new leadership in Ottawa.)

I just heard the deal is expected to be signed shortly. Even then, though, there's still the question of a vote of no confidence in the House and of what the GG will do in response.

Stay tuned. Who knew Canadian politics could be so exciting? (Well, it often is. This is just more exciting than usual.)

**********

UPDATE 1: Dion, Layton, and BQ leader Gilles Duceppe signed the deal this afternoon. "We are ready to form a new government that will address the best interests of the people instead of plunging Canadians into another election," said Dion. A confidence vote will likely take place next Monday.

The Canadian Press: "The agreement between the Liberals and the NDP is to last until June 30, 2011. The Bloc has agreed to support the arrangement until June 30, 2010, at which point their support could be extended."

**********

UPDATE 2: The details:

The opposition parties represent just over 54 per of the popular vote in the Oct. 14 federal election.

Duceppe said the Bloc would not join the coalition government nor have any ministers in cabinet.

A 24-member coalition cabinet would have six New Democrats and 18 Liberals, according to the deal.

The Bloc would support all confidence votes until June 30, 2010, but would be free to vote as it wished on all other non-monetary measures.

The Liberal-NDP pact lasts a year longer, until June 30, 2011.

**********

UPDATE 3: The big question, of course, is... Why did they do it? Here are my preliminary answers (which I wrote in response to a commenter but which I'm moving up into the body of the post):

I think the Liberals, with an unpopular and lame-duck leader, were content to go through a leadership contest, settle in, and regroup for the next election. In other words, I don’t think they were looking for this, given their current state of disarray. I think this move was driven by outside forces:

1) It was, apparently, Layton's idea. The NDP must realize that this is finally an opportunity for it to be in government (and boost its governing credibility, which it sorely lacks). Even in the last election, even with an historically weak Liberal Party, it was only able to win just over 18 percent of the vote. In other words, even with everything in its favour, it's still just a distant third party. If this works, it will not only be in government but develop a potentially lasting partnership with the Liberals, not least because it is fairly strong out west, where the Liberals are weak.

2) After the election, Harper, like Bush in '04, claimed that he had been given a stronger mandate to govern (his minority is larger now than it was after the '06 election. The difference is that Bush actually did win a majority of the votes in 2004 (though, of course, his win over Kerry was narrow and voters clearly weren't giving him much of a mandate, and certainly not one to push through a right-wing agenda, including Social Security reform). True, Harper won more seats this year than he did in the previous election, but he still only won a minority. That's not much of a mandate. Certainly not enough of a mandate to push through a radical agenda, which is what he was clearly looking to do.

3) For the opposition parties, this is about their very survival. They had to act in part because the Conservatives were looking to destroy them by eliminating party subsidies. (For more on this, see here.) As much as anything, this was the driving force behind the deal. (The government has since backed down on its plan to eliminate subsidies.)


4) The opposition parties were responding in large part to the government's economic plan. And, of course, we're somewhere in the middle of an economic and financial crisis. I suspect that this wouldn't have happened in more normal times. The opposition parties are evidently putting aside their differences (say, over Afghanistan) in order to work together to stimulate the economy and help Canadians get through this difficult time.

**********

UPDATE 4: As expected, Western Conservatives are grumbling. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, for example. (Alberta is a Conservative stronghold that, unlike much of the rest of the country, has seen its economy boom, mostly the result of high oil prices. Harper is from Calgary, very much the base of the party.)

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13 Comments:

  • i have no idea how the canadian political system works. seems very confusing. unfortunately, it isn't terribly straightforward here in the us either.

    By Blogger betmo, at 5:23 PM  

  • It's instructive to compare this to the US two party system. Would a system like that be more helpful in Canada since you use first-past the line as well?

    It would force the Libs left and the NDP right and force the conservatives to choose. Perhaps it would just stifle dissent though intra-party fights in the Democracy party down here are legendary.

    Also the $30,000,000 stipend to parties mystifies me. I have been told Canadians don't like to make a big show of discussing politics and prefer to actively volunteer rather than give money, but why can't they do both? A million liberal voters who give $5 a month would result in loads of cash over the $30 million.

    By Blogger MN, at 7:36 PM  

  • MN:

    The "stipend", tt is called public financing, the notion that political parties will be less beholden to special interests if some/large portion of their electioneering expenses need not come from lobbyists and special interest groups.

    By Blogger olive ridley, at 8:19 PM  

  • The US two-party system is a reaction to the structure of the American government. What comes to mind is the electoral college system that chooses the President (rather than a prime minister chosen by the legislature as in most Western democracies) but there are others. There's no reason for two parties, philosophically, just as there's no reason for multiple parties in parliamentary democracies. But Canada's a special case because of the BQ, an "ethnic" party that doesn't match up with any of the national parties. If it wasn't for Quebec, Canada's system would probably be a lot like the UK's, with two main parties and one sizeable third party that votes with the more leftward major party -- the big difference being that unlike Britain, the smaller party is the more left-wing.

    By Blogger Mac, at 9:32 PM  

  • "Of course, Conservatives could spin this as an Ontario/Quebec-based plot to seize power..."

    Unlikely. The Conservatives have more seats in Ontario than the Liberals. And if Ontario and Quebec actually agreed on anything in the first place, they'd have been able to elect a government. This is more like a Toronto-based plot to seize power, really.

    "some in the West, where alienation and anti-Central Canada bias run amok, may buy it"

    Given that the Liberals have a total of seven seats in all of the Western provinces combined, and given that several of those were won by less than 100 votes, you have to take for granted that the West wouldn't be for it. If a region is overwhelmingly against your party, and you go on talking as if you're the only truly national party, you're gonna seem like bunch of sheltered, arrogant assholes.

    "it it's not like Harper and his party are hugely popular across the country"

    Well, they have more seats in Ontario than the Liberals, are the only alternative to the Bloc in Quebec outside of Montreal, and they dominate the West. To be fair, the Liberals do dominate Newfoundland.

    "The Liberals and NDP may also be accused of cozying up to the BQ, a separatist party, but the Tories have a long history of doing just that"

    Really? They have a long history of running governments that depend on the Bloc for its survival? And if they did, the best standard Liberals now have is "if its bad enough for the Tories, its good enough for us"?

    "Basically, many Canadians have had it with Harper and are looking for new leadership in Ottawa."

    Right, they've had it with a guy they elected a couple of weeks ago, and are looking for another guy who got the lowest vote total of any leader of his party in the history of his country.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:37 PM  

  • You make some good points, Anon, but let me clarify:

    I said "many Canadians" have had it with Harper. Because, lest we forget, most Canadians didn't vote for him. And he hasn't just been PM for "a couple of weeks."

    The Conservatives haven't depended on the BG for its survival, but Conservatives, and this goes way back, have a long history of supporting "soft" nationalism in Quebec. Think back to Mulroney. The Liberals have generally been the party of centralized national unity, while the Conservatives have supported decentralization and special status for Quebec.

    No one denies that the Conservatives won the most seats in the last election. They are indeed the strongest party out west, they broke through in Ontario and Quebec, and even won a seat in PEI. But that doesn't mean they're hugely popular. Again, most Canadians voted against them. And their success has had a lot to do with Liberal weakness.

    Speaking of which, yes, Dion has been a failure -- as I admit in my post -- but this isn't about Dion, it's about a coalition of the center and left parties, with the temporary support of the BQ, which is left-leaning on economic issues. And Dion will only be around until the spring, at which point the Liberals will likely select either Ignatieff or Rae, both of whom are much more popular in the party.

    Anyway, this is the sort of thing that can happen in a parliamentary system. If Harper had won a majority, this wouldn't be happening. Instead, even against a historically weak Liberal Party, he was only able to win a minority. And now the majority, it seems, is united against him.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 9:31 AM  

  • A quick question.

    How much of this has been brought about by the Conservatives have tried to impliment some of the more radical elements of their agenda in the expectation that they would lose in the next election, because much of their legitimacy was their good relationship with GW Bush:
    ....Transport Minister John Baird said the minority government won't try to eliminate federal civil servants' right to strike over the next couple of years, as pledged in last week's economic update.

    On Saturday, Baird also announced the government had shelved its contentious plan to eliminate political party subsidies that are based on the number of votes received during elections.

    It sounds to me like they have gone off the deep end, which may have convinced the Libs, NDP, and BQ to get their act together on opposing the Conservatives.

    By Blogger Matthew Saroff, at 10:10 AM  

  • Matthew:

    Short answer -- a lot.

    I think the Liberals, with a lame-duck leader, were content to go through a leadership contest, settle in, and regroup for the next election. In other words, I don't think they were looking for this, given their current state of disarray. I think this move was driven by outside forces:

    1) It was, apparently, Layton's idea. The NDP must realize that this is finally an opportunity for it to be in government. Even in the last election, even with an incredibly weak Liberal Party, it was only able to win, like, 18% of the vote. In other words, even with everything in its favour, it's still just a distant third party. If this works, it will not only be in government but develop a potentially lasting partnership with the Liberals, not least because it is fairly strong out west, where the Liberals are weak.

    2) After the election, Harper, like Bush, claimed that he had a stronger mandate to govern. The difference is that Bush actually did win a majority of the votes in 2004. True, Harper won more seats this year than he did in the previous election, but he still only won a minority. That's not much of a mandate. Certainly not enough of a mandate to push through a radical agenda, which is what he was clearly looking to do.

    3) For the opposition parties, this is about their very survival. They had to act in part because the Conservatives were looking to destroy them by eliminating party subsidies. As much as anything, this was the driving force behind the deal.

    4) The opposition parties were responding in large part to the government's economic plan. And, of course, there is an economic and financial crisis. I suspect that this wouldn't have happened in more normal times. The opposition parties are evidently putting aside their differences (say, over Afghanistan) in order to work together to stimulate the economy.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 10:44 AM  

  • This post has been featured at THEWEEK.com as Best Opinion - We really enjoyed your take on this story!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:49 PM  

  • Thank you, Anon!

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 3:05 PM  

  • Stephen Harper brought this on himself with the new session of parliament he chose to squash his opposition by cutting off funds for elections, he cut off women's pay equity, and he has no plans for economic stimulus which every other major country of the world are all doing to stave off economic disaster. Harper is a political George Bush, he divides the country, and supports policies that are not good for Canadians, and we are sick and tired of his take on conservative idealism.
    It is time for a new government when Harper neither had a majority in the election and he does not have the support of Parliament -it is time to resign.
    Harper himself, wanted a coalition government to overthrow the Liberals and he sided with the Separatist Party to do so. It is "do as I say, not as I do" with Harper, and its time for him to resign. Our country needs action, strong positive economic policies to stimulate the economy, bring green jobs to Canada and stop support George Bush in the war in Afghanastan. He has tabled no economic plans, other than to defeat the other parties and a recessive hatred for pay equity for women, and minorites.

    By Blogger Politicol News Staff, at 7:06 PM  

  • Stephen Harper was born and raised in Toronto. He may be politically and ideologically tied to Alberta, but he's not actually from there.

    By Anonymous Andrew Galbraith, at 12:21 AM  

  • By Blogger sadisu, at 12:36 PM  

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