Thursday, December 11, 2008
Overreaching - and a lesson for the Anglican wars
The last couple of weeks have been very interesting in the world of Canadian politics.
Prime Minister Harper, at the head of his minority Conservative government, seemed secure. Canadians had denied him a majority, but seemed quite prepared to let him carry on provided he learned to work and play well with others. Despite some bluster, all three opposition parties seemed ready to go along.
Then Prime Minister Harper demonstrated that he had not learned any lesson from twice being denied a majority by voters. His finance minister introduced a fiscal update which accomplished the impossible - uniting the three opposition parties in a bid to bring down the Harper government.
(Note for non-Canadian readers: like most parliamentary democracies, the Canadian government is required to sustain the confidence of the House of Commons. If no party has a majority, one of the leaders - usually the leader of the largest party - will be asked to form a government, but that government can only continue in office by demonstrating confidence. In other words, they have to be able to win votes on matters that are deemed to be confidence issues, including all financial bills and any resolutions that specifically refer to the House having or wanting confidence.)
Normally, if a minority government is defeated on a confidence issue, the Prime Minister visits the Governor General, who represents the Queen of Canada. On the Prime Minister's advice, the Governor General then dissolves Parliament and calls an election. (The Queen of Canada normally lives in London, where she also serves as Queen of the Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Bermuda and other random bits and pieces. Oh, and the UK. The Governor General acts on the Queen's authority and is Canada's de facto head of state.)
However, if a government falls quickly after an election, the Governor General has another option. She can investigate if there might be another person who could form an alternate government and win the confidence of the House.
Despite the foolish hysterics of constitutional illiterates, this is perfectly legal, perfectly moral and perfectly normal. It has happened several times in Canada, including the federal Parliament of 1925 - 26, the Saskatchewan Legislature of 1929 - 1935 and the Ontario Provincial Parliament of 1985 - 1987.
Mr. Harper overreached himself and singlehandedly put his government - and the stability of the Canadian economy - in jeopardy.
What a yutz.
Then it was the opposition party leaders' turn.
As the Prime Minister teetered and his ministry tottered, the media and the constitutional experts were busily educating Canadians about the possible outcome of a no confidence motion. They were very clearly making the case that a government formed by opposition members was at least a notional possibility - and an entirely legitimate one.
Not content to let events develop naturally, the three opposition leaders tried to force things. Eventually, an accord and a side agreement were produced. The Official Opposition Liberals and the social democratic New Democrats would form a coalition government, with both parties being represented in Cabinet. Because the Liberal - NDP coalition would still have fewer seats than the Harper Conservatives (114 to 143), the coalition would require the support of the 49 Bloc Quebecois MPs. This party advocates for a sovreign Quebec, separate from Canada. In a side agreement, the Bloc made a commitment to vote with the coalition on any matter deemed to be a confidence vote.
Constitutionally, it was perfectly legitimate.
Politically, it turned out to be a disaster. In one afternoon, the Liberals' hapless Dr. Stephane Dion, the New Democrats usually wily Jack Layton and the Bloc's always inscrutable Gilles Duceppe had made the brash and bullying buffoon Harper look like the victim in the minds of many reasonable but utterly ill-informed Canadians.
Now the ball was back in Mr. Harper's court. His very next move . . . was to overreach again. He and his party happily misrepresented the facts of the parliamentary system. But falsely playing the victim was not enough. They decided on a deliberate tactic of ethnic baiting, fanning the flames of anti-Quebec sentiment among English Canadians, particularly in western Canada. Never before in Canadian history has a Prime Minister set about deliberately placing national unity at risk.
Finally, still fearful of his self-inflicted fate, Stephen Harper decided to play the coward, persuading the Governor General to prorogue (suspend) this session of Parliament the very day the confidence vote was to occur. This was virtually unprecedented, prorogual usually being a means of ending a session that has completed its business. Apart from one arguably similar circumstance in the 1870s, when the corrupt Sir John A. Macdonald adjourned Parliament for several weeks to avoid a similar non-confidence motion, this had never been done before. Note that the Macdonald precedent was NOT a prorogual. (And fat lot of good it did for the old drunk. His government fell almost as soon as the House came to order again.)
The net effect of the prorogual is that the entire business of this Parliamentary session just completed was the election of a Speaker and other officers, and a motion thanking the Governor General for reading a speech.
Now, where is the lesson for the Anglican wars?
In the role of Stephen Harper, consider the GaffeProne Primates, the new pretendy province in North America and "all the usual suspects."
In the role of Mssrs. Dion, Layton and Duceppe, consider the real Anglican Provinces in North America.
And the lesson?
Well, like Mr. Harper, the usual suspects are so fond of overreaching they could practically list it as their hobbby on Facebook.
So the lesson is for ++Katharine, ++Fred and all those who really believe in Anglican comprehensiveness. Learn from Stephane, Jack and Gilles.
They violated one of Napoleon's rules of warfare.
"Never interfere when your enemy is shooting himself in the foot."
Now, for fun, I leave you with Jon Stewart's not terribly accurate satire of Canada's political crisis.
(Apparently those yutzes at CTV have a problem with letting us embed video. And they won't let us watch Jon Stewart on the Comedy Central site. Grrrrr.)