Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On the Canadian Hubbub

If you haven't been keeping track of Canadian politics, things are going crazy over there. For some time now, Stephen Harper has been leading a Conservative minority government in Parliament, and had this government reaffirmed in an election just eight weeks ago or so. There are 308 seats in parliament; to have a clear majority government requires 155 of these; the Conservatives control 143. This is just 12 short of clear majority -- very close -- but it is still minority territory. However, Harper recently galvanized the opposition parties by pushing for the removal of federal funding for political parties (there was eventually a retraction) and by moves that were seen as attempts to manipulate the current economic woes in a purely partisan way. So the Liberals (led by Stephane Dion) and the NDP (led by Jack Layton) began to consider a coalition -- despite having both explicitly rejected the notion in the election. However, together they only have 114 MPs (the Liberals have 77 and the NDP 37), well short even of the Conservative 143. So a Liberal-NDP coalition simply couldn't work.

Unless someone else were in on it, of course. You'll notice that 143+114 is short of 308. The Bloc Quebecois (led by Gilles Duceppe) controls 49 seats in Parliament. And they have thrown their support behind the coalition, in part because they are the party that benefits most from federal funding; they won't be part of the government, but as part of the deal they've been granted a few concessions. In effect, if they get these concessions, they can still vote as they please, except where the vote would threaten the government itself. And a Liberal-NDP government protected by the Bloc in this way can take over: it controls 163 seats. In the new coalition, Stephane Dion will be Prime Minister, and (in an unprecedented move) the NDP will have six cabinet seats in the new government.

There are lots of things that are interesting here.

(1) Again, this is only seven or eight weeks after election, and, what is more, an election in which the Conservatives did very well compared to everyone else. They gained 19 seats, whereas the NDP barely budged and the Liberals had their fourth election of decline, and one of the worst showings they've had in decades. Now the Liberals are inches away from controlling the Prime Ministry, without a change in Parliament. But that's the way it goes: elections in a parliamentary system don't make the government, they make the Parliament. The government is made by Parliament, and that way there is always the possibility for surprise. (I find, incidentally, that Americans have difficulty wrapping their minds around this aspect of parliamentary systems: the closest we get to anything like it is the Electoral College, and that's highly constrained.)

(2) The coalition is a weird coalition, so much so that there are even solid Liberals and New Democrats who are a bit on edge about it. The Liberals are a center-left party, and have a long history of seeing themselves as the Party of Canada, the moderate, middle-of-the-road, natural choice for Canadians everywhere; they have been historically the dominant pro-unity party, that is, the party that has been most responsible for keeping Canada a unified nation (and, in particular, for keeping Quebec in the Dominion), and not compromising on this point. The NDP is firmly social democrat, the Canadian left. And the Bloc Quebecois is a regional separatist party -- they want Quebec to be able to secede and, barring that, they vote pro-Quebec on everything. The Liberals, by pushing this coalition, are giving the Bloc more power than it has ever had.

(3) This would be the first coalition in power in Canada since 1917, when Robert Borden, then leader of the Conservative party, formed the Union coalition, which held together until the Liberals took over in the 1921 election.

The tale is not over. Merely controlling the seats doesn't give you the government. The Conservatives are still in control in the moment. But they are on the edge of losing a vote of confidence, which will topple them. There are a number of very different paths it can take from here:

(1) The vote of confidence has currently been delayed a short bit to allow time for the government to show that it can be a government Parliament can have confidence in; this is a standard sort of allowance, but it only buys time. Eventually the vote will have to come up, because the ability of the government to do much is sharply limited when it doesn't clearly have the confidence of Parliament. When the vote comes up, the coalition can vote for nonconfidence as they have said they will. The Governor-General will reconstitute Parliament, the Conservative government will fall, the Liberal-NDP government will rise. And Canada will be governed by a weak coalition of weak parties, and, what is more, parties that historically have not been friendly. The Canadian House of Comments is not like some European parliaments, where coalitions are a matter of course; it is a very adversarial chamber, and parties are more inclined to fight it out than to compromise. It will be unstable, and everyone knows that it will be unstable. The best the Liberals can hope for here is time and luck enough to regain the confidence of Canadians that they are capable of guiding the nation, so that when the unstable coalition dissolves and an election is called they will be able to take the reins again in a stronger position. The NDP, meanwhile, gets the Conservatives, their primary opponents, out of power for at least a while. The Bloc gets concessions it has never had before -- for a while. And to do it everyone has to live in relative peace with parties they can't really stand.

(2) The Governor-General (currently Michaelle Jean) could, in principle, simply give the Liberal-NDP coalition the government. This would be unprecedented and is extraordinarily unlikely, since it would generally be seen as an abuse of viceregal power.

(3) Prime Minister Harper could prorogue Parliament. This would be a suspension of Parliament until the Throne Speech on January 27; Conservatives would stay in power until then, and thus have time to work out a solution. To do this, the Prime Minister must issue an Order-in-Council and get the assent of the Governor-General. In principle, it's possible that she could refuse it, but this is highly unlikely; as long as the Prime Minister is in power, the Governor-General is expected to use her powers solely in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, unless she has clear reason to believe that doing so would threaten the Canadian constition. But there still is a bare possibility, unlikely though it may be, that she would require that the government show that it can survive a test of confidence -- in which case we are back at the confidence vote.

(4) Harper could ask the Governor-General to call an election. The problem, of course, is that elections are very expensive and Canadians just went through one in October, and it is unclear whether it would move matters much. And the Governor-General could in principle also require that the election be a last resort.

You'll notice that a lot actually depends on Rideau Hall, i.e., the Governor-General; and it's not very clear what room she has to maneuver. And since there is no particular procedure -- we are entirely into the unwritten area of Canada's constitution, the one usually governed by precedent and tradition rather than formal rules -- it's anyone's guess what will happen. Chances are the coalition with succeed; chances are it won't last long; chances are the Conservatives will be back in power within the year. But it's all just chances; no certainties here. It will be interesting to see what happens.

UPDATE: Parliament is prorogued. The pause button has been hit; we'll see how things go when Parliament returns in January.

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