Canada's crazy constitutional crisis.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 5 2008 1:26 PM

Chaos in Canada

What happens when an unelected royal official closes Parliament.

(Continued from Page 1)

The Conservatives came back with a middle-finger salute—no economic stimulus and a proposal to ban public-sector strikes. And then they cradled the opposition with chloroform: a promise to withdraw public financing for political parties, which would suffocate all parties except the grass-roots-strong Conservatives.

This was enough to galvanize the opposition. Within days, the Liberals and New Democrats had hammered out an agreement for a coalition government with the lame-duck Dion at its head, ready to take office immediately, with support from the Bloc Québécois (which claims to have no interest in governing the nation). Their putative justification was the need for a real response to the economic crisis, for which they drew up a rudimentary stimulus plan. The Conservatives cried foul, declaring that they had been duly elected and excoriating the opposition for "getting into bed with the separatists."

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Could a new government take power without an election? There's no legal impediment. And with 62 percent of the electorate voting for non-Conservative parties and intense public frustration over an election that could cost $300 million (Canadian) but resolve little, the opposition is gambling that the public appetite just might be there. The formal power to decide who will form the government is in the hands of a berobed, unelected institution—not nine judges, but, rather, Gov. General Michaëlle Jean.

A Haitian immigrant and former broadcast journalist, Jean is the reluctant central figure in this drama. As governor general, appointed by the queen on the advice of the former (Liberal) prime minister, her duties are to attend parades; ceremonially command military brigades; issue scrolls, awards, and proclamations—in other words, to give a sheen of royal dignity and unity to a vast, diverse land with juvenile leadership.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Now she has to perform the most political role of her constitutional duties: dealing with this impasse. A vote in which the opposition pledged to topple the government was scheduled for Monday, Dec. 8, but on the morning of Dec. 4, Harper managed to convince Jean to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament until Jan. 26. You may not have liked the reasoning in Bush v. Gore, but at least the justices published their decision. It may be a while before we hear Jean's explanation of why she decided to throw Harper a lifeline.

The ground continues to shift as fractiousness emerges. The opposition coalition has complained loudly but is accepting Jean's decision for now. The episode has taken its toll, further bloodying most of the political class and replaying old struggles around national unity. After all, don't we use elections to decide who will lead us? And aren't those separatists, whose bed the rest of the opposition is slipping into, still legitimately elected members of the Canadian family?

There has been one positive, unintended consequence: Canadians have rediscovered their appetite for democracy. Old constitutional precedents are being unearthed and discussed; invitations are going out for competing rallies across Canada to be held this weekend. The backroom dealers have failed the electorate, and the public, as in previous crises, has gone "from deference to defiance." Maybe Gov. General Jean ought to ceremonially inspect the pro- and anti-Harper rallies this weekend. After all, in this "constitutional monarchy," the people still rule.

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