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.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

A royal appointee shutting down Parliament; national cross-country protests; bloodthirsty accusations of treason and sedition. All the frictions of a new democracy. I hope they work it out in Thailand!

No, welcome to Canadian politics in 2008.

Yes, Canada, whose governing mantra of "peace, order, and good government" has kept the country out of international headlines while making it Washington's most reliable trade partner (key exports: oil and gas, autos and auto parts, comedians and curling). In a generational anomaly, the country has elected a string of minority governments since 2004, one Liberal and two Conservative. In a minority situation, where no party commands more than 50 percent of the seats in Parliament, the leading party needs the support of other parties to pass budgets and major legislation. The executive branch is part of the legislative branch and party discipline is strong, so if a deal breaks down, new elections generally need to be called. The political machinations of the last four years have bred a number of miniscandals of amusing inconsequence: a high-flying, Bill Clinton-consorting politician jilting her lover-colleague and the Conservative Party to save a tottering Liberal administration; alleged bribes to an ailing, renegade former Conservative politician to keep him in the fold; a Hell's Angels-affiliated babe bedding the Conservative foreign-affairs minister who could keep track of neither his affairs nor his secret government papers.

But those were merely the warm-up acts. Canada is now in a full-fledged constitutional crisis.

The party system has made it possible. The governing Conservatives are the sole right-of-center party, facing off against four avowedly progressive or left-wing parties. Prime Minister Stephen Harper "won" for the second straight time in a mid-October "pox on all your houses" election—despite the creeping threat of resource price falls and auto industry troubles, no party presented a compelling economic plan. Turnout was less than 60 percent, the lowest ever in a national vote—Canadians were more inspired by Barack Obama and the dramas south of the border.

Harper is a charisma-challenged, tactics-obsessed economist who told Canadians the economic crisis represented "good buying opportunities" for cheap stocks. He returned to Parliament with the formal legitimacy of leading the top party but without much of a mandate. With 46 percent of the seats and 38 percent of the popular vote, he again needed support from some opposition members. Across the aisle he faced:

  • A once-dominant Liberal Party, undone after a kickback scandal some years ago. Leader Stéphane Dion (whom I supported), a nerdy, target-friendly political scientist with broken English, is stepping down in May after taking the party to its worst popular vote result since 1867.
  • The Bloc Québécois, a "separatist" party that supports sovereignty for Quebec and holds the third-most seats, all in Quebec. To many Canadians, the bloc is like the pervy uncle at the family Christmas dinner—he's full of strange ideas, but he keeps getting gifts and a return invitation. It's led by Gilles Duceppe, a former Marxist janitor who has now contested five elections as party leader.
  • The New Democratic Party, which advocates higher corporate taxes and immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. It's led by Jack Layton, a trash-talking, mustachioed former political scientist with a fondness for bike riding.
  • On the sidelines is Elizabeth May's Green Party, which won no seats but took almost 7 percent of the vote in October's election, helping to return Conservatives in some districts.

In sum, they are an effete, disorganized, disengaged bunch. Younger progressive Canadians who fear Harper's attempts to nudge Canada rightward wish the opposition could come together (just as the Conservatives, born out of two older parties, themselves did in 2003). The response from entrenched party rank-and-file members to this wistful "Yes, we can" has been, "Like hell we would." And yet the opposition recognized a crisis and realized that together they formed a majority. So, they asked Harper: What's in your plan for us?

.

.

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."

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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