Looks like an election is a distinct possibility in Canada between now and the end of the year. It must be something in the water, or possibly the barbecue sauce, as the various party leaders have come back from the summer break, energized and belligerent.
Harper in particular has been playing to his base, suggesting that he might have to think long and hard whether the current parliament is workable enough for him to bother with a fall session of parliament, or if he should just chuck it all in and try his chances with an election.
“Quite frankly, I’m going to have to make a judgment in the next little while as to whether or not this Parliament can function productively,”
As an aside, it is a little rich for Conservatives to moan about opposition obstructionism, especially considering that it has been Conservative members who have been doing a fair amount of obstructing at the committee level, and that the party itself wrote the book (literally) on how to obstruct the proceedings of parliament when the situation looked unfavourable.
The wording here is critical. We’re not talking about Harper and the opposition staring down the barrel of a confidence motion, either negotiating hard or playing chicken. That’s a day in the life of any minority parliament. That’s democracy in action. No. We’re talking about Stephen Harper leaving 24 Sussex Drive without provocation and making the trek to the Governor General’s residence to say that he has no control over parliament anymore, and that parliament should be dissolved and an election called well before the traditional four-year mandate of parliament expired.
That’s not without precedent, either. Most recently, Prime Minister Jean Chretien surprised the opposition by calling an election in 2000, roughly three and a half years into his mandate. In terms of minority parliaments, the 1957 government of John Diefenbaker was dissolved without a confidence vote, after the newly elected Liberal leader, Lester Pearson, made an ill-advised speech asking Diefenbaker that the Liberals be returned to government without an election because of an economic downturn.
There’s no doubt, under old rules, Stephen Harper could call an election whenever he wanted, however he wanted. There’s just one problem: there are new rules. In one of his first acts as prime minister, Harper and his Conservatives pushed through a bill that fixed election dates. No longer, he crowed, would a sitting prime minister have the unfair advantage of surprising the opposition with a snap election.
Some Conservatives have expressed doubts or frustration over the idea that Stephen Harper would dissolve parliament and call an election rather than wait to be defeated in a vote of confidence. Others, however, have been scrambling to justify Harper’s actions, to keep an election call off his list of broken promises.
Yes, I know all about the fixed election date legislation. But, two points must be considered: the first is that the legislation ONLY relates to majority governments and secondly, the possibility of “contingencies” have been written into the legislation. So, there are two reasons for an election before October 2009 — the government is a minority government and the functions of the government are currently in a state of “dysfunction.”
Without a doubt, if the PM pays a visit to the Governor General, you’ll have the usual suspects condemn him for breaking his word. But, given what the fixed date legislation really states, he certainly would not have done that. He is acting as a leader should and the average Canadian will simply see that he is a statesman who can make the tough decisions when it is necessary.
The fixed election date legislation was designed to prohibit a Prime Minister who has been given a full, majority mandate from voters from going to the polls early or later when it is politically opportune, ala Jean Chretien in 2000, a mere three years into his 1997 mandate. For some reason, Conservatives have been incapable of effectively communicating that point.
The suggestion that this legislation doesn’t apply to a prime minister of a minority government is, frankly, silly. Harper himself made sure of that when he set the clock ticking for an election in October 2009.
Ask yourself: why 2009? His government came to power in June 2006, and our constitution allows individual parliaments (not governments, parliaments) to maintain their mandate for five years. Tradition has dictated that majority governments call an election roughly every four years. Four years translates to an election in mid-to-late 2010. Five years translates to 2011. Harper picked 2009, or an election after just three years. While it is unusual for a minority parliament to last that long, it’s not unheard of. So the year Harper voluntarily picked to end his government’s mandate strongly suggests that he wanted to show that his legislation applied to his government as well.
I don’t doubt that loopholes exist in this legislation. I’m not expecting Harper to be hauled off in handcuffs if he approaches Michaelle Jean asking to dissolve parliament. I am aware that there was no constitutional amendment to wrest the power the Governor General has to call an election when advised to do so by our prime minister. But the fact remains that Harper would be breaking the spirit of the law if he called an election now rather than engineering his defeat in a confidence motion as previous minority governments have done.
Harper specifically brought in this bill to counter what previous governments sought to do: calling an election before the expiration of the mandate whenever the conditions were most favourable for them, and this is what he is doing now. Any excuses that Harper brings forward for going forward with an election now: obstructionism from the opposition; a need to clear the air and firm up the mandate, et cetera, can be brought forward by future governments when they feel the law should not apply to them. Harper, in passing this legislation, sets the precedent. If he disobeys the spirit of his own law, it becomes a law that isn’t worth respecting, and the “achievement” has to come off of any list of Harper Accomplishments for that list to remain credible.
Truth to tell, Harper’s broken promise would be, at most, a one day story. In the heat of the election campaign, other issues and other campaign miscues will take over the headlines, so I’m perplexed why so many partisan Conservative supporters are so desperate not to give one inch of ground, here. Yes, there may be bad optics in the fact that Harper broke a promise that McGuinty managed to keep, but it’s a small promise in a small issue.
But for me it’s another piece of the disturbing pattern that has materialized over the course of Harper’s two years in office. He was elected in 2006 promising to stop government power grabs, to be open and accountable, and to stop playing these games. He has failed to follow through on all counts. Indeed, if Harper breaks this promise and calls an election, it is yet another sign that he believes that the rules don’t apply to him.
And that’s just the sort of arrogance that got the Liberals punished in 2006.
Tories are saying that Harper is not breaking the law because this is a minority Parliament and the law was only meant to stop “majority” prime ministers from pulling the plug and calling an early election. That is a wonderful and imaginative theory, but that is not what the government’s own House Leader and Minister of Democratic Reform (Rob Nicholson) said during the debate on the bill (emphasis added):
I believe all parties share the view that elections belong fundamentally to citizens. They belong to the people. All parties agree with the principle that the timing of elections should not be left to the Prime Minister, but should be set in advance so all Canadians know when the next election will occur.
I will begin with the description of the current process for calling general elections and I will discuss some of the difficulties associated with it. This will be followed by a discussion of the many advantages associated with fixed date elections. Finally, I will be very pleased to present the specifics of Bill C-16.
Currently, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister, whose government has not lost the confidence of the House of Commons, to determine what he or she regards as a propitious time for an election to renew the government’s mandate. The Prime Minister then requests dissolution of the House from the Queen’s representative and if the Governor General agrees, he or she proclaims the date of the election.
What we have is a situation where the Prime Minister is able to choose the date of the general election, not based necessarily on what is in the best interests of the country, but what is in the best interests of his or her political party. Bill C-16 would address this problem and would produce a number of other benefits.
That sounds familiar. Has the PM lost the confidence of the House? Nope.