Parliamentary Democracy, Canadian Style

Those with an interest in political goings on elsewhere should note that a few hours ago, the Governor General of Canada (the Queen’s official representative who, these days, fills a largely ceremonial role involving officially opening and dissolving Parliament and reading the government’s Throne Speech), gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper her consent to prorogue Parliament.

Prime Minister Harper was elected to a second minority term just two months ago, at the beginning of October. His government’s Throne Speech passed through Parliament without trouble at the end of November. Surprisingly, last week the government chose to follow that up with a quarterly financial update full of partisan nastiness, including a pledge (which was subsequently withdrawn) to eliminate public funding for political parties – something that would have done great damage to the other parties’ ability to compete in the next election. Somewhat incredibly in light of the current worldwide financial crisis, he also pledged to present a federal government surplus in the next budget. As a result of stricter rules on credit reserves and various other factors, Canada’s financial institutions and credit markets are in good shape relative to those in many other countries, including the United States. Even in conservative circles, however, no one would suggest that Canada is going to avoid a long and painful recession, and hardly anyone would say that now is the time to tighten public purse strings.

Back to the political plot: following the quarterly update, the other parties in Parliament (the Liberal Party and the New Democrats), with the support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, put together a coalition to defeat the Harper government. Had the Prime Minister not prorogued Parliament, he would surely have faced and lost a confidence vote next Monday. Minority governments in Canada have lost confidence votes before, most recently in 1980, but to stronger oppositions. This time, the Liberal Party has a lame duck leader, Stephane Dion, who has agreed to step down at that party’s leadership convention on May 2. A coalition government would have put in place as Prime Minister an individual who had completely lost the support even of his own party, and who led his party to its poorest standing in the polls ever (or at least since the 1890s). In an interesting twist, Dion’s likely successor as leader of the Liberal Party is Michael Ignatieff, former Harvard professor and an eloquent commentator on the fractious and conflicted nature of the Canadian polity.

Parliament is now prorogued until January 26 of next year, when the government will present a new Throne Speech (sure to be very brief and sure to be followed by a vote of no-confidence), meant to be followed immediately by the presentation of a budget on January 27. The Governor General’s decision to prorogue Parliament, effectively to allow a minority government to avoid a vote of no confidence, is unprecedented in Canada and more than a little alarming. Although it won’t happen, Prime Minister Harper could theoretically keep Parliament out of session for a year.

Although we will never know for sure, presumably Her Excellency’s decision to agree to the prorogation was based on a perceived need for leadership and continuity in a time of economic crisis, and a lack of confidence that the Liberal-New Democratic coalition would be able to hold long enough to get anything done. There’s some tension, though, between this sense of urgency and the decision to go six weeks without a Parliamentary session. There’s also very little hope that the Harper government will be able to achieve, well, anything now. Canadians are likely to go back to the polls again very soon, for their third election in less than two years. It is difficult to imagine that anyone will get a majority in Parliament next time, either.

- posted by Cristie Ford