The dirty little secret behind Canada’s (latest) parliamentary crisis
I am, dear readers, going to let you in on something.
Yes, the Speaker’s ruling was historical. Yes, we are going to have one heck of a fight on our hands if the government does not decide to co-operate with the opposition.
I am going to explain to you just what the heck is really going on.
September 17, 2007, was a significant day in recent Canadian political history. Those who remember it, remember it chiefly because it was the day that the Liberals lost Outremont, a downtown Montreal riding they had held virtually since Confederation, with the sole exception being the parliament chosen in the Free Trade election of 1988.
But that is not the day’s real significance. Its real significance is, that was the day Stephen Harper’s ministry lost the confidence of the House of Commons. It has yet to get it back.
I’ll elaborate. Outremont was not the only game going on that day — there were three by-elections in Quebec. In the other two, the Conservatives mounted a strong challenge to Bloc dominance — they won Roberval–Lac-St-Jean, a riding which included parts once held by Lucien Bouchard, with a 60% vote, and they came within less than 1,500 votes of taking Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot, another riding held by the Bloc since 1993.
Gilles Duceppe, canny politician that he is, saw that Stephen Harper was eating his lunch — the Tories were his greatest threat. He had been a reliable vote (or abstention) on Conservative budgets in 2006 and 2007 — that would no longer be true. Duceppe withdrew his support from Harper for good.
Since then, the Conservatives have won every confidence vote. But it was not out of love — not out of real support from opposition parties — but out of fear. The Dion abstention show began with the new session of the 39th Parliament. It had not ended by the time Harper put that parliament out of misery himself. That continued until the parliamentary crisis of December 2008, which Harper ended by his first controversial prorogation; after that, Ignatieff lent his support to the Tories through the summer of 2009. In the fall of 2009, with Harper riding high in the polls, Layton lent him NDP support, to avoid a disastrous (for him) election. In March 2009, with Liberal fortunes looking grim, Ignatieff had enough of his MPs stay home with the flu to allow Harper’s latest budget to pass.
Over all of this time, the opposition, with a clear majority of the House, has gritted its teeth. Their members do not support Stephen Harper — they would prefer that he not be prime minister, and they do not agree with the direction of his government. But he has had them cowering in (political) fear — they do not want to fight him in an election; at least, they have not all wanted to fight him at the same time, save for a short while in December 2008. (Which is when they sought to replace him without an election — an election in which he would have crushed them into radioactive dust.)
They spend their time plotting — how can the opposition majority embarrass Harper next, short of defeating his government and forcing an election? They have tried Brian Mulroney; they have tried Omar Khadr; they have tried the environment; they have tried swine flu; and now they are trying to use the Afghan detainee issue.
It’s remarkably silly — if the opposition does not want to support Harper’s government, they should simply unite and vote him out. Face him at the polls, hold him to below 154 seats (a 154 seat Tory caucus would gain majority status by choosing an opposition speaker — Milliken again, most probably), and then vote him down on the Throne Speech of the First Session of the Forty-First Parliament of Canada — replace his government with a coalition government of the rest.
Till now, Harper has had them cowed — for some reason, their failure to replace him in December 2008 has left them unwilling to take the steps which follow logically from their loss of (real) confidence in him.
Till now, anyway.
Are they now prepared to take him on? Are they prepared to defeat him? Or will we again suffer through the spectacle of a parliamentary majority which is fixed on taking potshots at the PM, while continuing to vote confidence in his government?
We will see.