March 30, 2011

Stephen Harper Explains Minority Government For You

TVOntario hasn't had a lot of hits lately, apart from the Polka Dot Door reunion special Polkaroo Christmas: Home From Rehab. So it's something of a surprise that a clip from a 1997 TVO interview Paula Todd did with Stephen Harper, in which neither party attempted to channel remarks through stuffed animals, would achieve prominence in this year's federal election campaign.

"They've basically lost Quebec, and without Quebec the Liberal party has never been a majority party in this country," said Harper, then leader of the lobby group National Citizens Coalition. "And that's where I think you're going to face, someday, a minority Parliament, with the Liberals maybe having the largest number of seats."

The money shot, given the Prime Minister's current strategy of invoking the spectre of an opposition coalition as a reason to support him, is his brief excursion into territory Todd hadn't insisted he explore:

But what will be the test is whether there is then any party in opposition that's able to form a coalition or working alliance with the others. And I think we have a political system that's going to continue to have three or four different parties or five different parties, and so I think parties that want to form a government are eventually going to have to learn to work together.

This would seem to indicate a dramatic change of position over the years, until one examines the video closely. Although it's not often discussed in the media these days, the "Stephen Harper" that was head of the NCC in 1997 was actually a prototype android built using the technology that went into the space shuttle's robotic arm. People were unnerved by its Kevlar exterior and its habit of making erratic speeches, and it was eventually sold to a bitumen mining company for use as a heat-resistant tour guide.

More significant is the interview the real Stephen Harper gave the CBC's Evan Solomon in October 2004. Harper, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP leader Jack Layton had sent the Governor General of the day a letter advising her that Liberal leader Paul Martin might ask her to dissolve the 38th Parliament quickly. The trio had agreed on the following text:

We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.

Each of the three had (and has) his own kitty dance around the question of exactly what they were asking the GG to do. Duceppe, who appears to have been keeping a creased copy of the letter on his person like a farmer with a crop insurance policy, doesn't hesitate to accuse Harper of lying when he claims it was only a parliamentary tactic. However, Duceppe also keeps the discourse lively by maintaining the same denials of coalition as Harper. Layton claims he stepped back from the chasm's edge after experiencing a revelation that Harper and Duceppe meant to have Harper replace Martin as prime minister.

But no one really answers the essential question: if the three party leaders were not saying they could put together a stable government amongst themselves, what options did the Governor General have? Institute Direct Rule? Organize a hockey shootout? Announce a new transcontinental railroad and head to the bar?

Harper was particularly nimble when Solomon tried to pin him down on the letter's meaning. "The current government believes it doesn't have to be in a coalition and I share that view" he said, in response to Solomon's suggestion that he would need to be "in a coalition de facto" for the GG to have other options. "There's a lot of options in the House of Commons," Harper continued, "what I expect the Liberals to do is try to seek different allies for different pieces of legislation"

So...asking the Governor General to "consider all of your options", in the case that the Liberals didn't seek allies, would, what? Was it intended as a zen koan, the meaning of which would only be accessible to her Excellency through intuition?

Harper was less mystic on how he saw the respective duties of the Official Opposition and the government.

We'll support the government on issues if it's essential to the country but our primary responsibility is not to prop up the government, our responsibility is to provide an opposition and an alternative government for Parliament and for Canadians. What the government has to do, if it wants to govern for any length of time, is it must appeal primarily to the third parties in the House of Commons to get them to support it.

Here, at least, we have a clear statement of moral principle: a minority government which attempts to push through a confidence matter without having made sufficient effort to obtain third-party support should be judged as seeking an election in the hope of obtaining a majority; i.e. as being a pack of weasels. Of course I'm paraphrasing a bit - let's turn to the transcript and note how Mr. Harper expressed the thought on behalf of his then fraternity brothers:

There seems to be an attitude in the Liberal government - that they can go in, be deliberately defeated and call an election - that's not how our constitutional system works. The government has a minority - it has an obligation to demonstrate to Canadians that it can govern. That it can form a majority in the House of Commons. If it can't form a majority, we look at other options, we don't just concede to the government's request to make it dysfunctional. I know for a fact that Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton and the people who work for them want this Parliament to work and I know i[t] is in all of our interests to work. The government has got to face the fact it has a minority, it has to work with other people.

Ah, the willingness to work with other people. Let us all draw inspiration, as we endure the coming weeks of historical reframing, from knowing this is the wish that burns most ardently within the hearts of our federal leaders.


  • Categories : Canadian Politics