Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Constitutional or Political Crisis?

I guess it takes extraordinary events to bring me out of retirement.

Listening to talk radio, reading blue blogs, one would think Canada is facing an unprecedented crisis that threatens to bring down the nation. As overblown hyperbole and rhetoric are the stock in trade of these media, it is not surprising to hear terms like treason and coup d’etat, hijacking the government, etc. thrown around. But let’s be reasonable. There is no constitutional crisis. There may be a political crisis, particularly for Conservatives, but the constitution anticipates these situations and in other parliamentary systems and commonwealth nations around the world, these situations are commonplace and in some cases, even the norm.

Many are saying that Canadians elected a Conservative government and that the proposed actions of Stephan Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe would somehow usurp the will of the people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canadians did not elect a Conservative government, or any government. They elected (413 - oops 308) individual Members of Parliament, 143 of whom were members of the Conservative Party of Canada. As a result of the CPC numbers in Parliament, the Governor General, in keeping with the Constitution and traditions of Parliament, asked Mr. Harper to form a government; which he did. As it now seems that Prime Minister Harper's government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, it falls to the Governor General, with the advice of the Prime Minister, her own conscience, and the any constitutional law experts she may seek out, to either dissolve Parliament or ask the opposition parties to form a government that may be better able to hold the confidence of the House of Commons.

What shouldn’t be lost in the rhetoric are the points that brought us to this extraordinary (for Canada) situation.

Federal budgets provide the primary planning framework for the government of Canada and to a great extent set the parliamentary agenda. The last federal budget was brought down (I believe) in late February. Since then we have experienced a slow grinding recession which accelerated in the summer and fall into a full blown global financial crisis. There was a banking sector bail package passed back in October – but even this was not planned response to the financial crisis by the Government of Canada, but was a global G-20 initiative. Also since the last federal budget we have had a federal election, a throne speech, a new cabinet, new Parliament and a US federal election. In other words, the environment in which the last major planning framework for the Government of Canada was crafted has changed dramatically. The assumptions, projections and data are no longer valid. If Prime Minister Harper thinks that Canada can run without a new financial plan for another 2 or 3 or more months, he is so out of touch that he doesn’t deserve to be PM. Prior to the last election, PM Harper said that Parliament was dysfunctional. The petty, vindictive and self serving attempts to financially ruin the opposition parties and remove collective bargaining leverage from public sector works is simply an exclamation point to this statement. Clearly the dysfunction has not been remedied by an election and is unlikely to be remedied by another election. Maybe it’s time for the opposition parties to see if they can make Parliament work again.

Finally, these types of situations - minority governments and coalitions going forward very well may be the norm, rather than exceptional circumstances. Both the Conservatives and Liberals enjoy the support of about 25% of the voting public from their core or base constituents. The NDP and Bloc enjoy the "core" support of somewhere around 10% each with about 30% of voters being either "soft" supporters of the CPC, Liberals, NDP or Bloc or swing voters. As it takes close to 40% of the popular vote to form a majority government, a majority government is not impossible, with these numbers, unless the NDP and Liberals merge, one is unlikely.

The events of this last week have shown that the political parties have not fully appreciated this new reality nor adjusted their tactics and strategies in response. It is also going to take the public some time to come to terms with this reality. An election is not going to solve this. As the parties adjust we may see consolidation on the left OR more formal coalition agreements. As the voters adjust, we may see more strategic voting.

3 comments:

Scott Tribe said...

Actually, they elected 308 members of Parliament. not 413 ;)

CoteGauche said...

Oops - I counted the Senate. Definitely not elected.

foottothefire said...

For a lesson in "Robespierreian" paranoia listen in to QR77 in Calgary.