Thursday, December 04, 2008

Wisdom, Harper and Prorogue

I was going to give a short comment on Stephen’s blog and post of 2 December, but my thoughts kept going and going so I am posting the following. See Stephen’s post at

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has found himself in a mess of his choosing. It seems that he is governing as if he has a solid majority. If that it was the Conservative attitude prior to this crisis then they did recall the lessons learned from what happened to Joe Clark.

There is little doubt that the 27 November fiscal update/pre-budget statement is designed to be provocative and possibly draconian. In light of the international financial crisis, the government not putting forth a new budget until late February is a significant error. Not putting forth plans to help move the country forward and to shore up the economy is a mistake. The country is looking for leadership, not silence.

When the markets crashed in 1929, President Hoover too hoped everything would work itself out in four to six months. People looked to the government for leadership and action but none was forth coming from Hoover. His lack of leadership and taking no action to help stabilize matters helped to deepen the crash’s impact. Is Harper going down the same road as Hoover?

It seems to me Harper’s pre-budget statement is intended to challenge the opposition to acquiesce to its will or face the public wrath of forcing an election. He has proposed changes, to be followed with a full budget, that if one of the other parties acquiesced, which he may well have counted upon, will dramatically turn Canadian politics strongly to the right, and mirror much of the positions of the Republican right in the USA. Harper is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

The elimination of the $1.95 subsidy/grant for each vote received increases the opportunity for the large parties to push aside the smaller parties. It seems to me that Harper is targeting the BQ and is an effort to turn them into a rump party. It also is an effort to decrease the power of the NDP. The proposal allows the major party to become more beholding to special interest groups and other major contributors.

In 1980 when Joe Clark’s minority government fell when it brought forth a budget that was too aggressive, which Crosby called “short term pain, for long term gain.” A friend of mine who was in the Clark government admitted later the PCs were too aggressive with that budget. He admitted that governing as if they had a majority government was also a mistake. They thought that if they were defeated on the budget the people would support them and return them with a majority. The miscalculated and misread the mood of the nation as Trudeau’s Liberals returned to power with a majority. I suspect that Harper has gone down the same road as Clark.

I like the idea of the Governor General not dissolving Parliament and instead giving a Liberal/NDP coalition government an opportunity to govern. Did Harper consider this likelihood? He had to given that he was willing to form such a coalition in 2003. If he did not think it would happen, then he has been injudicious and should find himself stewing as leader of the opposition while the other two parties outflank him with populist legislation.

Harper’s back-tracking and the possibility of asking the Governor General for a prorogue are signs that he and his government have miscalculated badly. Though a prorogue could last for a year, anything more than a month would be disastrous for Canada, particularly during an economic crisis since not orders-in-council or major policy initiatives could be undertaken. In essence, the government would be powerless to respond to a fluid economic period. Even a prorogation of more than four to six weeks could be putting the nation’s health at risk.

A prorogation that lasts more than a month starts to become a means for the Prime Minister and the government to avoid answering to the will and vote of Parliament, which a most dangerous road for a democracy to take. Though it such a vote is unpleasant, no government should ever unduly delay on a pending vote of non-confidence. To delay undermines the democratic process. Hence, when facing such a vote a request for a prorogue should be used sparingly.

By running ads attacking the idea of a coalition government, the Conservatives are being reactionary and suggesting that they are fighting to stay in power by any means. What is most interesting is that Harper was willing to form with the NDP just such a coalition government if Martin’s minority government fell within a few months if the 2004 election. He supported the concept then, but is strongly against it now that he is Prime Minister.

If there is an election in the coming months, the ads against a coalition government will shift the blame for a new election solely upon his shoulders. The other parties came up with a reasonable option to avoid an election but Harper and his team fought the idea.

A minority government that rules as if it had a strong majority has acted unwisely. In Westminster democracies, a Governor General inviting the opposition leader to form a coalition government after the fall of the government shortly after an election is not unreasonable or unheard of. Often the coalition will not be formed as there are too many differences, and when they are formed, most only live less than a year. Yet when they do work, the legislative course is thoughtful and balanced as the bills tend to have broad consensus.

If Harper and his team have calculated this badly, what does that then say about their judgment in an age when our nations need cool thoughtful reflective leadership.


Stephen said...

Well said - with a very good grasp of the issues at hand. A much more thoughtful response compared to my indignant response.

The PM's televised national statement last evening that a coalition government would threaten democracy in Canada is another insult to Canadians! A possibility of a coalition government is part of parliamentary democracy (even though I personally find such a prospect very unappealing).

What I find interesting here in Alberta is that Albertans have a difficult time with the whole concept of political "opposition" due to the fact that the province has not had an effective operating opposition in many years - in a province that hasn't changed it's underwear in 40 years!
Albertans have only one view - and it's an unquestioning loyalty - to a party who could run monkeys for parliamentary seats - and they would still get elected.
They are facing the distinct prospect of losing every cabinet seat and parliamentary secretaries - all but one - a lone "socialist" - a surprise winner of the NDP of a seat in Edmonton.

I do however support the PM's position of waiting for an economic stimulus package for a couple of reasons:

1. We can't do anything until we see what the new US administration is going to do for the auto industry. We also need to see what the 700+ billion $ financial bailout of the US financial institutions are going to do. We can't act on our own when we are dominated by the huge economic giant to the south of us.

2. The Canadian economy is in far better shape than any other of the G8 countries. By the time a stimulus package begins to take effect in 6-8 months, it is predicted that the Canadian economy - based on it's own strength and the strength of the fiscal house of country, will naturally be drawn out of the economic storm. A stimulus package that is hastily put forward could cause more harm than good by over heating an economy that is in "relatively" good shape and able to weather the storm.

Dave said...

Stephen...Thank you. Harper's comment about coalition government is insulting and hypocritical since in 2004 he was proposing the same. If I was a Liberal strategist I would be planning election strategies to hammer him hard again and again on this matter and portray his hypocrisy as coming from a type of divine right to rule attitude.

Without doing a thing for the auto industry, there are thoughtful stimulus measures the Canadian government can do to help the overall economy irrespective of the American government’s plans. The initial focus should be upon strengthening infrastructure that a) help improve transportation of goods within the country and exports out, b) help the nation to be more energy efficient (home, office and industry…particularly industry) which will make the country more competitive internationally, c) helps to advance technological development and research, and d) helps to posture Canadian financial firms to become more significant players in the international market by stepping into holes created by American and German firms that have been harmed by subprime market.

Canada and its businesses are in stronger economic position to take advantage of opportunities in the USA and elsewhere. Without purchasing the whole firm key assets can be purchased from ailing firms in the USA for a significant discount. Sitting quietly does not help the citizens today nor help the country to take advantage of an opportunity to become a greater powerhouse. Again if I was a Liberal planner and an election happened in the coming months, I would go at Harper noting the above and his lack of vision and lack of confidence in Canada's ability to take advantage of the situtation to build a brighter future.

Barbara said...

Yes, this is a mess of Harper's doing. Now he's trying desparately to hold on.
I think he will survive to the next election but not past that.

Jenn said...

and he is seriously in need of a new haircut