An impromptu Canadian Studies panel discussion on the Canadian parliamentary crisis
Welcome to the first in what we hope to be a series of online panel discussions on Canadian issues. The associated faculty of the University of Vermont’s Canadian Studies program spend a lot of time talking about these issues in our classes and amongst ourselves. We hope that by moving some of these conversations to our blog that we might reach people outside our classes and the university, while showcasing some of the things we do in Canadian Studies. We would love to hear your thoughts on these issues as well. Just click on “comment” at the end of this entry to add your two cents on these issues.
Over the last week, the Canadian parliament has been plunged into disarray. Just six weeks after Canada’s fall election, the parliament hit an impasse that saw the Prime Minister lose the confidence of a majority of Canada’s elected Members of Parliament and the country’s three opposition parties sign an accord that would see them propose a joint coalition government to be formed by the Liberal and New Democratic parties — a coalition that would need the support of the members of the Bloc Québécois, a party whose primary goal is for Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada, to stay afloat.
Earlier today, the Governor General of Canada granted Prime Minister’s request to prorogue parliament until late January when the Conservatives will unveil their next budget. Whether one agrees with that or not, it certainly sets a dangerous precedent where a Prime Minister whose government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons can avoid losing a confidence vote by shutting down the country’s parliament until things cool down. It will be an interesting December and January in Canada, to say the least.
Here’s the question I asked my colleagues a couple of days ago before we knew exactly what would happen. As the end of the semester is one of the busiest times for all of us, only two of us have had a chance to respond. I anticipate being able to add the opinions of other colleagues here in the coming days.
What is your reaction to the potential fall of the Conservative government in Canada and its replacement by a coalition of the Liberal, New Democratic and Bloc Quebecois parties? Do you think this will actually happen or will Canada be thrown into another election? What effect might this historic event have on Canada/US relations?
Dr. Pablo S. Bose, Assistant Professor of Geography, UVM:
My initial response to the possibility of a NDP-Liberal coalition is one of cautious optimism. The minority governments run by the Conservatives in the last and just-started parliaments were not terribly effective, in large part due to the highly centralized–some might say authoritarian–style of Stephen Harper and the overwhelming power wielded by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). This continues a problematic trend that was particularly visible during the years of the Chretien Liberal government and is a disturbing and frankly undemocratic consolidation of power and control over a wide-ranging set of government affairs and policy. The current political controversy has arisen out of the PMO’s tendency to act very much as though it was in charge of a parliamentary majority and did not need to make compromises with opposition forces that could overthrow the minority government with a loss-of-confidence vote. Harper and his finance minister Flaherty’s miscalculation was one of of inserting unrelated partisan measures within a recently released “economic update” which contained no economic stimulus plans during a global fiscal crisis, but rather a political stimulus for all of the opposition parties — NDP, Liberals, Bloc and Greens alike — to unite in the face of continued (and in this instance unprovoked) assault. The Tories are now in full retreat and are rolling out an ad campaign decrying the “undemocratic” grab by the opposition for power. Opportunistic and potentially unwise it may be (after all, can the NDP and Liberals co-exist in a coalition? Will the Bloc really sit on its hands for a full year and support from outside?), but there is nothing remotely undemocratic about a coalition of left-of-centre parties replacing the Conservatives. Various government ministers and Tory activists are scrambling to insist that the “will of the people” rejected Dion’s Liberal party as government — and they are correct. But less than 40% of the country voted for the Conservatives. 60% voted for the opposition and that is precisely the coalition that they will receive — not Dion’s Liberal government, but an NDP-Liberal Coalition with Bloc outside support. A parliamentary system does not preclude the possibility of coalition governments; the fact that there has not been one in Canada in nearly a century does not mean they cannot exist.
Moreover, Canadians should not be afraid of a coalition government; such is the norm in other parliamentary systems in countries such as Israel and Italy. In the 2004 elections in India, the then-ruling right-of-centre National Democratic Alliance was defeated by a left-of-centre coalition (the currently governing United Democratic Front), supported by Marxist and Communist parties that were nevertheless outside of the government itself. Are such coalitions unwieldy and fraught with tensions? Absolutely, but perhaps that is the best thing for a truly representative democracy. Majority rule and stability are not in and of themselves an ultimate political goal. In certain situations they may indeed be antithetical to democracy in its deeper sense. Whether or not a Coalition Government in Canada comes to pass is yet to be seen — can the NDP and Liberals live with one another, will the Liberal leadership hopefuls be able to keep their knives out of one another’s backs long enough to work together, will Michelle Jean heed the clear desire of the Canadian electorate NOT to have another election, will the Tories be able to beg and wheedle their way out of a mess they have concocted for themselves out of sheer arrogance, pettiness and vindictiveness? But surely a coalition government deserves a chance in Parliament — it certainly can be no worse than the dysfunction we have seen over the last year.
Dr. Paul Martin, Assistant Professor of English / Director, Canadian Studies Program, UVM:
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. I’m not a political scientist, a specialist in the history of Canada, or an expert in constitutional law. Nevertheless, as a Canadian who spends his days teaching American students about Canadian literature and Canadian culture in a broad enough sense to include regular discussions of Canada’s history and political system, the developments of the last week or so have been riveting.
For Canadianists in the US, this fall’s federal elections in both countries have already given us a rare opportunity to help our students understand the differences between the Canadian and American systems by watching them both in action simultaneously. My American students, despite a great enthusiasm for Obama’s ascent in particular, were exhausted by the length of the US presidential campaign which, for some, had already been well underway when they were still in high school. The students, then, were surprised – astonished even – that a Canadian election could be called in September and already be done and over with by mid-October, three weeks before the November 4th election in the US.
Placed side by side with the US election though, and this US election in particular, our own federal election seemed anything but exciting. As Canadian satirist Rick Mercer noted earlier this year before Super Tuesday in the US, our particular batch of party leaders in Canada this year seemed less interesting than the choices Americans were presented with this year:
And speaking of Hillary, when it comes to casting, we can’t touch them. Here we are, we think of ourselves as this progressive, diverse nation and yet there’s big bad backwards America and who’s running for the big job? A woman, a black man, a Libertarian, a Mormon with big hair, and some dude who was in a bamboo cage in Vietnam for five-and-a-half years. Meanwhile in Canada, we’re gearing up for yet another race between a pudgy white guy and a skinny white guy and some other white guy. Which may go a long way to explain the other big difference between Canada and USA politics these days: in America in this race, young people are engaged. In Canada – they’re choosing none of the above.
Mercer called it correctly, as when our election happened this past fall, we had the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history, with about 58% of Canadians showing up to vote. That’s still a higher turnout than one has had in recent American elections, but a clear sign that Canadians were anything but inspired or energized by the possibility of any one of Canada’s party leaders. With the Liberal party in disarray and the potential to gain seats in Quebec, a majority government should have been within reach of the Conservative Party, but they failed to convince much of Canada that they deserved anything more than a slightly larger minority government than they achieved in the previous election. It was, as Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor told 109 students and faculty from UVM and Saint Michael’s College this past October, an election in which every party lost. What was most revealing, MacGregor argued, was that more Canadians chose not to vote than voted for any one of the five main political parties.
So, the Conservatives wound up in power for a second time under Stephen Harper and, in spite of promises to start a new era of cooperation and civility in the House of Commons, went on the offensive last week and, in an “economic update” stated that instead of injecting more money to stimulate the economy as we see other countries doing right now in the face of the rapidly growing economic crisis, that instead the government would cut back on spending by, among other things, eliminating the public subsidies to all political parties, limiting the ability of govt. employees to sue the govt. in pay equity cases, and freezing the ability of public sector workers to go on strike. I think these ill-advised moves even caught most of his party off-guard. They galvanized the opposition parties to such a degree that they signed an accord that would see the government defeated in a non-confidence motion and a coalition of the Liberal and NDP parties present themselves to the Governor General as a viable alternative government. The devil in the details of this accord is that the other signatory is the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois party, who would not be part of the coalition but who would promise not to defeat that government on a confidence vote.
The logistics and precedents for such a move is hard for Canadians to wrap their heads around, let alone for many American undergraduates. The possibility of an NDP/Liberal coalition (which I cautiously support) coming to power perhaps as early as next week has left them somewhat bewildered and bemused. The only reason Harper has been able to get away with what he has in the last two years, including the most recent (and perhaps pointless) election, is the ineffectiveness of the current opposition and again this may allow him to escape the wrath of the Canadian public who seem quite divided between those who can’t wait to see Harper get his comeuppance and those who can’t imagine seeing Stéphane Dion, who Canadians clearly did not want to see become their leader, as Canada’s next Prime Minister.
After seeing Harper’s television address to the nation on Wednesday night, in which he showed no regret for hist ill-conceived economic update and offered no insight into what he will ask the Governor General to do to resolve this crisis, it seemed as if the coalition might stand a good chance of persuading Canadians to support the coalition. Then came the video response from Stéphane Dion who would lead the new coalition. Or, rather, it didn’t come. It was so late in arriving to the networks that CTV didn’t even show it and CBC had its broadcasters kill time as they waited and wondered what was going on. When the video arrived, it looked as if Stéphane Dion shot it himself using the webcam on his computer and it did anything but persuade Canadians that they would be in better hands. Sadly for those of us who would like to see a coalition of the Liberals and NDP take power, for most Canadians this will come down to the lesser of two evils. No matter what the Governor General decides this week, a great number of Canadians will be outraged at the decision to either bring in a coalition, allow parliament to be suspended until the new year, or call an immediate election.
Whatever happens over the coming days and, potentially, weeks, this is a fascinating time to be in the Canadian Studies classroom, regardless of whether you’re a student or faculty member.