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News from the former Dominions… or that small spot of bother in Canadian political life. December 11, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, Irish History.

There are some fascinating political events happening in Canada at the moment – although their profile in their ‘sister’ British media is oddly low. Coalition building amongst the opposition leading to potential government formation has seen parliament prorogued by the Governor-General to prevent a confidence vote. There are claims of treason, an intriguing analysis by the Conservatives of the Bloc Québécois and some outworkings as regards federalism there that might just make the future a lot more interesting.

While hardly unprecedented in other polities the idea of a transition between one government and another without an election seems to be regarded with some aversion inside Canada where it is not unknown for minority governments to continue in power, as the Conservative party of Stephen Harper – the unlikable Bush-lite of Canadian politics – has done over the past number of years, as if by right.

Indeed when set against the situation in the Republic of Ireland where Enda Kenny still harbours hopes, forlorn or not, that there might be a change of government without an election and these are regarded as essentially legitimate one could wonder at the Canadian aversion. But then again there are aspects of democratic practice which while often within the letter of constitutional law appear to go against it. Consider the manner in which a redux Lisbon Treaty – or at least one unchanged from Lisbon I – is seen as somehow being perverse. And I have to admit that I share that sense at least on some levels.

Still it’s not as if Harper hasn’t played fast and loose with the Canadian electoral system himself. In 2007 the Conservatives introduced a bill which Parliament passed fixing election dates every four years. The next scheduled election was to be – and remains – October 2009. But curiously Harper held a snap election in October. Now this too sits within the letter of the fixed election dates bill, but hardly the spirit of it. Although the Conservative argument that it is too soon after that election to return to the people, or to see a change of government has a certain latent power to it.

Anyhow, the upshot was that the Conservatives saw their numbers increase from 124 to 143, the Liberals saw theirs decrease from 103 to 77, the Bloc Québécois decreased from  51 to 49, the New Democrats went from  29 to 37 and the Greens who had held one seat in the previous parliament lost all representation. The Greens are rather interesting in this context since their 6.7% vote nationwide is seen as assisting in the increase in Conservative numbers.

Still, heavy the head that wears the crown and all that. If Harper thought this (slightly) constitutional coup was going to make life easier for him after those results he was sadly mistaken.

The small matter of an international global crisis and the presentation of a fiscal plan that sought deep government spending cuts, the suspension of the right to strike by civil servants for three years, the removal of the right of women to seek court oversight on pay equity, sales of public assets and – most worryingly for the other elements of the Canadian political establishment – the removal of public subsidies for political parties, pushed the opposition together in a way which might otherwise not have happened. Self-preservation is a powerful incentive.

Finally the Liberals and the NDP woke up to the fact that in coalition and with support from the BQ – and not just support, but a fully fledged Accord dated until June 2010 – they would be able to operate a minority government that while lacking the numbers of the Conservatives could at least call on the 63% or so who voted other than the latter party.

Cue predictable horror from the Conservatives. Harper thought the idea was ‘undemocratic’ and that Liberal leader Stéphane Dion had no right to take power unless through an election. No doubt. It’s always entertaining to see systems of governance put to the fire due to unprecedented or unpredictable out-workings of their own details, and this is no different. Because implicit in the option of a non-confidence vote is the possibility of either a change of power within a democratic chamber, or an election. Moreover the Conservative Party was operating without the tacit support of another party in the Canadian Parliament (which was not the case in the most recent previous example of a minority – and short lived  – administration in the 1970s), and it was only the relatively low numbers of the opposition parties and the much higher (relative) numbers which allowed them to propose that they were in some sense ‘most popular’. One can see how protagonists on all sides could take directly contrary positions each rooted in some concept of ‘democratic’ legitimation.

The problem for Harper is that if he looks back at the last minority government, that of Joe Clark in 1979 – 1980, he would see that the non-confidence motion was the method by which that government (a Progressive Conservative Party one, a predecessor of Harper’s Conservatives) was despatched.

So, faced with a newly energised opposition ready to put forward a non-confidence motion, but one that curiously appears riven between proponents and sceptics of the coalition idea, he went to higher authority. That being the Governor-General.

Now, it’s always sensible to reflect on the enormous conservatism that Governor-Generals lend to the political life of nations such as Australia and Canada. From almost any Republican analysis, and a good few liberal democratic ones, the idea of an appointed individual having the power to dismiss governments or intervene in the electoral life of a democracy is anathema. And one can only applaud the rapidity with which our own was dealt with in the South. Domhnall Ó Buachalla, the last individual to hold the office, was instructed by De Valera to keep his head down and move to Booterstown (clearly the Siberia of Ireland).

The President of Ireland website has some thoughts on this…

Determined to undermine the office, de Valera requested that Domhnall O’Buachalla should succeed McNeill. O’Buachalla , a veteran of the 1916 Rising, had already agreed to do the minimum necessary, to be a signatory when a signature was required. He did not move into Vice Regal Lodge and never appeared formally at any public occasion. In this manner, the office and all that it stood for, literally disappeared from view. Vice Regal Lodge became a hollow and empty symbol, hidden behind trees.

As Joe Lee noted in Ireland 1912 – 1985, Ó Buchalla was a loyal acolyte of De Valera, who “cooperated in demeaning the office”. But Lee also notes that the Cosgrave cabinet were “…already intent on keeping the Governor General in his place. It dealt firmly with the inflated assumptions of the first G G, T.M. Healy, concerning his prerogatives”. An almost perfect object lesson in how to do such things, bar the small issue of contention over expenses for the rent on the Booterstown address. But perhaps even that indicated how marginal the office had become to the workings of the Free State.

One might also reflect on how the events in Canada are almost an inverse of those that took place in 1975 in Australia when the then Governor-General John Kerr dismissed a Labor Party government led by Gough Whitlam that was unable to get funding bills through the Senate and appointed the leader of the conservative opposition coalition as a caretaker Prime Minister. The distinction there was that the political battle was fought out over the supremacy of the lower house, which Whitlam and Labor argued was a central feature of the Westminster tradition that they cleaved to. And one could argue that the constitutional crisis in Australia was given an additional bitter element by the appointed aspect of the Governor-General. When accountability rests merely on appointment and not on democratic legitimation then arguably there is no accountability at all and all decisions made in that context will be suspect.

Which leads us back to Canada. There the role of the Governor-General is taken to allow only three courses of action, to dissolve parliament, to prorogue parliament or to ask Harper to resign his commission and to allow Dion to become the new Prime Minister.

The Governor-General in a sort of half-way nod to the 21st century is a woman, Michaëlle Jean, of Haitian descent appointed, ironically, by a Liberal Prime Minister. Some sensible suggestions have been made that the Chief Justice of the Canadian Supreme Court would be better placed to make such decisions, in open court. It won’t happen, of course.

Beyond that one of the most interesting aspects of the situation has been what can only be described as a reversion to a more conservative stance by the Canadian electorate in subsequent polls. The Conservatives have increased their vote share with both Liberals and NDP losing votes. Nor is the coalition option viewed with much satisfaction with the idea of a further election gaining more support.

This rightward shift, or, perhaps more accurately, a shift to maintain the status quo is not entirely surprising. One can imagine, particularly at this point in time, that stability – even in the context of a not hugely popular government – might appear preferable to a transition in power. And we can reflect on how unpopular in the Republic the similar replacement of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition by a Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left coalition was in the mid 1990s (although that government had reasonably high poll numbers – the actual replacement wasn’t considered an entirely correct procedure… for myself if it’s not prohibited what’s the problem?).

Yet, and here is the central paradox, such changes in government are implicit in the systems we have in place both here and in Canada. Sure, the Canadian example is distorted by the intervention of a non-elected third party representing… well, what exactly? It’s hard to believe that the British monarchy discusses little else but the internal machinations of Canadian politics, or that their representative on earth in Number 10 Downing Street is much exercised – although he might well prefer a Liberal/NDP coalition as a global partner than the current occupant of high office in Ottawa.

But there is no ‘democratic’ reason why shifts of power within an assembly should be deemed illegitimate simply because they occur during a term. Indeed a contrary argument can and perhaps should be made that that is a better expression of democracy than the alternative of proroguement. Moreover, in the Canadian context one might additionally argue that it shows the paucity of strategic thinking on the part of the centre and centre left that those parties did not cohere directly after the election (those of us who’ve watched the NDP over the years with a degree of sympathy will not be unacquainted with such a paucity of thinking). Of course internal power politics and the issue of dealing with the Bloc Québécois offers a different dynamic there. The Liberals, who relatively recently were a party of single party government are naturally unhappy at becoming a mere quarter in a 1 and 3 quarters party system along with the NDP and BQ.

And Harper’s comments on the Accord with the BQ have been very striking. He criticised the ‘opposition’ for ‘getting into bed with the separatists’. It’s an interesting thought, that a political party which has democratically gained seats in a federal party is somehow unworthy of engaging with and moreover in a situation where they would actually assist political stability.

Or as Karim Bardeesy in Slate notes:

The ground continues to shift as fractiousness emerges. The opposition coalition has complained loudly but is accepting Jean’s decision for now. The episode has taken its toll, further bloodying most of the political class and replaying old struggles around national unity. After all, don’t we use elections to decide who will lead us? And aren’t those separatists, whose bed the rest of the opposition is slipping into, still legitimately elected members of the Canadian family?

And therein lies the rub.  Expect this one to run and run, but the intersection between contemporary politics and a political structure that has inherited features that – to an external eye – appear to play a negative role on both democratic and a functional axes provides an instructive lesson about power.


1. ejh - December 11, 2008

heavy the head that wears the crown and all that.

Uneasy. It’s the crown that’s heavy, unless it’s a tiara. Or one of those party things.


2. Dan Sullivan - December 11, 2008

wbs, I believe that Fine Gael should not enter government without an election. In large part because the voters should get their chance to deliver a verdict on FF first and to allow any government that might be formed with FG in it to have a mandate. Imagine if FG had gone to the country in late 94 or early 95 after the Brendan Smith affair. FF could have been reduced to 50 plus seats and Labour might not have been as badly reduced as in 97. It might have been a rainbow Millennium!


3. Andrew - December 11, 2008

“The Greens are rather interesting in this context since their 6.7% vote nationwide is seen as assisting in the increase in Conservative numbers.”

Jaysus, you’re worse then the Daily Mail, you’ll blame the Greens for EVERY ill!


4. Nick - December 11, 2008

In other news from from that bit of the world Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing, pro Quebecois autonomy party have just got a seat in the provincial election. They seem like quite an interesting bunch.



5. WorldbyStorm - December 11, 2008

Thanks for that Nick…

Andrew. I like the Greens. Probably too much!

Dan, very fair point.

ejh. Damn you and your correct quotation… 😉


6. Mbari - December 12, 2008

I have trouble taking this type of court politics too seriously. The Liberals and Conservatives have essentially been governing as a grand coalition for the last couple years– the canned outrage about Harper being “Canada’s Bush” or the Liberals being traitors or pro-separatist is a bit ridiculous.

The caricature of Harper’s Conservatives as hard right madmen is simply not convincing. The government here has never spent so much, even when taking population growth and inflation into account. They’ve promised billions of dollars in “stimulus” spending to prop up the slowly dying manufacturing sector and for the most part have avoided the sort of legislation their religious conservative wing would like. The most socially conservative new law I can think of are one that raises the age of consent to 16 (from 14), which is hardly unreasonable.

The fact that the Prime Minister can use the Queen’s representative here to suspend parliament for two months is a fucking disgrace. I’m not particularly interested in the finer points of Canada’s constitution (which is problematic, because Canadian politics have been legalized dramatically in the last two decades… almost every moral or political issue now is seen as a “Charter issue,” that is, an issue for the Supreme Court to pass its wise judgement on) but this country seriously needs its own Republican movement. Semtex and armalites optional.


7. Mbari - December 12, 2008

A couple more points, and sorry for swearing in the post above. I curse a lot, but it feels sort of strange doing it on this blog for some reason. It must be the amiable, voice-of-reason style you use WBS.

I don’t think Canadians are getting more Conservative. As “pro co” activists are fond of saying, 62% of the Canadians who bothered to vote didn’t want a Tory government. However, it seems to me– and this is more an impression than anything fact based– that the Conservatives are the only party really capable of motivating their base these days. This shows in terms of donations (the fact that they’re Western based, where the resource based economy is booming, and a business party, explains this) and in membership.

Part of the ‘economic update’ that caused the Liberals and NDP to make their move was a withdrawl of public money for political parties. The arrogance here really bothers me. Why are parties entitled to public money, and not allowed to collect from corporations or trade unions? Parties represent competing interests. Canadians shouldn’t live in some fantasy land where they’re in it for ‘all of us’, and public money shouldn’t be used to prop up a moribund political culture.


8. WorldbyStorm - December 12, 2008

Hmmmm… I’ve got to say I actually support public finance of political parties, but that aside that’s very telling. I’m particularly interested in the idea that the Conservatives are rhetorically right but practically centrist. That said what is you sense of the other measures such as no-strikes, pay equality, etc?


9. Mbari - December 12, 2008

Well, they’re still a fairly right-wing party, for Canada that is. I don’t deny that they’re pretty anti-union and very much pro-business in their outlook. What I’m saying is that the left’s reaction to the update, and their last couple years more generally, has been hysterical.

I don’t really understand the justification for public funding. I mean, take the oh-so-evil Quebec separatists for example. The Bloc Quebecois receive 86% of their funds from the Canadian government. It seems bizarre that a separatist party (albeit a party that mainly focusses on protecting Quebecois interests rather than promoting independence) should be propped up by the federal government. I don’t object to Quebec independence, although I question the point of it in this day and age, but I feel that any movement which believes strongly enough in what it’s doing should be able to find members and sympathizers willing to support it.


10. splinteredsunrise - December 12, 2008

I sort of agree with that in re the Conservatives – Harper may look a bit like a right-wing madman in historic Canadian terms, but he’s practically a socialist in US terms. And it’s not like the Libs have any fundamental disagreements with him.

Then again, the real danger could be Michael Ignatieff getting into power, and the Canadian armed forces finding themselves despatched to all parts of the third world for no apparent reason. I was left scratching my head when I heard (in the Somali pirates story) that the Canadian navy is patrolling the Indian Ocean. Iggy would be keen for lots more of that.


11. D. J. P. O'Kane - December 12, 2008

After what their paratroopers got up to in Mogadishu in the early 1990s, Canada has some cheek to be showing it’s face anywhere in the vicinity of Somalia.


12. Mbari - December 12, 2008

Splintered and DJP O’Kane are right. Ignatieff will be way better at selling foreign adventures to Canadians than Harper has been. The Conservatives’ argument in favour of Afghanistan (and Iraq, but that didn’t work out) was originally that it was important to maintain good relations with the USA and to fufill NATO obligations. Not exactly a crowd-pleaser in a country that has anti-Americanism as one of its founding principles.

Ignatieff will put potential interventions as ‘the right to protect’ and a moral rather than geopolitical obligation. If he becomes Prime Minister, I think this will demonstrate how flimsy anti-war sentiment here really is. The arguments against the Afghan mission have been pacifistic and played to a weird sort of Canadian chauvinism– “our historic role as peacekeepers/a moral superpower/an independent voice etc. has been compromised!”. With Obama at the helm and Ignatieff handling local PR, there won’t be any big bads use in anti-war propaganda…


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