Something amazing happened while I was sipping my coffee at a brand new coffee shop downtown where I work. As I watched the words flicker across the screen of the silent television placed above the installed gas fireplace in the lounge, an old song by Duran Duran came on called Wild Boys. Normally, I do not connect any of this to anything, but the song was typically suited to what just happened to our country's Parliament.
Its Official Opposition developed a backbone! It appeared from what I was reading across the screen, then the next day in the newspapers, that Stephen Harper tried to pull a fast one in his Economic Statement tabled on November 27, 2008, before the House. As with everything, including non-money bills, Harper has chosen to make this one as well a confidence vote. This time, it backfired!
I presume that Harper believed the Opposition would cave as it always had under Stephane Dion over the past two years, as his party battered the media with repeated negative attack ads and daring to force the Opposition to call an election. He took it for granted that Dion and his fellow Opposition Party leaders would either back down or split their votes on this one. He got more than he bargained for that Thursday afternoon at Parliament Hill.
The Opposition had been planning to form a "coalition" of sorts, which would include the Liberals and NDP in a type of joint government arrangement with the support of the Bloc Quebecois on all confidence matters. Why this came as a shock to Prime Minister Harper is beyond me ... people can only be stepped on for so long before they fight back! I was proud of the Opposition Parties that night and I thought that for once, maybe Canadians will see a change for the better in their government.
The next few days enshrined newsworthy clips of formalization of the "coalition" government-in-waiting, as Harper began to appear more and more desperate to cling to power. No, the Opposition Parties were not going to back down this time ... they were going to return to Parliament the following Monday, December 8, 2008, and vote the Harper government down. Instead of the Governor-General dissolving Parliament and calling another unwanted election, the "coalition" can then be asked to form the new government.
This event triggered a groundswell of Canadian response all over the web, largely those opposed to the idea of the "coalition" being Harper supporters or people who simply don't have a clue about how our Parliamentary system operates. The masses of the uneducated or under-educated Canadians are typical fodder for the right-wing when they want to convince them of anything. Those in favour of the Coalition understood this was a possibility and perfectly legitimate role for the Opposition in our constitutional system.
On December 1, 2008, the "coalition" parties signed a deal and sent it in a letter to our Governor-General Michaele Jean, who was then forced to cut a cross-European trip to "come home" to deal with this "crisis" as some media pundits referred to it as. To me, there was no "crisis". It was just the Opposition showing their backbone, like they should have done ages ago to rid our political system of the arrogance, partisan bickering and dysfunctionality that has typically marked the federal government for the past several years.
Debate on Face Book reached fever pitch with Harper supporters or others with no clue as to how Parliament works, accusing the Opposition of "stealing their votes", or "partaking in a coup d'etat" without "being elected" ... both assumptions of course are not true. Even if the "coalition" did get a chance to form government, nothing happens with anybody's local representatives that they had selected on October 14, 2008. Tories are still Tories, Liberals are still Liberals, and so forth, as well the party breakdown in the House remains exactly the same as it was when this new government was sworn in.
Further, the act of "taking power" has no relevance to Parliament under a constitutional monarchy, which Canada is. First, all of the members of the "coalition" parties were just as "elected" as the members of the Conservative Party. Secondly, the governing Conservatives lost the confidence of the House. The Conservatives were unable to get enough votes besides their own to push this Economic Statement and all its related partisan tactics, to pass the House. As this was a confidence vote, all Opposition Parties have the power and the right to vote this government down.
As for whether an election gets called or a "coalition" gets appointed, this is the choice of the Governor-General, not unprecedented in Parliament (and has actually taken place in many provincial legislatures). The role of the Governor-General becomes crystal clear here. Her choice is to allow election after election after election with no promise of long-term stability in government, or she can elect to invite the "coalition" to form a government (provided they give her a business case for a stable Parliament for a reasonable period of time).
The Prime Minister knows this, but would not allow Canadians to become educated on this possibility. First, he made a publicized press conference which showed itself to millions of Canadian viewers to tell them the Opposition Parties were trying to take power despite not being elected to do so, and that nobody asked Canadians about whether they wanted this "coalition government" either. On the other hand, I ask, did anybody ask Canadians if they wanted their government to act the way the Harper government has been doing in the past few weeks?
On Thursday, December 4, 2008, Harper then crosses the street to Rideau Hall to speak to Governor-General Jean to prorogue Parliament in order to prevent that all important non-confidence vote he already postponed to December 8, 2008. She granted his wish after what some reported was a two-hour meeting. Parliament will re-open on January 27, 2008, with the expectation that a budget would be tabled in the House.
While proroguing of Parliament is also a legal move, but it was used this time for the wrong reasons. Proroguing or "rising of the House" is done usually after a legislative session has ended and a full program announced in a throne speech, for example, has been achieved. It is a way for the government to re-group and consider what its next steps might be. This time, the proroguing of Parliament was simply used to avoid the inevitable non-confidence vote faced by Harper and his government and for no other reason.
Despite the prorogue of the House, online debates continued ... many of them mirroring the behaviour of Parliamentarians at their worst in the House. If one went to the anti-coalition site, which many pro-coalition supporters have "joined" in order to "observe", those asking questions or trying to get people to think beyond the lies they've been fed or their lack of education and understanding of Parliament, respond violently with ad hominem and angry attacks on the messenger.
I was one of the people going online with them to ask them questions. In no way did I criticize or attack anybody, but just asked questions. I wanted to actually hear an argument against the "coalition" that was not based on emotion or lack of information from this side of tracks. Unfortunately, despite their large numbers, not a single person responded with any intelligent answer. That doesn't surprise me - people tend to be married to their ideological beliefs - however they were acquired.
They don't like Dion. They argue Dion was never elected to be Prime Minister. Well, neither was Stephen Harper, another fact these folks have difficulty absorbing. They "voted for" a Harper government, not a "coalition" - yet on my ballot, there was never any choice given to me as to who I wanted to lead the country, just my electoral district. After several back and forth nonsense, I left, as it is apparent to me that right-wing governments would tell people the moon is made out of green cheese if this would help keep them in power.
After the dust has blown over, so to speak, the Liberal Party of Canada, decided that Dion was a liability. Again, this is another "optic" thing, as really nobody can actually tell if Dion would make a good Prime Minister or a bad one. We already seen Stephen Harper act arrogantly, pro-partisan and Machiavellian in his role as a minority Prime Minister, so we have an idea of what kind of leader he is. One can only imagine if he actually had a majority, and I know instinctively that if he were ever to get a majority, most Canadians would be begging for a change and fast!
Almost overnight, the long-term leadership battle for the Liberal Party between Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Dominic Leblanc, was resolved by fiat of the party's executive, much to disappointment of many grassroots Liberals. Both Leblanc and Rae resigned in concert over as many days. The party's executive crowned Ignatieff the "interim leader" with this appointment only to be formalized at the already organized policy conference in May 2009.
Ignatieff seems to be somebody with a bigger backbone who probably would not back down on attacks by the Conservatives, although his lengthy absence from Canada can be deemed an issue. Some might say he dropped from the sky in 2005 to suddenly be a candidate for the Liberal leadership in their 2006 contest that eventually crowned Dion in the first place. However, many Liberals would say he proved his mettle in caucus and has developed his own strategies for forcing the Conservatives to govern in the national interest.
Almost as soon as he was placed in the leadership suite, Ignatieff brought the Liberal Party's ratings to 31%, while the Conservatives dropped to 37% of voter support. Ignatieff personally had the support of 28% of the voters as their preferred leader, while Harper had the respect of 27%. Under Dion, his ratings were 25% and 23%, respectively. Harper has not mentioned this sudden comeback of his Opposition, although he is no doubt aware that his chances of even winning a majority if an election were called today have all but disappeared. Therefore, Harper took his next step.
Remember, Parliament is prorogued. The doors are locked and Parliamentarians are not working. However, Stephen Harper, who at one time decided that Senate Reform was one of his major priorities, is suddenly taking advantage of that very institution that he hates. He decided that before Christmas, he is going to stuff the Senate with at least eighteen (18) partisans to get his party a "working majority" in the Red Chamber. Even though the Liberals and others still far outnumber Conservatives, his new appointees will likely be more active than those appointed well before.
Stuffing the Senate was an allegation that he made as the leader of the Canadian Alliance and then later as the leader of the Official Opposition when the Liberals governed. Should I publish Harper's many quotes on this subject that he stated to the House during these also very rocky periods? However, either his mind changed or something in the drinking water at the ruling side of the House has caused him to deem this is now an acceptable practice. To me, this is obvious that Harper fears still losing power, particularly now with a formidable opponent in Michael Ignatieff.
So, as time crawls by during the prorogue period ... Canadians have a wide open opportunity. The door has been opened by Michael Ignatieff, one might say. Ignatieff did say he cannot properly vote against a budget that he has not yet read, which makes sense. He has also left the ball in Harper's court to make sure that the budget is in the national interest. So, I would expect all national organizations that are concerned with cuts to the court challenges program, cuts to programs for persons with disabilities, changes to EI program, and so forth, should be FLOODING Parliament Hill with their requests for pre-budget consultations, saying if Harper doesn't do it - they will push the "coalition" to consider these proposals. Lobbying firms are probably busy right now.
Stephen Harper put his own foot in his own mouth by the Economic Statement, and by assuming the Opposition will remain lame duck and always back down, fearing obliteration by an election. Foot in mouth disease is relatively common among politicians of all political stripes. This battle cry by the Opposition is just the medicine this Parliament needed to excite Canadians, make them hope once again, for their own Obama. As Americans voted out the right-wing in droves and installed in place the first Black American as President, Canadians are looking south for this kind of hope ... to me, this is what the "coalition" did.
I am not saying I support or do not support any one or all of the Opposition leaders, but all I can say is that night in the coffee shop, I actually had some hope that something might change for Canadians, who unfortunately are still largely caught up in the myths that tax cuts, shrinking government, privatization of health care, and so forth would make their lives better. I always tell people to look south and ask the masses who voted for Obama if eight straight years of laissez-faire economics did their families any good. It should not take an economic crisis the size of that in the United States to make Canadians better understand that we can make change, and we can expect better. Why not now?