By Ryan McGreal
Published December 02, 2008
We will use all legal means to resist this undemocratic seizure of power.
With the Liberals and NDP agreeing to a coalition with the support of the Bloc Quebecois and planning a motion of no confidence this coming Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has responded by calling the coalition an "illegitimate government" and claiming that it would be "a catastrophe, for our democracy, our unity and our economy, especially at a time of global instability." (Now Harper cares about "unity"?)
Members of the Conservative Party have been seen wearing buttons that read, "No to the coup". The government has stated that it is considering every option to prevent the "coup", and may even ask the Governor General to prorogue (suspend) Parliament until it releases its 2009 budget in late January.
The Conservative Party's claim that the Liberal-NDP plan to wrest control of the government from the Conservative Party is somehow "undemocratic" certainly has some currency among Canadians who are sympathetic - or at least confused about parliamentary procedure.
But surely Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada's premiere policy wonk, knows our parliamentary system better than that. After all, his skillful handling of parliamentary process over the past years has been nothing short of brilliant - his recent catastrophic over-reach notwithstanding.
The simple fact is that strictly speaking, Stephen Harper was not elected Prime Minister in the recent federal election, all casual claims to the contrary.
It is a long tradition among political commentators and voters alike to equate a party winning the most seats in Parliament with that party winning the election, and most of the time the equation is true enough. In practical terms, it is also approximate to the American system, in which voters actually choose their President as well as their Congressional representatives.
However, it is in the rare edge cases that this approximation breaks down - edge cases like the situation in Ottawa today.
What really happens in a Parliamentary system is this: the federal election is an aggregation of 308 individual constituency (riding) elections, and the House of Commons is comprised of the 308 candidates who won their respective ridings.
You did not vote for the Prime Minister. In fact, unless you lived in the riding of Calgary Southwest during the election, Stephen Harper's name did not appear anywhere on your ballot.
Rather, the Prime Minister is appointed by the Governor General, who picks the Member of Parliament with the confidence of the House of Commons, which means the Prime Minister is able to get a majority of MPs to support his or her legislative agenda.
The government in a Parliamentary system refers to the Prime Minister and his or her appointed Cabinet of Ministers, who decide the country's legislative agenda and oversee the various federal ministries. The government can continue to govern as long as it enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons.
The formal way that the House of Commons reaffirms its confidence in the Prime Minister is by voting in favour of a motion of confidence, a motion that the MPs still have confidence in the leadership of the Prime Minister. Alternately, the House can show its confidence by rejecting a motion of no confidence.
Again, in practical terms the member who is most likely to hold the confidence of the house is the leader of the party of which the largest number of MPs are members, simply because the members of a political party are expected to vote along party lines on confidence motions or risk expulsion from the party.
If one party has a clear majority of seats in the House of Commons, the leader of that party clearly has the most legitimate claim to the confidence of the House, and it's a no-brainer that the G-G will appoint him or her as the Prime Minister.
It's critical to understand the litmus test for being appointed Prime Minister: not being the leader of the party with the most seats, but rather being the Member who has the confidence of the House.
In most elections, the leader of the winnnig party is the Member who has the confidence of the house. That's why we're usually safe to speak about elections as if this or that leader "won" the election. (This is the sense in which Harper claims that the coalition would be "undemocratic".)
However, the situation changes when no single party wins more than half the total seats in the House of Commons. In that case, it is no longer guaranteed that the leader of the party with the most seats has the confidence of the House.
This is why so-called minority governments are inherently unstable: because the opposition parties collectively make up more than half the seats in the House, they have enough votes to reject a motion of confidence or pass a motion of no confidence.
Normally when this happens, the Governor General dissolves Parliament and calls a general election. (In the 2008 election, it was actually Harper who declared that the House of Commons had become "dysfunctional" and asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call an election.)
But the Governor General has another option: if another Member can credibly claim the confidence of the House of Commons, the the Governor General can dismiss the existing Prime Minister and appoint a new Prime Minister without calling an election.
By signing a coalition agreement with the NDP as a partner and the Bloc Quebecois as a supporter, the Liberals are attempting to demonstrate that their leader, Stéphane Dion, has the confidence of the House, since the Liberals, NDP and Bloc together control more than half the seats in the House. (The coalition agreement commits the parties to a two-and-a-half year accord.)
This coming Monday, the opposition parties plan to introduce a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Stephen Harper and ask Governor General Michaëlle Jean to give Dion and his cabinet an opportunity to govern with the confidence of the House.
If Jean decides to give the coalition this opportunity, Dion will be Prime Minister until May, when the Liberal Party chooses a new leader. The coalition cabinet will have 18 Ministers from the Liberals and six Ministers from the NDP.
This is definitely not standard operating procedure in Parliamentary politics. In fact, the last time something similar happened in Canada - and the only time it has happened since Confederation in 1867 - was the "Union Government" of 1917-20, when several Liberal and independent Members joined a coalition with the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Robert Borden, to support his controversial conscription policy during World War I.
Unlike today, the Union Government coalition actually ran as such during the 1917 federal election and won. If the Bloc-supported Liberal-NDP coalition takes over the government next Monday, it will be the first time in Canadian history that a coalition has taken over mid-Parliament.
As a result, it carries a tinge of illegitimacy, which Harper is exploiting in a PR campaign that has less than a week to pull out all the stops. This is especially true given the results of the the last election. It seems bizarre that the unpopular Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, could become the Prime Minister after his poor standing among votes.
Harper has no one but himself to blame for this bizarre state of affairs. Quite simply, by reverting to the worst partisanship after promising cooperation and rushing to crush his opposition rather than responding to the financial crisis, Harper has lost the confidence of the House of Commons.
Granted, he has backtracked on some elements of the plan - albeit temporarily - but his proposed response to the financial crisis runs directly contrary to what a majority of Members want to see.
By making his divisive plan a confidence motion, Harper has forced the opposition parties into a corner and left them with only two alternatives:
Harper gambled that the opposition would choose the former option, especially given that the Liberal Party is debt-ridden from the recent election and effectively leaderless, given that Dion is a lame duck who has already announced that he will step down as leader this coming May.
It probably seemed like a safe assumption. After all, Harper governed like he had a majority for the past three years, counting on the Liberals to abstain from confidence motions or to hold their noses and vote along with him.
However, he seems to have gone too far this time, and provoked a backlash that may well cost him his government.
If you're worried that the latter option still sounds undemocratic, consider that the opposition parties command more than half the seats in the House of Commons and represent more than half of the popular vote. Even in commonsense terms, the coalition has more democratic legitimacy than the Conservative government.
As for why the opposition parties waited until after an unpopular election to get together ... that's an essay for another day.