Sunday, October 04, 2015

Why Conservatives Don't Need a Majority to Keep Power in 2016, and Beyond

Prime Minister Stephen Harper - "Just watch me!"
The Stephen Harper Conservatives have a clear path to stay in control, and fight another election, without Parliament ever sitting.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday September 29, 2015

By Bill Tieleman

“No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected."

Call it an unexpected doomsday scenario for New Democrats, Liberals and Greens, but the Conservatives have a clear path to stay in power after the election into 2016 -- and then fight a second election -- without Parliament ever sitting.

And with some polls putting the Conservatives in first place, or at least with the best chance of winning the most seats, the odds of them pulling a magic rabbit out of the electoral hat keep increasing.

Despite people like Green Party leader Elizabeth May being in denial -- her party issued a recent flyer claiming "the Conservatives will not form the government after this election" -- exactly the opposite is very likely.

Unwelcome news to many, but here's how it could work.

The Conservatives win the most seats in the new 338-seat Parliament on Oct. 19, but not the 170 MPs needed for a majority, followed by the NDP, Liberals, Greens and Bloc Quebecois.

The order that opposition parties finish in and their seat count are of great interest, but not a major factor in this scenario.

That means as the incumbent, Stephen Harper remains prime minister unless and until defeated in a confidence vote in Parliament.

So Harper doesn't call a session until spring -- and Canada's Constitution only requires Parliament to meet once a year.

One obvious precedent: former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark delayed calling a session for five months after winning a minority government in 1979.

This is constitutionally straightforward no matter how many times optimistic Harper haters claim otherwise. In fact, no prime minister has been dismissed by Canada's governor general in our post-Confederation history.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau both say the party with the most seats gets the first chance to form a government.

Mulcair recently said: "The party that forms the next government is the party that has the largest number of seats. That's our constitutional order."

And Harper agrees.

Harper resigns

Next, Harper announces he will resign as party leader but remain prime minister until a Conservative leadership contest occurs.

In early 2016, a new Conservative leader is chosen by the membership and becomes the new prime minister. That is tradition both federally and, with premiers, provincially.

Paul Martin and Kim Campbell, for example, became new Liberal and Conservative prime ministers respectively, after becoming their party's leader.

The new Conservative PM calls both Mulcair and Trudeau seeking their support to resume Parliament -- presumably they immediately refuse, though a careful reading of their recent statements shows they would not allow "Harper" to continue in a minority situation, not specifically "the Conservatives."

"I think that anybody who has attended a single question period over the course of the last several years would be able to tell you that there is no likelihood that the NDP would ever, under any circumstance, be able to support Mr. Harper," Mulcair told reporters last week.

Trudeau was equally clear: "There are no circumstances in which I would support Stephen Harper to continue being prime minister of this country."

But no matter.

Election, round two

The new Conservative leader makes a major policy statement thanking Harper for his great economic leadership but apologizing for some "excesses," like the draconian security Bill C-51, muzzling scientists and public sector workers, repeated confrontations with organized labour, and climate change inaction.

"It's a brand new day," the new Tory leader shouts with joy, outlining significant plans for change after seeing the light.

But because the NDP and Liberals won't give peace a chance, the new prime minister asks Governor General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament and call a new election so the Conservatives can seek a mandate.

And after Johnson agrees, citing past precedents -- debatable or deplorable -- we are into another election in May 2016!

Newly elected MPs of all parties never even get to their desks, and a weary Canada trudges off to the polls again, cursing politicians all the way but unclear which are the worst.

The Conservatives under their new leader -- is it Jason Kenney, Peter MacKay or some other worthy right-winger? -- once again use their enormous fundraising advantage to more than double the spending of the NDP and Liberals.

A re-energized base is both thrilled to see Harper finally gone and relieved their party has a fighting chance at winning the 2016 election.

And while a majority is the goal, they know a minority Tory government will last at least 18 months, since the opposition won't dare defeat them in Parliament to force a third election in 12 months.

Alternative scenarios

Outlandish? Impossible? Maybe, but Canadians keen on ending Harper's reign may be disturbed by the unexpected -- as surprising as what happened to Julius Caesar on the steps of the Senate on the Ides of March.

For those who read the polls, know the Canadian Constitution and parliamentary precedents, and understand how a desperate party can cling to power -- remember Harper proroguing the House of Commons in 2008, for example -- and it becomes an increasingly likely scenario.

Those who discount this possibility probably also disagreed with my own Ides of March warning to the NDP and Liberals in 2011 that defeating the Harper Conservative minority government would end in disaster.

"Friday's opposition vote to defeat the Conservative government for 'contempt of Parliament' was an exercise in self-delusion, testosterone and faulty logic that will surely result in Stephen Harper returning after the May 2 election as prime minister -- and likely with a majority," I wrote in The Tyee on March 29, 2011, with events unfortunately proving the point.

Harper could do it again -- or even pull off a second, even more disturbing scenario, in which the Conservatives are just a handful of seats from a majority on Oct. 19.

In that case, Harper stays on, delays calling a session of Parliament until spring, and works the phones day and night.

"Hey, Liberal MP from New Brunswick! Would you like to join my cabinet? And what does your excellent riding need in terms of federal funding?" Harper might ask in so many words, trying to convince a few good men and women to switch parties.

After all, it took then-Liberal Vancouver Kingsway MP David Emerson mere days to become a Conservative cabinet minister back in 2006, despite repeatedly denouncing Harper -- who is to say either of these possibilities can't happen again with so much at stake?

Unless, that is, the NDP and Liberals stop the Conservatives from winning the most seats on Oct. 19.



Eleanor Gregory said...

Once again this old adage rings true: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Scotty on denman said...

Our British inheritance includes so much that's unwritten, customary, and traditional, that became incorporated with precedent-based English Common Law. For Canada to emerge, a few important precedents were set (conquests, particularly of Quebec, is not strictly a precedent); they were: responsible government (1858), confederation under BNA Act (beginning 1867), and the Constitution Act (1982). Yet much unwritten, customary governance remains, almost as if any different precedent has been assiduously avoided. Much of this reluctance has been reactionary, as British aristocrats were against the liberating atmosphere of frontier colonies. However, despite the geographic aspect of history having marked-off colonists off from Britain, some institutions and customs were inappropriately branded onto BNA, one glaring example being an Upper House that couldn't possibly serve the same function in federated Canada as in unitary Britain still, at the time, governed by quasi-feudal aristocratic tenure such as Canada never really had (even though something like it was attempted in New France and some of the Thirteen Colonies). Worse, Senate seats were awarded as inducements peculiar to each province during anxious circumstances (the threat of American Manifest Destiny immediately after the Civil War) that seemed to require expedients like these. The result remains unsatisfactory; unfortunately, perennial conservatism made Senate reform almost impossible when the Constitution Act 1982, with its almost unworkable amending formula, was adopted. Yet, unwritten, customary governance remains vulnerable to new, precedent-setting approaches.

The example you mention---that the Canadian, Sovereign (represented by the Governor General) has never once dismissed a government without parliamentary confidence being tested first---even though the Office has the Constitutional prerogative to do so, is an interesting debate rarely engaged. Certainly the normally perfunctory Office has had a few thrills and spills, like the so-called "King-Byng crisis." Ironically, it was Conservative Stephen Harper who may have set what many would call a dangerous precedent by obtaining a prorogation of parliament to avoid a vote (already on the agenda, the session still in progress) he would probably have lost, embroiling the GG in pure, adversarial, partisan politics, which has traditionally been considered inappropriate. To be sure, Harper bullied the GG for entirely self-serving and circumstantial reasons (for Her Excellency's part, she should have, by established custom, rejected his request for that very reason, in addition to the fact that an alternative government in the hung parliament extant had identified itself to her---a strong argument for testing confidence before contemplating prorogation). This offence prompted some to appeal directly to the Sovereign, but, again, custom argued against embroiling Her Majesty in what looked overtly like partisan politics, which, everybody felt in the gut, would be inappropriate for an ostensibly non-political office.

Two questions arise: can the Sovereign (GG's) Office ever be perfectly non-political? and, are there ever acceptable reasons for anyone to appeal to the Sovereign, either directly, or through the GG?

Anonymous said...

Scotty is way off. The Sovereign (the Queen) cannot accept an appeal from Canada as she has no statutory powers. Only the GG in Canada can dissolve Parliament and his/her decision is final. He's also mixing in the American Civil War which except for those who moved to Canada, has no influence on Canadian politics.

The GG as he or she may find reason to, can dissolve Parliament and that would set off an election.

One has to wonder if these "complaints" would continue if Trudeau becomes PM, and his Liberal government becomes mired in procedure. My guess is no, because the Left can do no wrong.

The on;y instance where a government was close to be dissolved because it was thought to be unfit to govern was the VanderZalm government. Lt.Gov. David Lam had said he was very close to dissolving the Legislature.

The Liberals may turn out to be no saints either. The NDP? They aren't government ready (once again).

rather constanly whine and complain about Harper through a hobby blog such as this and a Left wing digital ragsheet such as the Tyee, get out there and vote, and get out there to actually do some real work and help your local NDP candidate get elected.

Writing to these things is not going to win any election.

scotty on denman said...

That's quite true: the Queen has no statutory powers---they're Constitutional powers.

Do you know how much "real work" I do? And do you know my voting habits? Nope, didn't think so. No worries---'s alright.

Anybody thinks the American Civil War had nothing to do with confederation of BNA colonies needs to go back to school.

The constant complaining about Harper (mine and everyone else's) is totally warranted. I've done my share, that's for sure, but, in this case, Harper is peripheral to the topic of the Sovereign's duties; the example was cited to show precedents regards the GG's Office have happened before, and therefore might happen again. But I notice you'd rather slag me than address the topic.

Like I said, no worries.