Thursday 4 December 2008

The Canada crisis

Fans of political intrigue and double-dealing will be watching the fascinating political crisis in Canada.

Conservative Premier Stephen Harper failed to win the overall majority which his party expected at the last election. His decision not to have a fiscal stimulus but to cut spending instead has led to an unprecedented compact among the Liberals, the leftist NDP and the Bloc Quebecois - to vote no confidence in the government, and replace it with a Liberal/NDP coalition, with the Quebec separatists providing supply and confidence from outside the government.

The Prime Minister is trying to outmanouvere this dastardly plot, with his own dastardly plot to prorogue Parliament (close it down and run away) until the end of January. (Why didn't Jim Callaghan think of that?). Accusations of sedition, treachery and anti-democratic behaviour are being thrown around on every side. But the plotting and dealing has almost certainly only just begun.

The Globe and Mail has a lengthy report on the drama and reaction around the Parliamentary shut down.

And Michael Stickings has an admirably clear commentary - from a progressive, anti-Tory perspective - of the strategy and tactics of the opposition parties, while Globe and Mail commentator Adam Radwinski advocates that the Conservatives should oust Harper as leader before Parliament returns.

I am no expert on Canadian politics, but my inner anorak has thrown up a couple of thoughts.

* It is a reminder that the first-past-the-post electoral system can do political instability, and especially when there are very different party systems on a regional basis).

Perhaps there are some echoes with the British party system of around 1910 (when the Liberal government could hold off the Tories over the budget and House of Lords with the backing of the emerging Labour party and the Irish Home Rulers: also treason to the Tory nationalists, though they made extremely unconvicing democrats). Some might think post-devolution politics could give us something similarly messy within a generation or two.

* The Queen's representative - the Governor-General - is right in the thick of some unavoidably political decisions.

Perhaps accepting the Prime Minister's advice to prorogue was the path of least resistance. But there is contradictory advice and it is difficult to see that there is any neutral position. However, there seems to be little sense yet of the Monarchy being politicised as in the controversy over the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as Australian premier in 1975. And we tend to think of Canadians as much more pro-Monarchy and less Republican than Australian. But attitudes are complex. There may be a majority for change once the Queen's reign ends. Relatively high levels of indifference could prove a pro-status quo force, or King Charles III could face a domino effect.

* The Fabian office would particularly enjoy another Canadian election because of the role played by the key 'Tim Hortons voters' electoral demographic. As far as we can tell, they seem to have similar culinary tastes but very different political values to our Fabian Research Director and strategic genius Tim Horton.


Anonymous said...

Callaghan didn't pull anything like this because, unlike Harper, he didn't have fascist tendencies.

Nick said...

The obvious political strategy for Harper is to offer a BS budget full of happy joy voter-friendly stuff, have it voted down, demand a dissolution, and then sneak back in with a minority and push through the vindictive measures on public-sector unions and public funding of political parties. (It was these bits of spite legislation, as much as the lack of any concern for stimulus, that sent the opposition over the edge.)

At the moment, there's a lot of venom being showered between Quebecois and western Canadians, especially in the CPC's Alberta heartland. The Quebec provincial elections are going to be interesting, but the bitterness is going to hang around.

Now, there's no real tradition of tactical voting in Canada, and no love lost between grassroots Grits and NDPers, so the obvious electoral strategy -- stand down the lower-placed candidate in ridings where the CPC won in a multi-party squeeze. And since the GG blinked on prorogation, you have to wonder if she'll blink again on a dissolution. Even then, there's the possibility that Harper could replace Michaƫlle Jean with someone more , a possibility that was prevented in Australia by Kerr's having already drafted the notice dismissing Whitlam.

For all the talk of 'separatists', Harper protests way too much. He's shown that he is, at best, uncomfortable with the idea that he can't be president of Canada. He has no respect for the basic principles of parliamentary government.

The Canadian press's opinion departments have also been woeful on this. While there are admitted problems with the Lib-NDP accord (and BQ support), not least Dion's lame duck status, the leader writers' suggestion that the best outcome would be Harper's resignation is just delusional.