Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

The Next Harper Minority

Harper is nudging majority territory. But even if he comes back with a minority, it will be difficult for Mulcair or Trudeau to keep their promise to kick him out of office. 

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Throughout this weird, frozen election campaign we have faced the likelihood of what the Brits call a “hung Parliament” – one where no single party has a majority of the seats.  With less than three weeks left and barring a huge surprise, that will be the outcome of the 42nd federal election on October 19, 2015.

In virtually every minority House ever elected, federally or provincially, the government has been formed by the party with the largest number of seats in the legislature. That is our constitutional convention, inherited from Westminster, and only in rare circumstances (such as the 1985 Accord in Ontario, where Bob Rae’s NDP supported the second place Liberals in power) have we seen the largest contingent in a house consigned to opposition.

Canada has had its share of minority governments, on the provincial and federal levels.  Federally, of course, we had the first five years of Harper (something the Liberals and NDP like to ignore, is that they carried Voldemort on their shoulders for half a decade). Before that we had a brief Joe Clark Progressive Conservative minority in 1979-80, a Trudeau Liberal minority (1972-74) and the most productive and progressive Parliaments ever, being those from 1963 through 1968, when the NDP and Socreds worked with Lester Pearson’s Liberals.

So we have experience with this. What we do not have experience with, ever to my recollection, is a situation where two parties have declared, in advance, what they categorically will or will not do should a minority Parliament emerge. But in this campaign both Opposition leaders, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, have promised that if there’s a hung Parliament, they absolutely will not sustain a Conservative government led by Stephen Harper.

In fairness to both Mulcair and Trudeau, they had no choice but to say this during a campaign: for either to suggest they might carry Harper’s CPC in the next House, would be to tell the electorate “a vote for me is probably a vote for Harper.” That would not be a winning strategy with their hard core supporters or, for that matter, with the wavering undecideds trying to choose between the Red and Orange “anybody-but-Harper” options in their ridings.

But this “snowball’s chance in hell” talk about Harper carries real risks, constitutionally and electorally, for both the NDP and Liberals. We have a 148 year parliamentary history in this country, built on an older experience at the Mother of all Parliaments in London, that hands the largest party the right to try and form government. How is that Messrs Mulcair and Trudeau can toss that tradition out the window by guaranteeing they won’t support Mr. Harper’s government?

That question is particularly grave when we consider an outcome (which appears probable right now) where the Liberals and NDP land about 100 seats each, while the Conservatives number around 140 and the Conservatives clearly have the plurality of the vote (say 35 percent, maybe more). In that scenario, how exactly do the NDP and Liberals justify turfing the Conservatives in advance of the House even sitting?

One answer to that is that the NDP and Liberals have not actually said they won’t support a Conservative government. What they have pledged (threatened) is not to support a Harper premiership. Mr. Trudeau was quite clear, and I think careful, about that; Mr. Mulcair’s vehement refusal to treat with the Tories was also in response to the question “will you support Harper?”

That is what I think both opposition leaders have been saying. They won’t support Harper but they might support the Conservatives. Restricted to that, their promise / threat is still dubious but it’s better, constitutionally. If the Conservatives have the plurality of seats and therefore the right to try and form a government Mr. Harper can go first but, if he is unable to do so, he could justifiably stand down and hand the premiership to another Conservative.

The most recent Canadian example of that manoeuvre took place in Ontario, when Dalton McGuinty – besieged about gas plants – prorogued the Legislature and jumped ship, soon handing government over to his successor Kathleen Wynne.  That of course immediately preceded an election, as these changes tend to do (Chretien to Martin, Mulroney to Campbell, Trudeau to Turner, Pearson to Trudeau). Mid-mandate shifts happen more often in the UK (Blair to Brown, Thatcher to Major, Wilson to Callaghan).  Immediate post-election leadership changes, well, that would be a new thing for us.

The problem with a post-election leadership change for the Conservatives is the guy who’s leading them. If he had any interest in preserving his party’s government instead of his own premiership, he would already be on the Board of Monsanto while Prime Minister Kenney was running around the country posing next to temples. But instead we have Mr. Harper, hauling his own dead weight up hill, determined to return to power or perhaps, kill his party trying. It seems unlikely Mr. Harper would easily disappear.

At the moment, he has no reason to quit: Harper is in good minority territory, with polls trending favourably. The NDP dip is making everyone confront the possibility of Trudeau becoming Prime Minister, a concept which could make many New Democrats, independents and Liberals hold their noses and vote Conservative. A majority is possible for Mr. Harper.

Even if Mr. Harper leads the Tories to a largish minority, he would of course go to the Governor-General and then try to carry on with the NDP and Liberals, on a day by day basis.  If the opposition parties vote him down, that’s when the constitutional hijinks will begin. These issues pop to mind:

  • Can the Liberals and NDP just say “no” to Harper in that case? If those two parties are 40 or 50 seats each behind the CPC, why would the GG accede to their refusal to observe Parliamentary tradition? I’m not sure that the GG would agree to it.
  • What would Harper do? You know what he would do – he would say “the Conservatives won”, which would be in some respects true (by a horserace test) and that it was irresponsible for the opposition parties to try and “steal government by ganging up” (sound familiar? That was the anti-coalition argument in 2008. A lot of people thought it was persuasive. Constitutional wonks like me might think it is silly, but from a public opinion standpoint, it looks kind of weird for the largest party to get fired like that).
  • So it’s likely that Harper would press the GG hard not to accede to the opposition parties’ demands, to the point of maybe, dare I say it, demanding another election. Everyone nauseous yet?
  • Before we get there, though, there’s a better question: would the Liberals and NDP even do this? If they get rid of Harper and aren’t offered another Conservative PM to support, that means either Mulcair or Trudeau (whoever comes in second place, most likely) would put himself forward to form government.
  • But you have to wonder, what chance is there (see “Hell, snowballs”) that Mulcair would carry Trudeau or that Trudeau would carry Mulcair? For either to legitimatize the other as PM could be fatal to their aspirations. Whatever they promise in the heat of a campaign, they’re not going to become crazy after October 19th. Each of them is better off supporting the Conservatives. They can just blame it on the Governor General.
  • Besides, who thinks Tom Mulcair would support Justin Trudeau as PM before supporting a Conservative? Mulcair has convinced us that he thinks Justin is an unqualified meat puppet. I think Tom would rather eat live snakes than make that guy Prime Minister, if not out of spite, out of patriotism.

In short, our political tradition and the realities of politics argue against a change of government, should the Conservatives come through with the largest share of seats in a minority Parliament on October 19th.  If it seems perverse that this government, with its studied contempt for Parliament and its conventions, should lean on those same conventions to stay in power, well, that’s what they call irony.

That is why the safest bets in our political life right now are (1) whoever lands in third place will see it in his own and his party’s interest to keep the Tories in power, meaning (2) the Conservatives will remain in government and (3) that Mr. Harper will be Prime Minister for some time to come. Barring surprises.

So Harper Haters, you may have to wait a while longer to fill out your Long Form Census again.

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One comment on “The Next Harper Minority

  1. Bill Calvert
    September 30, 2015

    David,

    I think you have got this wrong. The prevailing Parliamentary tradition is that the PM and Cabinet seeking to form government must have the confidence of the house. See the article by Kady O’Mally:

    http://ottawacitizen.com/storyline/kady-no-the-party-that-wins-the-most-seats-does-not-automatically-get-to-form-government

    Personally I don’t think the Canadian electorate will stand for another Stephen Harper led government, and I doubt they would stand for another Conservative government either unless the CPC wins a majority. You may be on to something with the idea of Harper resigning to make a Conservative minority more palatable, but I don’t think even then the Libs and Dippers would vote confidence.

    As to your other point, I think Stephen Harper is campaigning now for a future generation of Conservatives. He doesn’t want to see the party reduced to a rump, a la Kim Campbell, so he is fighting for a victorious defeat that will leave the party in position to contend again for government in the near future.

    TTFN, from Canso NS tonight.

    Bill Calvert

    Like

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This entry was posted on September 30, 2015 by in Canada, Canada Election 2015, Politics in Canada.
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