In the Parliamentary system, an unwritten constitution based like the Common Law upon precedent and practice, the given is the idea of indirect democracy. Voters elect a "Parliament". They do not vote for a Prime Minister. To operate as a government, a Prime Minister has to have the effective "Confidence of the House" - crudely put - he has to have the votes. In majorities, this is easy. The use of the party system guarantees the votes.
In a minority, the PM has to keep the confidence of the house by balancing the appeal to his base while keeping the opposition reasonably onside.
Mr Harper broke rule #1 in a minority by setting forth a program last week that could only been seen as a provocation. He threw down the gauntlet. What made this worse was that he had said going into the session that he would be more conciliatory. He had called the last election because he claimed the house was not working.
I suspect he did this because he thought that, with the leadership of the Liberals up for debate and the historic differences between the Bloq and the Liberals, he could get away with it. With a recent election, he knew that the nation was not up for another election. I am sure that the idea that the 3 other parties could do a deal would have seemed very remote to him.
But this plan misfired and Liberals and the NDP formally worked out a plan with the support of the Bloq. With an agreed on 18 month plan - they would have had the votes and hence the confidence of the House. They had an "Opposition Day" last Monday that would enable them to table a vote of non confidence. Mr Harper exercised his prerogative and canceled the Opposition day for last Monday and extended it to the coming Monday.
He asked the Governor General, who represents the Monarch in the system, to prorogue Parliament until late January when he proposes to have the budget.
Practice and precedent suggest that the GG should have denied this request. Prorogation usually happens very late in a life of a Parliament not at their beginning where the issue of confidence is the central point.
The nearly 3 hours of meeting suggest that he may have argued her into this. In practice the GG should act like a judge and given the PM her decision - one way or another.
So now we will have 6 weeks of bitter, bitter, bitter public debate.
So where doers this lead us now?
In a time of great crisis, we have no Parliament. A Government that has avoided losing a vote of non confidence by a stratagem, can continue for 6 weeks without any accountability - it can also harness the full power of the state to act on its behalf.
We now have a precedent. That Governments can avoid being held to account in Parliament. It is too early to know what this means but it cannot be good.
Worse, we will now endure a 6 week period where all sides will have to campaign - using fear and the "other" to get their way in the court of public opinion. Already the Boq are being called "Traitors and Treasonous". Those who disagree with Mr Harper are being called un Canadian. This is early days and the rhetoric is already at a fever pitch.
There are two very damaging possible outcomes to this process:
- That the simmering divisions in Canada in the regions burst into flame - The West versus the East and Rural Versus Urban - so much so that the tense fabric of the nation is rendered. Too much is said and done to enable healing and any chance of facing the future in a united way is lost. Worse, these kind of splits can set up the conditions where a bad event can lead to actions that could finish the country
- That Canada's 150 year use of the British Parliamentary
system - itself a product of more than 1,000 years of trial and error -
is destroyed and replaced with a "plebisciteocracy" - the rule of
Regretfully, I see nothing that could be good as a counterweight to these gloomy predictions
Americans know the price of a split in values in their nation. So do Spaniards, Bosnians, the Irish. It is easy to forget that good people can be whipped up into a frenzy given the right circumstances. Once the line has been crossed, even the best Nations can destroy themselves.
What saddens me, is to see how our own crisis has been manufactured out of political opportunism and miscalculation. Just like the response to the murder of the Archduke inadvertently set in motion events that caused WWI.
We live in dangerous times.