If you think that Westminster-style democracy basically works, or that it just needs a few good changes, like proportional voting for MPs, then maybe you should have a look at what’s happening in Canada.
Here’s a very quick recap. The conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, was recently returned to office, but as the leader of a minority government. At the end of last month, his team brought in an “economic fiscal update”. This package tried to nobble Harper’s political foes by cutting public election funding for political parties. There were also some hard line measures, such as temporarily suspending the rights of public servants to strike and making it harder to women civil servants to take legal action if they are not paid the same as their male colleagues. But the fiscal update contained no stimulus measures for Canada’s economy.
The outraged opposition parties, the Liberals (the main opposition), the (leftish) NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, wrote to the governor-general, Michaelle Jean, offering to form a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Between them, they have 163 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.
The rules of the Westminster game are well-documented. The prime minister has to enjoy the confidence of the representative house of parliament in order to remain in power. If the prime minister loses that confidence, s/he is obliged to either resign, or advise the Queen (or her representative) to dissolve parliament and call a general election.
The Queen (or her representative) essentially has two options: dissolving Parliament and sending the people to the polls, or finding a new government that does have the confidence of the house. The last time a UK prime minister lost a vote of confidence in the Commons was in 1979, when James Callaghan’s Labour government finally hit the wall. It was clear that no alternative government was available and so a general election followed.
Under Canada’s constitution, it is the governor-general’s prerogative to invite a party leader to form a government, with or without a general election. And given that the country has recently had an election, finding an alternative government, even an unlikely coalition, would seem preferable.
Still, Harper did not have to resign because he had not been defeated in the Commons on a vote of confidence. A vote on the fiscal update (i.e., a vote of confidence) was due to be held on Monday, 8 December. So Harper asked the governor general, to prorogue parliament until late January, in order to stave off the vote and buy himself some time – perhaps in the hope that the putative coalition partners will fall out, or that the Liberals’ leadership problems will get out of hand.
That’s right: Harper asked the referee to stop play because the other side looked certain of winning.
That’s not all. The Conservatives launched radio attack ads against their opponents and called upon supporters to flood Ms Jean’s office with letters and e-mails. There was even talk of a mass pro-government rally outside her official residence. Harper asked for some breathing space and time for tempers to cool. But the PM did more than anyone to make sure that things turned ugly, most notably with the way he manipulated arguments about Quebec separatism.
On Friday, the governor-general granted Harper’s request, after a meeting that lasted more than two hours.
Let’s be clear about what this means. A precedent has been set. Any prime minister faced with a confidence vote can defy the will of parliament, at least for a while, by running off to the governor general (or the Queen). And a PM can have parliament prorogued just weeks into a new session, rather than at the end.
It looks as if the only safeguard is the character, experience and qualifications of the Queen / governor-general. According to the Globe and Mail, Ms Jean made Harper work for the prorogue when they met.
"Ms. Jean made clear to the Prime Minister that she was not a rubber stamp for his request to shut down Parliament until late January; that it was within her constitutional discretionary power to turn him down."
What has happened in Canada shows, once again, a tough reality of politics. We saw it in Australia in 1975, when the conservative parties used their majority in the upper house, the Senate, to block the Whitlam Labor government’s budget. The governor-general took it upon himself to resolve the crisis by dismissing the prime minister.
We saw it again in the US in 2000, when the Republican-dominated supreme court halted efforts to learn who won the presidential election. OK, maybe they were one moral step above the Republican goons who stormed a schoolhouse in Florida and physically stopped one recount.
When the brown stuff hits the fan, conservatives make up their own rules.