Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under siege only weeks into office. The crux of it all is what amounts to a Liberal/NDP wedge with enough power to provoke a no-confidence vote next week. The Canadian political scene is made of Conservatives with 143 seats, Liberals with 77, Bloc Québécois with 49, New Democratic Party (left of the Liberals) with 37 and Independent at 2. The Green Party remains a wild card most useful to the left with 6% of the vote.
Harper claims he has taken meaningful measures to deal with the economic crisis by injecting billions into the economy. Harper has cancelled a ways-and-means motion which would have been an opportunity to trigger a no-confidence vote by the Official Opposition. The motion reads: "In light of the government's failure to recognize the seriousness of Canada's economic situation and its failure in particular to present any credible plan to stimulate the Canadian economy … this House has lost confidence in this government and is of the opinion that a viable alternative government can be formed."
The Bloc Québécois has declined to join any possible Liberal coalition attack on Harper, but has stated that the attempt to bring about a no-confidence vote has their support as long as it offers meaningful benefits for Quebec’s manufacturing and forestry sectors.
Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien have been discussing at length what the best course would be in response to Conservative economic policies. Broadbent stated on CBC that the Conservative response to the economic crisis was a “joke.”
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty claims the Conservatives have effective and aggressive plans regarding the economy which include cutting public subsidies for political parties (a financial restraint that would damage the Official Opposition much more than the Conservatives), the sale of 2.3 billion in government assets and a move to deny federal public-sector unions the right to strike for the next three years. The Liberal position is that Harper and Flaherty have already wasted billions on corporate tax cuts and bank bailouts, why should anyone expect future policies to be anything other than additional looting of the economy by Conservatives and renewed attacks on the collective bargaining rights for workers, more efforts to undermine equal pay for women, and strengthened efforts to diminish or eliminate public funding for political campaigns? Conservatives have been very effective at raising private funding. On CBC, Flaherty emphatically refused to negotiate any Conservative policies with the Official Opposition. For a minority government to function in a bicameral parliamentary system, which is the current situation in Canada, there has to be compromise and negotiation. Harper has made it clear he is simply not willing to do that which has created the opportunity to bring about a no-confidence vote.
It is not clear who would lead the coalition because Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has already declared his intention to step down in May, 2009. If the Liberals are successful in their efforts to bring about a no-confidence vote, Gov.-Gen. Michaëlle Jean, who is abroad, will be the official to call upon the other parties to form a new government. In the Canadian system, if Parliament expresses no-confidence in the government, Gov.-Gen. Michaëlle Jean is the only one who can decide if an effective coalition can be formed and if she decides that it cannot, then she calls for an election. It is reported she is making contingency plans should it be necessary for her to prematurely return to Canada.
It should be emphasized that Canadians do not elect an individual to lead the country as Americans do with their president. The Prime Minister in a Parliamentary government is simply the leader of the governing party. The Party is effectively the head of the government. Harper has never been comfortable with this just as few of his Conservative predecessors have been.
Another important point to bear in mind about Canadian party politics is that the Bloc Québécois is not strictly separatist as significant French Canadian political movements have been in the past. The current Bloc Québécois is very much focused on freedom from external control and cultural autonomy. That’s not to say they wouldn’t embrace sovereignty for Quebec if they believed they could actually achieve it, but current political realities put the Bloc Québécois and militant separatists in a position to play king maker and lynch pin rather than the bomb throwers they have been in the past. The origin and structure of their current position is made clear in a document they published under the title La Serie Noire. More on the Bloc’s policies can be found by following that link to the English version of their website.
Harper’s problems do not appear to be trivial. Clearly, for obvious reasons he wants a robust, conservative majority. Although his problems stem from the current global economic crisis, he also carries the lingering, fetid stench of Bush neo-conservative attitudes. A chief source of that is the American Tom Flanagan, an Illinois born Goldwater conservative with Leo Strauss defined political reflexes and a Rovian persona. He is one of the key players and a core advisor in Harper’s political life. Following the last election, Harper put him on the payroll. If nothing else, that alone is a signal to Canadians that their Prime Minister has every intention of turning up the heat on his neo-conservative agenda. Of all the irritants Harper represents in left-of-center Canadian politics, the sulfurous odor of American neo-conservatism just might be one of the most potent.