Coup D’Etat?

Ohhh my back! Anyone out there got a cure for SI joint disorder? Anyone? Bueller.

I spent some time this weekend scanning old photos. I found a few gems from my youth. Here’s me at age 10. It seems I’ve always been a handsome devil:


All right, to business. Dawn in New Zealand sent me an anxious email wondering what’s happening with Canada’s government. See, we are days away from an historic moment in Canada, in which the ruling minority government (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) might be toppled in favour of a coalition government led by Stephane Dion’s Liberals. To my knowledge, this would be the first time this has happened in this country. Note that the Conservatives “won” the last election and gained the right to form their government less than two months ago.

Some people are calling this a coup d’etat. Well, it isn’t. In Canada, unlike the USA, we do not have a Presidential system; we have a Parliamentary system. This means that Canadians do not elect a government. We elect a Parliament, and Parliament then self-organizes into a government, under the direction of the Governor General, who “rules” in place of the British Queen. (See, kids, Canada is a constitutional monarchy, which means we ostensibly get our marching orders from the monarchy… the British monarchy.)

Parliament usually organizes the government out of the party that won the plurality of seats. In the last election, this was the Conservatives. However, it must be acknowledged that in a minority government –particularly one formed in a first-past-the-post system– the majority of Canadians did not vote for the rulers. In our present case, about 40% of the voters and seats belong to the ruling Conservatives, which means that about 60% of voters and seats would not like to see them in power.

The advantage of a Parliamentary system is that it supposedly compels diplomatic government, especially in times of minority rule. Stephen Harper, experienced from his previous run as a minority Prime Minister, is then advised to make policy in such a way that he maintains the confidence of the House. This is why I like minority governments: they tend to assure that no one party gets to push its ideology down our throats.

But, as one observer put it, Stephen Harper’s weakness is that he cannot resist an exposed jugular. His mortal enemies, the Liberal party, were down and out and facing a leadership crisis. Harper saw this moment of weakness as an opportunity to deliver the killing blow by reforming the party financing system, effectively limiting Liberal money. In doing so, he also failed to rapidly bring to court a viable plan to address the prevailing policy crisis, the decaying world economy.

In short, Harper was ruling as if he had a majority, something he did in his last term, as well. When a minority Prime Minister does so, it’s usually because he recognizes that his opposition fears an election. Sure enough, if the nation were to go to the polls again, the Conservatives would either win another minority or maybe even squeak out a majority. So he felt confident in brandishing his virility about the House.

What he did not count on was our Parliamentary system working the way it’s supposed to. If the House loses confidence in a minority government, it can either call for an election or –cue dramatic music– suggest a new organization of government. And the latter is what they plan to do, as early as this coming Monday.

Between the three of them, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc have enough seats to constitute a majority coalition government, probably under the leadership of the more powerful Liberals. If a vote on any issue is called by the government, and the government loses, then it’s called a vote of “non-confidence.” That is, Parliament has lost confidence in the government, and the Governor General is empowered to act, either to call an election or to allow a new conformation of government. It’s the Governor General’s call, one of her few duties that is not entirely ceremonial. She gets to decide whether this “coup” actually occurs.

Harper has one card up his sleeve: he can refuse to allow a vote on Monday, delaying his possible execution. The only reason for doing so is to give him time to prepare a real economic plan, or maybe to get his soldiers in line so he can call an election in January on his own terms. Either way, it makes him look weak and sneaky.

As for the Liberals, debate is already ensuing as to who would be Prime Minister. Canadians already rejected Stephane Dion in the last election, and he is exiting as leader, thus is it right that he be ordained as an un-elected Prime Minister? Once more, internal Liberal nonsense threatens their potential grab for power –something the Conservatives will exploit.

An added drama is that the Conservatives have revealed recorded evidence that the NDP, at least, had planned this coalition months ago. (This is not unusual, since I would hope that every non-ruling party would have gamed such strategies at some point.) But now criminal proceedings may start, as many wonder how the Conservatives came by this protected information, a recorded phone conversation.

What do I want? I want Harper to see the error of his ways and learn from this rebuke. I want him to broker a cease-fire behind the scenes and promise to govern from the middle, not the far Right. I want him to stay in power and own this bad economy.

My fear is that Canadians won’t understand this weird bit of Parliamentary juggling, and will reflexively rally behind the Conservatives as a result. If the coaltion fracks this up, it will mean a massive Conservative majority next time.