December 10, 2008

Are we too cautious to accept a coalition?

As published in The Erin Advocate

The upheaval on Parliament Hill last week has launched a furious debate about the type of government Canadians are willing to accept. The debate is long overdue, but it occurs at a time when politicians should be taking action to preserve our quality of life.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has convinced the Governor General to suspend parliament, delaying a non-confidence motion that would remove his minority government from office. The Liberals and New Democrats, with the backing of the Bloc Québécois, may still form an unprecedented coalition government after parliament resumes next month.

The delay of government business during an economic crisis is alarming, but it will give Canadians a chance to consider their options. Could a coalition provide stability, broad representation and effective action? In an interview last week, Wellington-Halton Hills Conservative MP Michael Chong said the coalition would not be good for Canada.

“It is time to set aside the political games, and focus on the real concerns of Canadians, like jobs, and people’s savings,” he said. “I am appalled that the Liberals would enter into an agreement with the separatists.”

The Bloc Québécois would not be a coalition member, but has promised not to defeat it for 18 months. Chong said while a coalition would be legal, it would put the Bloc too close to the executive powers of cabinet. He urged the opposition to “step back from the brink” since they have already forced the government to retract parts of its economic statement. “We were wise to remove the partisan elements,” he said.

Too bad the wisdom did not kick in a little sooner, because now it looks like sheer panic. With the backing of only 37 per cent of voters and minority of seats, Stephen Harper had an obligation to forge enough of an alliance with at least one other party to keep parliament working.

He not only failed to consult, but took provocative action to damage the opposition. Then, in a desperate effort to save his job, he has offended the nation by trying to whip up false fears about Quebec separation. He was always glad to have Bloc Quebecois support when they voted with him, and he even plotted with them, hoping to replace a Liberal minority government.

Harper is also wrong when he labels the coalition “undemocratic”, considering that the MPs who have agreed to cooperate represent a majority of Canadian voters. It is true that Canadians did not vote specifically for a coalition, and have every right to be skeptical of such a break with tradition. But since we live in a fractured society, we should learn more about coalitions. They are recognized throughout the world as valid democratic forms of government. The situation may be risky and unstable, but it is not undemocratic.

As for the Liberals, perhaps they were in power for so long that they forgot one of the primary responsibilities of the opposition: to have a leader in place who is competent to take over as prime minister if the need arises. Instead of choosing one of their top contenders, they compromised on Stéphane Dion, a man incapable of communicating effectively with the public. The Liberals need a leadership convention in January, not in May.

I would be willing to give the coalition an opportunity to govern, but I do not think it will happen. The Conservatives will launch a massive public relations campaign, and alter their economic plan to include most of the opposition demands. The Liberals are likely to splinter under the pressure and the coalition will fall apart, to be remembered as an experiment that Canadians were too cautious to even attempt. The next election will be soon.

The crisis also shines a spotlight on a serious flaw in Canada’s constitution – our attachment to the British monarchy. Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, represents Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s head of state.

Of course, elected politicians handle almost every aspect of government. But when there is a crisis, we must turn to the Governor General, who is suddenly faced with serious decisions. Jean will be guided by law, tradition and concern for the interests of Canadians. She was not, however, chosen by Canadians, only appointed by a prime minister. Governors General can never earn the authority that they hold.

The time has come to cut the final colonial cord and set our own course as a grown-up nation. Canadian politics should be none of Britain’s business – as the British themselves would agree. We have our own constitution and the power to amend it. We should do so, and take full control of our affairs.