A most elegant and lethal trap

Stephen Harper's cunning trap is closing on the hapless opposition parties. The Governor General's decision to prorogue Parliament until the January budget gives them more time to squirm. But no outcome now favours them.

I know, I know. Early commentary said the prime minister had set his own head on fire. But it is increasingly clear that his adversaries are the ones in a nasty spot. I'm not even sure what to call this bizarre combination of the Bloc, NDP and Liberals? Bl... ND... ral... The Blunderals? The Blendables? But with doubtful constitutional legitimacy and no popular mandate, it is unlikely even to serve the shallow ambitions of its key members no matter what happens next.

If the coalition dissolves in unseemly squabbling between now and late January, or backs down ignominiously on the budget vote, its members end up looking both weak and stupid. If instead they go ahead and vote the government down over the budget, they give the Governor General a constitutional problem that does nothing to alleviate their own political headaches.

The constitutional problem is not what it appears. This is no undemocratic coup attempt by a cabal. The prime minister babbled on Tuesday that "The highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister, one gets one's mandate from the Canadian people and not from Quebec separatists." But in this country we do not elect governments or prime ministers. No such choice appeared on your ballot.

Under parliamentary self-government we elect individual members of Parliament. And a ministry holds office as long, and only as long, as it commands the confidence of the House of Commons that results. That's why I don't think the Governor General should have agreed to prorogue. Given genuine doubts about the ability of Her Majesty's first minister to face the House, she should simply have insisted that he make the attempt. In January he will have to anyway.

The problem is that if he loses that vote it would not be appropriate for Madame Jean to invite Stéphane Dion to form a government.

She should dissolve Parliament and call a new election.

I'm not even sure the Blunderal coalition could win a confidence vote in January either; some Liberal and NDP MPs must be finding this deal repellent or at least very ill-advised. But we could settle that question on the floor of the House.

The real reason we would need an election if the Harper government falls is much deeper. It is the fundamental constitutional principle that while a ministry must enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons, the House must enjoy the confidence of the populace. And there is precedent here. On two occasions, in 1784 and 1834, a monarch dismissed a British ministry supported by the Commons then dissolved Parliament and put the question to the public. In the first case the new Parliament sustained the King's action and in the second reversed it. Both times the result was conclusive.

Now consider Canada in 2008. No sane person cast a ballot in the last federal election unaware that Conservative members would favour the Harper ministry while Liberal, NDP and BQ members would not. But no one knew this coalition was even a possibility, while its hastily-cobbled-together program lacks key planks from each of its members' election platforms (the Green Shift for the Liberals, a corporate tax hike for the NDP and sovereignty for the Bloc). I respectfully submit that a House thus chosen has a mandate to bring down the Harper ministry if it chooses, but not to install the Blendable Blunderals. For that an appeal to the country is necessary. And it seems most unlikely this coalition could survive one.

Of course the Governor General might disagree and invite Mr. Dion to form a government. It wouldn't help. Even if the coalition somehow holds together for a year or two, its members must still one day face the electorate to defend a backroom deal deeply offensive to the West and many non-Tory Canadians' sense of fair play, headed by a bumbler who led his own party to its worst ever popular vote (26.2 per cent), allied to another party that has never reached 21 per cent of the popular vote and a third that wants to destroy Canada. Do you suppose Michael Ignatieff wants to face the nation in 2010 wearing this soiled garment? But leading a revolt to keep the hated Tories in power sounds ugly too.

If Mr. Harper didn't have most of this worked out in advance he's amazingly lucky. With no other way to get a majority, and unable to govern without one, he tricked his foes into a greedy, shameless lunge for power, baffling and offensive to the public.

Game set and match to Mr. Harper. Oh, and nice trap. Subtle, elegant and lethal.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]