Compared to the raucous atmosphere in the United States, politics in Canada is widely perceived as the country is itself: tranquil, polite, and clean. That stereotype was shattered last week with news that a coalition made up of the left-of-center Liberal Party and the socialist New Democrats — supported by the separatist Bloc Quebecois — would attempt to knock off the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and take power themselves.
Although coalition governments are fairly common in other parliamentary democracies, Canadians haven’t seen one at the federal level since 1917, when Robert Borden’s Conservatives teamed up with disaffected Liberals and independents for three years to form the Union Government. Canada’s Conservatives, re-elected to a minority government just seven weeks ago, could conceivably be replaced by a coalition government early next year.
According to the opposition parties, the crisis was sparked by a Conservative refusal to include a multi-billion dollar forestry and auto industry bailout in a recent economic update, a now dead plan to end political subsidies for political parties, and an attempt to remove the right to strike for federal employees, among other alleged indignities. Claiming that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had lost the confidence of Parliament, the parties announced their proposed coalition.
The announcement plunged the country into an unprecedented political crisis, forcing the hasty return of Governor General Michaëlle Jean from a European trip. At the request of Harper, Jean announced December 4 that she would prorogue Parliament — essentially suspending it — until January 26 when a federal budget would be introduced. Regardless of what she decided, she was likely to anger wide segments of the Canadian population that would have seen her as either helping the government stay in power over the wishes of Parliament or aiding an opposition scheme to take command.
A fairly salient question among all of this concerns Harper himself. Only his most loyal of friends would deny that he’s challenged charismatically — he’s reportedly alienated several of his own cabinet ministers — but only the most blindly partisan would declare him anything but politically astute. How did a man who helped revitalize the Canadian conservative movement and was used to navigating the shoals of minority government find himself in the position to lose power to a liberal-socialist coalition?
While pundits blamed the current crisis on Harper and his allegedly high-handed way of dealing with the opposition, a more jaundiced eye would view this as nothing more than a naked power grab by a political left rejected at the polls. As Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel stated recently, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
For the Liberals that means recapturing power on the pretext of addressing the economic crisis — despite the fact that Harper has hinted a stimulus package is coming next month. After governing Canada during most of the 20th century they were often called the nation’s natural governing party. Recent elections, however, have seen their support drop thanks to lackluster leadership by outgoing leader Stéphane Dion and party scandals involving corruption. The same October 14 election that returned the Conservatives to power also saw the Liberal support fall to a near historic low. With no personality like Pierre Trudeau — or even Jean Chrétien — to inspire the party, prospects for an imminent return to power via the polls are slim.
That thirst for power saw the Liberals and NDP make a deal with the devil — in this case the leftist Bloc Quebecois, a party dedicated to Quebec’s separation and the effective sundering of Canada. Dion has been noticeably reticent to tell Canadians what demands the BQ made for its support and what it is entitled to in the future. And while they claim their proposed $30 billion industry bailout — peanuts by any measure — is necessary, it also comes at a time when the Canadian economy continues to expand, 1.3 percent in the third quarter according to the Bank of Canada last Monday. The bank system is stable, mortgages more than 90 days in arrears stand at a historic low of 0.2 percent and unemployment remains relatively low.
The cravenness of the left’s actions is made all the more clear given what they are essentially rejecting. Instead of toppling the government when they had the chance over its unpopular commitment to Afghanistan, past budgets, increased military spending, climate change or any number of other hot topic issues for the left, they decided to launch their attack over an economic update — essentially a brief report card on the economy delivered a few months before the full budget.
The final result of this crisis will likely be an election, given that the opposition will likely vote against the government’s budget — which will likely see another minority Conservative government or a leftist coalition government. The lone bright spot may be that Canada’s conservative movement could eventually be strengthened as Canadians realize that the leftist opposition is willing to plunge the nation into crisis for the sake of power, giving the Conservative Party something it couldn’t achieve itself: nationwide popularity.