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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail (Brian Gable)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail (Brian Gable)

Brian Topp

Coalition redux: Lessons learned Add to ...

This is the conclusion of a six-part series discussing last year's attempt by the New Democrats and Liberals to combine around a new and better federal government. If you haven't already, you can also peruse parts one, two, three, four and five.

I conducted an interesting experiment a couple of weeks ago.

"What," I asked, "would happen if you submitted a 60,000-word blog post to the globeandmail.com?"

I can report that when you do this, the patient editors of this site (almost unique for its diversity and openness to different views) are cheerful, generous, encouraging, and gentle in pointing out the natural limits of this particular medium.

So if you dote on detail and might like to read more about how we came reasonably close to pole-axing and replacing Stephen Harper's minority government last year, watch for it early next spring in the Internet 0.1 format (Low editability. High portability. Good power-outage resistance. "Ink" on "paper." Between "covers." Who knew?).

To wrap up for now, let me offer you the following.

• A caveat.

• A comment on Chantal Hébert's column on the series so far in the Toronto Star.

• A few words on lessons learned for our parliamentary system.

• And a few words on the opportunity Canada missed because we did not succeed in this endeavour - the fundamental reasons that I still very much regret that it was an idea slightly before its time.

- - - - -

First, a caveat: I should have found a place earlier on to say that I haven't tried to offer a history here of these events even from the perspective of the New Democrats. A complete history is work for a professional historian (I promise to buy your book). The guy in the middle of everything was our leader, Jack Layton. He's a great writer and will have much more light to shed on all of this from our perspective in his memoirs, many years from now. As may, if they choose to do so, the other players from other parties. I'm describing (on the first anniversary of these events, and as a small first effort to not let our opponents have the last word on it) a bit of what I saw within the scope of my limited role, within the tight limits of a blog.

I plead guilty to the charge, levelled by several gentle readers, of bias. Partisans are "partisan." I'm one of those. That said, I think any fair reading of these events suggests that all of the players in it - the New Democrats, the various loosely-attached Liberal factions and grouposcules, the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois - played out their hands fundamentally honourably and over a great public issue. It is a shame that doesn't happen more often in Ottawa, and is worth reporting on when it does.

Speaking of the Bloc, a few words in reply to Chantal Hébert: In her column in the Toronto Star on Friday, Ms. Hébert argues that the biggest mistake we made in these events was not the prominent role of the Bloc Québécois, but the decision to retain Stéphane Dion as putative prime minister.

That is a fair argument. It is certainly true that the Bloc Québécois were in no way malevolent or intentionally unhelpful. On the contrary, they were being quite constructive in these events, as they often are in Parliament when the cameras are off or their sovereigntist agenda is moribund and unengaged. There are some excellent Parliamentarians in the Bloc Québécois. They were trying to work with us and the Liberals in good faith to give Canada (including Quebec) a better government.

But I continue to hold that we should have handled the optics of their parliamentary support more carefully, a point that Gilles Duceppe himself had on his mind on the day of the three-leader coalition press conference. He should have been listened to. By not doing so, we provided Mr. Harper and his government with the sword they needed to win the short-term argument in English Canada.

As for Mr. Dion, I'll have more to say about him in another place. The key political point is that we didn't have the luxury of more aggressively shopping in the Liberal Party for a better prime ministerial candidate, since Michael Ignatieff and his team were so clearly of a mind to be more than unhelpful to this work.

A few words about Parliament: There are a diversity of views in the academic and political worlds about what we learned about our system of government in the late fall of 2008. Here is my view. I believe the Prime Minister committed a gross act of disrespect toward the House of Commons on December 4, 2008.

The House of Commons is the only elected institution in Canada's federal government. Unlike the Senate, the Governor-General or the prime minister and his retinue, the House is a democratic institution, our only federal democratic institution.

It was therefore entirely inappropriate, democratically illegitimate and improper in 2008 for Mr. Harper to direct an appointed official, the Governor-General, to instruct the majority in the House of Commons on when it can sit or what business it can conduct, so that the Prime Minister could avoid a confidence vote.

The friends of the Governor-General's conduct will reply, fairly in the circumstances, that she must do as she is told by the prime minister.

The prime minister holds his office because he commands the support of the House of Commons. Harold Wilson, the former prime minister of Britain, had a great deal of experience in minority Parliaments. In his book The Governance of Britain, he wrote: "The prime minister and his cabinet are accountable to Parliament. They have no fixed term of office, such as that of an American president, who is secure for four years though perhaps legislatively impotent for part of that time. They survive as a government just as long - not a day longer - as they can count of the support of a majority of Parliament, however small that majority may be."

That is our system of government. The prime minister must respect it. And so if it is true that the Governor-General must do the prime minister's bidding, then a heavy responsibility lies on the prime minister to tender "advice" to her that is appropriate, democratically legitimate and proper.

What kind of government are we drifting into, if the precedent set in the fall of 2008 is permitted to stand? A kind of plebiscitary Napoleonic system. At a time of his own choosing, our ruling Napoleon calls an election on such issues as he feels appropriate; the people vote; if a plurality gives the ruler their support then the mandate of heaven is conferred and no one may question His acts until He is prepared to call an election again.

Ours would be an extreme form of what Quintin Hogg (Baron Hailsham by then) famously called "elective dictatorship" - the basic fault of the Westminster model when it is governed by an artificial majority engineered by the deficient first-past-the-post electoral system.

So what is to be done?

All proposals for fundamental institutional change - for example, replacing the Governor-General with a legitimate, accountable president elected by the House of Commons - founder on the impossibility of amending the current Canadian constitution without the consent of provinces, who will want more power in the bargain. It therefore falls to the House of Commons to defend Canada's only national democratic body within the current rules.

Here are two things I submit it could do: First, the House of Commons could and should legislate to direct the prime minister to never provide advice to the Governor-General that interferes with the functioning of the House when a confidence motion is before it. This would hopefully make it more difficult for a prime minister to avoid democratic accountability to the House of Commons through a politically illegitimate and improper use of the Royal prerogative.

Second, the House of Commons could (and I think should) legislate that confidence votes must come in one of two forms. Option A: the government is defeated and an election is called. Or option B: the government is defeated and immediately replaced, at that moment, by a new one, specified by the House of Commons in its confidence vote. Subject of course to final approval by Her Majesty, as represented by our Governor-General, who in these circumstances will hopefully be more attentive to the views of the House of Commons.

By making the intention and consequence of confidence votes explicitly clear like this, less room will be left for prime ministers and their ciphers to make mischief with the constitution or our democracy. The House of Commons can either dissolve itself and take its discontents to the electorate, or it can poleaxe the prime minister and his hand-picked cabinet and install another more to its liking - a constructive vote of no-confidence.

Finally, if the coalition had gone ahead, what would the government of Canada have been working on right now? Assuming the New Democrats had been able to preserve their influence and power within that government, Canada's national government would have been working on a number of things.

First and in the grand scheme of things perhaps most important, the coalition government would have been working closely with the Obama administration on a real, effective continental cap-and-trade system to deal with climate change. Hopefully setting the scene for a strong environmental accord in Copenhagen later this month. We would have had to be realistic about what any U.S. administration can achieve within an 18th century republican constitution that has now become, fundamentally, a dysfunctional corporate kleptocracy. As Harold Wilson would have put it, we have to feel a little sorry for our American cousins for their even more regrettable constitution and system of government. But there was an opportunity on this issue for Canada to punch above its weight, to help counterbalance the coal, oil and other industries lobbying against progress with their chequebooks in the American Congress. In the process we could have been co-authors of what is likely to be a new environmental regime of fundamental importance to our economy.

Instead, the Harper government was a passive bystander while the Americans debated the issue. It seems clear the Conservatives were angling for a weak and ineffective climate change regime that gave carte blanche to a limitless development of the Alberta tar sands - the Harper government's only apparent interest in the whole environmental file.

The coalition government would have introduced an early economic stimulus program, perhaps a larger and more quickly-deployed one than the Conservatives did. Always assuming the New Democrats were able to convince their partners in government, this program would have been a "smart stimulus" program similar to the one introduced in Australia by its new Labour government. The Australian program combined investments in traditional infrastructure (roads and bridges) with investments in social infrastructure (like schools) and in measures to reduce energy use, like a strong home insulation program.

Instead, the Harper government dusted off a package of "shovel ready" old bricks and mortar infrastructure proposals, some 10 years old or older, and shovelled out the money, slowly. In the process they got themselves into trouble due to pathetic missteps by backbench government MPs, photographed at cheque presentations for Government of Canada funds, with prominent Conservative party logos on the cheques.

The coalition government would have taken a careful look at income security in these recessionary times. An important step New Democrats would have pushed hard would have been to consider affordable ways to begin undoing the damage Paul Martin did to employment insurance. First steps towards a better child benefit plan would have been a clear NDP demand inside the government, even if it did look like a fixed cost to Liberal researchers. Most importantly, the government would have had to grapple with the issue of pensions, particularly in the private sector.

The Harper government took a couple of big and important steps toward meeting New Democrat ideas on EI; has done nothing for families; and has no credible strategy on the pension issue.

The coalition government would have overseen the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011, on time and on schedule, or would have broken up over the issue. That being so, Canada would likely have been doing what it could to mediate an honourable settlement in Afghanistan that allowed NATO as a whole to phase out its combat role. The fact that this week Barrack Obama set a July, 2011, deadline for U.S. troops to begin their own withdrawal from Afghanistan suggests we would have had important partners in this work.

Instead, the Harper government is contributing nothing to finding peace in that country. And as I write there is, disturbingly, much to learn about the fate of enemy combatants who surrendered to our country, on Mr. Harper's watch, in the course of the tragic conflict in Afghanistan.

The coalition government would have been debating what Canada could do to strengthen public health care. Perhaps the first steps towards a national catastrophic drug program would have emerged.

Instead, the Harper government stood on the sidelines while a number of provinces introduced growing privatization and inequity.

The coalition government would have been debating how to get the federal government out of deficit and into the black. It would have known that Canada was borrowing and spending less as a percentage of its economy than most industrial democracies, and that prematurely ending stimulus programs could prolong the recession (as it did in Japan in the 1990s). So, always assuming our views prevailed, deficit reduction would likely have been planned in orderly phases, and Canada would have gotten there through an approach that balanced smarter spending with a tax system designed to be in the middle of the pack of industrial democracies - not one designed to undercut every tax regime in the industrialized world.

I have watched the process of balancing a budget broken by a reckless Conservative government while working for Roy Romanow in the near-bankrupt province of Saskatchewan in the 1990s. It wasn't fun. But the province emerged immeasurably stronger from it - with a fair and sufficient tax base, efficient and well-administered public services, and an increasingly prosperous economy. We could have that federally, too.

Instead, the Harper government is cheerfully running up the federal deficit while cutting taxes for profitable businesses and high-income individuals (the people who need help least), knowing well that not only does a runaway structural deficit allow backbench MPs to hand out lots of partisan cheques today, but that it provides a rationale for the Conservatives to take an axe to public services tomorrow.

On all of these issues and many others, Canada would have been much better served by the change of government Jack Layton proposed in the fall of 2008.

Mr. Layton's proposal was entirely democratic, constitutionally legitimate, and in keeping with the principles and traditions of the Westminster parliamentary system. Our system of government assigns democratic legitimacy to our elected MPs in our country's House of Commons - the only national democratic institution we have - not to the transient figure bunked in at 24 Sussex.

Mr. Layton's coalition proposal was well-prepared and carefully-considered.

It was a sincere and honourable effort to bridge the divides between parties in Parliament, and to get a working majority of them together on some of the key issues facing the country. It would therefore have led to a better government, with a stronger base of support in our national Parliament.

There were numerous political, policy and constitutional implications of what occurred. I spoken about some of the Parliamentary ones above. Another, I submit, is that Mr. Layton has prototyped in Canada a model of government (not necessarily or inevitably involving his own party) that has long served most of the world's industrial democracies well.

Canada does not have to have a fundamentally illegitimate, hyper-centralized, artificial "majority" government elected through the quirks of our antiquated electoral system, against the wishes of the real majority of our citizens. We are not eternally condemned to elected dictatorship or to Napoleonic politics.

Nor does Canada have to be governed by isolated minority administrations, surviving through inaction or Parliamentary blackmail and brinksmanship.

We can have both a democratically representative multi-party democracy, and a stable, effective national government. By looking to our political parties to find ways to work more closely and effectively together.

In working for this Jack Layton demonstrated, and has continued to demonstrate, the strength of his leadership and the deftness of his touch in a complex Parliamentary environment.

This fall, Mr. Layton showed his floundering Liberal colleague how to get results in a Conservative-governed minority Parliament. Canada will have a significantly improved employment insurance program to help working people struggling in the recession.

The New Democrats are therefore nicely holding on to their support - at double the level witnessed ten years ago - and are working for more results for Canadians in an increasingly favourable political environment.

Canada, the New Democrats, and Jack Layton have moved on from the coalition project, given that there are now no plausible or willing partners available to work with.

But Canadians know they have in Mr. Layton a positive, optimistic, and audacious federal leader, not afraid of big ideas, and keen to make progress for Canadians using the means citizens in their wisdom choose to give him at election time.

Given the alternatives on offer, I think that's the kind of prime minister we need running the place.

Maybe it's time to give him a try.

(Editorial cartoons by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp

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