Prime Minister Mackenzie King, a grand master of parliamentary strategy, always played for time when he was pressed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper copied his tactics last week by asking for Parliament to be prorogued, and it seems to have worked. Conservative poll numbers are rocketing skyward, while Liberals are publicly questioning the wisdom of trying to seize power immediately through a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Québécois.
It may be that Mr. Harper has saved his government and that the opposition coalition will confine itself to forcing concessions, at least until a new Liberal leader has been chosen. If the opposition parties follow that path, they are likely to have considerable success, as shown by how quickly they eviscerated the government's fiscal update.
I have to express my political admiration for the architects of the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition. It is no small achievement for three opposition parties to come together so quickly and effectively, even if Mr. Harper set the table for them with his ill-conceived proposal to end political party subsidies without any replacement. This could be the beginning of the unification of the left, which is a logical response to the reinvigoration of the Conservative Party.
But what are the odds if the coalition decides to go for the jugular? They have the numbers to defeat Mr. Harper in January, if they choose to do so. But things get murky after that. Would the Governor-General ask Stéphane Dion, or whoever the Liberal leader is at that point, to form a government, or would she grant Mr. Harper's likely request for a new election?
Normally, the question would be easy to answer. Since the last election was so recent, a defeated prime minister should not expect a new election, and the opposition should get the chance to govern if it can offer a plausible plan for stability, which the opposition has done with its proposal for a Liberal-NDP cabinet supported by the Bloc.
But this is not a normal situation. Constitutional expert Eugene Forsey famously supported Lord Byng's refusal of Mackenzie King's request for an election in 1926, but even Mr. Forsey had to admit that an election would have been necessary if "some great new issue of public policy had arisen, or there had been a major change in the political situation." The emergence of the opposition coalition has satisfied both those conditions for going back to the voters.
The political situation has changed fundamentally through Mr. Dion's willingness to form a governing coalition with the NDP, because he explicitly rejected that possibility during the campaign. "We cannot have a coalition with a party that has a platform that would be damaging for the economy. Period." That's what Mr. Dion said three weeks before election day, after Jack Layton had started dropping hints about a coalition. The 26 per cent of voters who supported the Liberals were led to believe that such a coalition was out of the question. When Mr. Dion resurrected in November what he had rejected in September, he wrought a fundamental change in the political situation because it involved an entire potential government, not just this or that policy.
Bringing in the Bloc as a supporting partner with an effective veto over government policy is an even more radical step, for which Mr. Forsey's phrase of "a great new issue of public policy" is an apt description. The Bloc is not a party comme les autres. It rejects the Canadian constitutional order and is devoted to achieving the separation of Quebec from Canada.
Our Constitution wisely protects the Bloc's freedom to advocate the breakup of the country as long as it does not resort to violence. Bloc members are duly elected and thus have a right to sit in Parliament. Because they cast votes in the House of Commons, other parties must at times make common cause with them on particular issues; otherwise, nothing would get done in a minority Parliament.
But it is another thing altogether to ink a long-term agreement that makes such a party a pivotal supporter of a coalition government. Any politician who says he cannot see the difference has just demonstrated why he should not become prime minister.
Ordinary people intuitively grasp the difference. That is why Conservative poll numbers are surging and there is so much outrage reported in the media. And that is why it is preposterous to install a Bloc-based coalition in power without giving voters a chance to discuss it.
If, after hearing the pros and cons and knowing what they are voting for, voters give approval to such a coalition, so be it. But the Governor-General, in her role as protector of Canadian democracy, should ensure the people have that opportunity.
Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.