For months, the prime minister had warned the opposition would try to “steal the election.” Now, it seemed to his followers as if his prophecy was being borne out.
Though well short of a majority, the prime minister’s party had won more seats than its nearest rival; it had, he insisted, the “moral right” to govern. Undeterred, the two main opposition parties had voted together to defeat the government immediately after Parliament’s recall, vowing to form a coalition government in its place.
The prime minister refused to resign. In a meeting with the governor-general, he instead insisted she dissolve Parliament and call a new election. Her advisers objected. She would be within her rights to call on the coalition, rather than put the country through another election, so soon after the last. Arguably, she was obliged to do so.
But the PM was still the PM. Could she, the unelected occupant of a largely ceremonial office, really defy his will? With tensions rising, the prime minister ratcheted up the pressure. Appearing before an immense rally of his supporters on Parliament Hill, he denounced the coalition plan as a “coup d’état.”
It was poppycock. But it was plausible poppycock. The country was sharply divided, not only culturally but regionally. After months of such incendiary rhetoric, each side had come to see the other not merely as their opponents, but as mortal threats. By defying the prime minister, would she push things past the breaking point? Whose lead would the public follow: hers, or the prime minister’s?
The scenario I have imagined is far from fanciful. It combines elements of actual historical events – the King-Byng affair of 1926, the coalition crisis of 2008 – with events long anticipated, especially given the increasingly toxic politics of the past decade.
In King-Byng, prime minister Mackenzie King wanted to dissolve Parliament not in reply to a confidence vote, but to avoid one: a motion of censure he was bound to lose. King’s grip on power was already shaky; his governing Liberals had won 15 fewer seats than Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives in the election nine months before. Still, when Lord Byng refused King’s demand, calling on Meighen instead, an enormous crisis ensued. King rode the controversy back to power in the following election.
The coalition crisis likewise involved an attempt to avoid a confidence vote, this time not by dissolving Parliament but proroguing it. Then-governor-general Michaëlle Jean chose to accept Stephen Harper’s advice to prorogue, as improper as it was. But what if she had refused? What if the government had lost the confidence vote? Would Mr. Harper have demanded she dissolve Parliament, rather than call on the opposition coalition – amongst whose signatories, remember, was the leader of the Bloc Québécois? What then?
Mr. Harper was clear enough in depicting the coalition plan as something of a coup. “Canada’s government should be decided by Canadians, not backroom deals,” he thundered. The Conservatives even appear to have discussed some sort of plan to override the governor-general’s decision, had it come to that: Recall John Baird’s public threat to “go over the heads” of Parliament and the governor-general “to the Canadian people.”
In election after election since then, Conservative leaders have warned that the opposition parties, if given the chance, would try the same “trick” again. The aim has been to scare centrist voters into the Conservative camp rather than elect a Liberal minority at the mercy of the parties to its left. But the argument that underlies it – that power can only be transferred by a general election, and not by a decision of the House of Commons – is insidious.
To accept it would be to undermine the fundamental principle by which we are governed: that the prime minister serves with the confidence of the House of Commons, and on no other basis. And yet that is precisely the choice that might confront us, as early as the next election. Suppose the Conservatives win a plurality of seats. They might take power, only to be unseated shortly thereafter by an opposition coalition. Or the Liberals might attempt to carry on, King-like, with the support of one or more of the other parties, while the Conservatives howl at the “precedent” this allegedly violates. Either way, the potential for conflict is evident.
Now do you see why it matters who the governor-general is? In such a crisis, we will need a governor-general who is more than a mere symbol or celebrity. We will need someone with the judgment to make the right call, the courage to stick to it under fire, and the qualities of character – dignity, gravitas, integrity – required to rally the public to his or her side. We will need someone capable of protecting the constitutional order from political vandals and opportunists.
It’s a serious job. It’s time we had a serious person in it.
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