A political ruckus ... in Canada?!
The perils of minority government in a multiparty system.
Toronto — For the first time in years, I have found myself interested in my own country's politics. The shenanigans in Canada these past two weeks have prompted my American friends to ask, "Is something going on up there?"
Yep. Parliament has been discontinued. The technical term is "prorogation" – and in Canada, them's fightin' words! The political drama is a cautionary tale about multiparty systems and the wages – or futility – of abandoning one's principles.
It started with an election in October, Canada's third in four years. The winners were the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, though they won only enough seats in the House of Commons to form a minority government – Canada's third in four years.
Minority governments don't last long and whoever is in charge has to navigate carefully. Mr. Harper has done this by not being conservative. Conservative ideologues have been critical of him, noting that after his first two years in power, Canada still has a big-spending government that finances, among other things, single-payer healthcare and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a network with a political bias akin to Michael Moore's.
Further, Harper – previously principled on foreign policy – announced during the campaign that Canada would not commit troops to Afghanistan past 2011. This was seen as an attempt to win votes in Quebec, where the war has the least support. I found this decision to be enormously disappointing. Foreign policy was one area to which I could always point when conservatives bemoaned Harper's tepid attempts at making Canada grow up.
Then, late last month, the Harper government released an economic statement that included an entirely sensible proposal to ax the subsidies Canadian political parties currently enjoy. Even though most Canadians support the move, all heck broke loose. And in spite of Harper's backpedaling on the matter within days, the three opposition parties announced they would topple the Conservatives and form a governing coalition.
This is perfectly legal within the Westminster system (a parliamentary model derived from Britain). It is also perfectly problematic, as it would involve a weakened Liberal Party coupled with the socialist New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, a party whose stated desire is to dismantle Canada.
Harper was blamed for the furor. What could he expect, people asked, given his proposal to, de facto, bankrupt the opposition? I might suggest he could have expected them to do what the Conservatives have done for years – develop a large network of grass-roots supporters who donate small and medium-sized amounts to their party. Still, the idea of a separatist party having power over decisions that affect the country from which they want to secede has not sat well with Canadians. Nor has the transparently partisan power-grab and disregard for the public's common sense. The coalition insisted that they had the best interests of Canada at heart, but most Canadians didn't buy it.
So on Dec. 4, when Harper asked Canada's governor-general, Michaëlle Jean, to prorogue parliament – also perfectly legal – until late January, what might have been disastrous, wasn't. Polls indicate Canadians see it as the lesser of two evils. Ms. Jean didn't have much of a choice – but for a woman whose job normally consists of waving, traveling, and signing laws, this had to be unpleasant. Absurd comparisons to Zimbabwe have been made. Canadian politicians can be called penny-ante, not murderous thugs.
While the absurdity of the past two weeks has taught me not to make predictions, an election in 2009 seems likely. At this writing, the Conservatives are ahead in the polls and the coalition is fracturing. Stephane Dion, the leader of the Liberal Party, has stepped down, and former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff is expected to replace him. Should this happen, Canada will have two major parties led by wonks. I can't imagine a campaign with less charisma.
After the US election, I consoled my conservative American friends, telling them to move to Canada. We have a Conservative government, I said, if not a conservative one. But now, I'd be a better friend if I encouraged them to move to Italy. It has all the laughable political maneuvering, but the food, art, and weather are better.
• Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.